More than 20 years ago, when I first got serious about photography, I remember being surprised when photographers I looked up to, like William Neill and Jeff Nicholas, expressed disdain for sunlight and excitement about overcast skies. I didn’t question them, or challenge their thinking, but I was puzzled. Wasn’t shade rather dull?
As I gained experience and photographed more intimate scenes I started to understand what they were talking about. They didn’t want soft light for everything, but preferred it for smaller subjects, especially colorful ones like flowers or autumn leaves. The contrast between sun and shade complicates any photograph, especially forest images with branches zig-zagging across the frame. Contrast also overwhelms colors. Soft light, on the other hand, simplifies any subject, and brings out color contrasts. Colors seem to glow with their own inner light when you take away sunlight and the contrast it creates. The photograph of maple leaves in Yosemite above is a good example of this.
Over the ensuing years I’ve made many of my best photographs in the shade. As I head out to photograph colorful leaves in the Sierra this fall, I’m hoping for overcast skies. Barring that, I’ll get out early and late in the day when trees are in the shade.
Of course there are exceptions, situations where other types of light might be better. Backlight can create beautiful effects with autumn trees, shining through those translucent, colorful leaves from behind and making them glow. This requires the right situation though, where you can place those backlit leaves against a dark background like a shaded hillside or cliff, as in this image of oaks in El Capitan Meadow.
Another exception is big landscapes—yellow leaves in the foreground, for instance, with a mountain in the background. These rarely work on an overcast day. Photographing big subjects usually requires including some sky, and the sky on an overcast day is often a blank, boring, washed-out white blob. It’s better to have some sun somewhere, and some blue sky, or at least small rifts in the clouds. In this photograph of El Capitan I had sunlight on the rock, and blue skies above, while the foreground was nicely shaded. I did some dodging and burning in Photoshop to lighten the foreground and balance shade with sun.