Here’s a quick and simple experiment for you. Go to Flickr and open up a couple of landscape images. Flip through them, and rank them in order from your favorite to your least favorite. Now compare the sky in each shot. I’d be willing to bet that your favorite landscape images have something in common. More than likely, they have a dramatic sky full of beautiful, textured, clouds. Do you know why?
Morning clouds by Flickr user Theophilos
I might be wrong—it is certainly true that you can have a beautiful landscape photo that has nothing but blue sky in it. But there’s something about clouds—whether they are wispy, springtime clouds or big, dramatic thunder clouds—that just begs for attention. How many times have you stopped to admire the clouds at sunset, or pulled over to the side of the road to take a picture of some oddly shaped cloud, maybe one that looks like a horse or a duck? Clouds inspire our imagination and appeal to our sense of beauty and wonder.
Clouds are also versatile photographic subjects. They can completely change the mood of the landscape. Those springtime clouds I talked about earlier (the light and airy ones) make us think of warm days, breezes and wildflowers. Those big, heavy thunder clouds make us think of danger. Heavy clouds can be ominous, moody, and dramatic. And what’s more, you can shoot the exact same scene on different days, with different clouds present, and you’ll end up with a completely different image, even though the landscape remains the same.
Freilichtmuseum Detmold Autumn Magic 11 by Flickr user blavandmaster
Clouds are not just great photographic subjects—they can also improve the light itself. For example, a scene shot on a bright, sunny day at midday is not going to be as appealing as the same scene shot on a partly-cloudy day, for the simple reason that clouds can help filter the direct, overhead light that typically causes hard shadows and burned out highlights. So besides giving you something beautiful to photograph, the clouds can also help make the lighting conditions better.
If your primary goal is to photograph landscapes, my very first suggestion to you is that you choose to go on your landscape photography expeditions during times of the year when there are likely to be more clouds. Sure, hiking at midsummer may be a little more pleasant as far as the weather is concerned, particularly if you are the heat loving type, but if you really want to get some dramatic photos, try going in the fall or spring instead. The winter is also a great time of year, but aim for partly cloudy or mostly cloudy days. Heavy, complete cloud cover (especially high clouds) will act as a softbox, making objects on the ground look their best, but the clouds themselves may actually show up as stark white.
Most of all, be brave. It’s highly likely that the very best time of year for taking photos of clouds is also going to be a miserable time of year. It may be windy, it will almost certainly be cold, and you’ll have to be prepared for that. Make sure you dress warmly, bring fingerless gloves (they’re useful for controlling touch screens and buttons) and be prepared for some discomfort. You know that expression “suffer for your art?” Well, you certainly don’t have to cut off an ear or anything, but sometimes the very best photos do happen when your ears are freezing cold.
Your Mothers Violent Past by Flickr user caddymob
Don’t completely throw caution to the wind, though (no pun intended). If there are hailstorms, lightning or tornadoes in the forecast, it’s best to stay at home. If rain is likely, bring a pair of raincoats—one for you and one for your camera (camera raincoats are also known as “rain sleeves”). A little light rain probably won’t hurt your gear, but a sudden onset of heavy rain may do irreparable damage, so make sure you take precautions even if the chance of rain is only slight.
One of the most important tools for the cloud photographer is a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters do a lot of things for the foreground—such as making colors brighter, and reducing glare or reflections on the surface of water. But what they also do is create definition between the clouds and the sky. They can also darken the blues in the sky, which will make the clouds seem to pop. Polarizing filters work by blocking polarized light waves before they reach your camera sensor. But you do need to know something about how to use them, because they’re not completely self-explanatory.
Typical by Flickr user Zach Dischner
Polarizing filters are circular, which means that they have an element that can be twisted. Twisting the polarizing filter changes the impact it has on the image. You can actually see what’s happening through the viewfinder when you do this—the sky will become darker or lighter depending on which way you twist the filter. You’ll get the best effect from a polarizing filter if you keep the sun at about 90 degrees to where you are standing (that means it will work best when the sun is on your right or left rather than in front of you or behind you). Twist the filter until you see the sky darken, then take the shot.
Keep in mind that polarizing filters do cut out a certain amount of light, so on darker days (such as days when there are a lot of clouds) you may need to use a tripod to compensate for the slower shutter speeds that will be required.
A second critical piece of gear for the cloud of photographer is a graduated neutral density filter. Sometimes—often in fact—when you are shooting landscapes you may have too much dynamic range in the scene, and that can result in a sky that looks blown out or just doesn’t have very much definition between sky and clouds. This is particularly likely to happen at sunrise or sunset. The problem is that if you expose for the sky, you’ll end up with an underexposed landscape. And if you expose for the landscape, you’ll end up with an overexposed sky. A really simple way to get around this problem is it to use a graduated neutral density (GND) filter. This is different from a regular neutral density filter in that a GND filter is darker on the top and lighter on the bottom. The name comes from the transition between the light part and the dark part. Some filters have a hard transition between the two parts, and some filters have a much more gradual one. Which one you choose depends on the results you want, but most landscape photographers recommend the softer edge variety. The reason why is because most landscapes don’t have a completely straight horizon—there are mountains and trees creating an irregular split between land and sky, and a hard edge will be noticeable in that type of scene.
Spot O' Sun on Monument Valley by Flickr user JackAZ Photo
To use a GND filter, place the dark part of the filter over the sky and the lighter part over the ground. You’ll get well-defined clouds, a richly colored sky and a beautiful foreground. When you use a GND filter, there’s no need to resort to post exposure darkening of the sky in post processing. That graduated shift between light and dark means that the average person will not be able to tell that you used the filter to get the shot.
Another thing you're probably going to find occasionally useful for your cloud photography is a tripod. But you do need to be aware of a few things before you start assuming that slow shutter speed/small apertures are the way to go when shooting clouds. While it is true that landscapes almost always benefit from small apertures, which give you good clarity from foreground to background, you do want to be aware of how much wind there is, and how much movement there is in the clouds as a result. Fast-moving clouds shot with a slow shutter speed will appear streaky and will lack definition. Now I personally think this is a pretty cool effect, and I will often deliberately shoot clouds this way in order to achieve a surreal, slightly weird look in the sky. But this is not the way to go if you want to capture those billowing shapes and beautiful textures and that clouds often have. If that's your goal, it's always best to shoot clouds with a faster shutter speed whenever there is even a little bit of wind.
Barn by Flickr user Elliotphotos
Depending on the light, that may mean making sacrifices in other areas. Instead of shooting at f/22, you might want to shoot at f/11 or f/8 for the sake of those beautiful clouds. You may also have to give up your super low ISO—that's OK too, if the trade-off is getting perfectly sharp cloud. So although it is a good idea to have a tripod with you just in case there aren't alternatives, for the most part you're going to be shooting clouds handheld.
Cloud 9 by Flickr user ...-Wink-...
When the clouds are really big and dramatic, you might be tempted to shoot them all by themselves, but think again. Even the most spectacular storms need some context. I can't think of any situation where clouds alone might make for a more interesting image than they would if you placed them above some sort of landscape. By themselves, clouds are actually pretty meaningless. Sure, a big heavy cloud cover means that a storm is coming. But without any context, your viewer doesn't know why she should care. Who is that storm going to affect? If there are no houses, no cows, no farmland or no city underneath the back storm, why should we be concerned about it? A storm without context isn't a threat, so it has no emotion attached to it.
For that reason you should always include foreground in all of your cloud photographs. That doesn’t mean you have to strictly adhere to the rule of thirds and give the clouds only the top one or two thirds of the frame. If they are very dramatic clouds, you may want to give them most of the fame and just include a suggestion of what's underneath (rooftops for example, for a distant city skyline). You should make this choice only when those clouds are dramatic enough to carry most of the image. For the rest of those cloud shots, try to include something compelling, someplace else for the eye to travel besides just from one cloud formation to another.
I'm always a big advocate for getting it right in camera, however, this is one example of a subject matter that often benefits from a little bit of a post-processing magic. First, it’s a great idea to do your shooting in raw format. In raw, your camera captures a greater range of tones than it does in JPEG, which means that you can capture detail in the sky or in the foreground that otherwise might be lost. Then, when you open the file up in post processing, not only can you do some tweaking to improve the highlights and shadows, you can also adjust the white balance, add some color saturation, or sharpen the image—which are all very simple ways to turn a great image into a fantastic one. Keep in mind that it doesn't take much—you don't need to become a post processing wiz to make those small but important improvements to you your cloud photos. Sometimes it's just a simple matter of moving a slider in one direction or another.
Harvest Sky by Flickr user ecstaticist
Cloudy skies are wonderful thing, and not just if you live in a drought-stricken California. Stormy skies should be welcomed by anyone who loves a good, dramatic photo, because clouds make for a beautiful and compelling subject matter. So don't hide indoors when you see that storm brewing. Instead, get your raincoat out, put a rain guard on your camera, and follow the storm.
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