When you’re taking photos of the sky, it may seem like you only have one angle to work with. But, that’s far from the truth. There are numerous ways to approach cloud photography, only one of which is simply pointing your camera up at the sky. Foreground elements, human subjects, and bodies of water are just a handful of factors that you can use to capture unique images of dramatic skies. Here, we’ll cover every trick in the book for effective cloud photography.
1. Learn About The Types of Clouds
Learning more about types of clouds, as well as how, when, and where those clouds form, will significantly improve your chances of capturing amazing skies. When you understand the type of cloud that will create the composition you’re imagining, you can efficiently plan where and when to shoot.
Many types of clouds exist, such as Cumulus, Stratus, Cirrus, Cumulonimbus. Each one of these clouds is unique in appearance and will have a different impact on the aesthetic of your image.
Cumulus clouds exist in clear, pleasant weather. These types of clouds typically create some of the most vibrant skies during sunrise and sunset.
Stratus clouds appear in overcast weather. Thin and gray in appearance, these clouds have a dreary, mundane effect on images.
Cumulonimbus and altostratus clouds are large and ominous, appearing before a storm rolls in. These two types of clouds will instantly add drama and tension to compositions.
Some spots around the world provide the ideal conditions for rare cloud varieties. For example, lenticular clouds, which are round and flat, may appear over high peaks and mountains like Mt. Rainier. Some people compare the look of lenticular clouds to flying saucers, and their unusual appearance can make for an interesting image.
By knowing the type of cloud you want to photograph, you can narrow down a list of times and locations for your shoot. This process will boost your chances of getting the ideal conditions for a stunning cloud composition.
2. Pay Attention to the Weather Forecast
Make sure to check weather forecasts frequently before heading out with your camera. Even if you scout a location for a shot ahead of time, the clouds in the sky could be drastically different from one hour to the next.
You want to ensure that the weather conditions at the time of the shoot align with your photographic vision. For example, let’s say that you want to capture dark, dramatic storm clouds. Checking the weather forecast will let you know when is it likely for the clouds will roll in, so you’ll have time to prepare.
Many areas offer local weather radar online, so you can get hour-to-hour forecasts at any time. Online weather information is updated more frequently than the information you’ll see on TV, so it’s typically more reliable. Using a weather app is the best way to get up-to-date information right at your fingertips. Some of my top picks are Accuweather, WeatherBug, and NOAA.
These apps are some of the most reputable and well-known weather apps available. They have both online and mobile apps that make it very easy to get detailed weather information at any time.
Weather radar maps display the location of clouds and the direction of their movement. A color scale is generally also used to depict the intensity of a storm.
If your area doesn’t offer weather radar, you can still successfully plan with TV and radio forecasting.
3. Shoot During The Golden Hour
If you want to take vivid photographs of clouds, shooting during the golden hours will give you the largest range of colors.
During the golden hour, the sun is positioned close to the line of the horizon. That light reflects onto the clouds and emphasizes their shapes. With the clouds clearly outlined by the golden light of the setting sun, your image will have greater depth.
The golden hour also allows for the formation of crepuscular rays. Crepuscular rays are delicate shafts of light that shine through the clouds. They are created when the sun goes behind an irregularly shaped cloud. These rays are typically found during sunset.
Although shooting during the golden hour requires you to wake up early or stay up late, doing so will reward you with dramatic, colorful clouds unparalleled at any other time of day.
4. Shoot in Bad Weather
Stormy, turbulent weather is often intimidating for us photographers. Professional-grade cameras, tripods, and lenses are expensive – the last thing you’d want is to damage them in a storm. So, whether it be rain, sleet, or snow, many photographers stay inside until the sun comes out.
Unfortunately, by trying to escape stormy weather, you’re overlooking the most striking and interesting cloud conditions. Storm clouds are deep in color and loom over the earth below, creating an incomparable sense of drama. High winds move clouds quickly through the sky, making them take on abnormal forms.
Thankfully, you can avoid damaging your gear during storms with a protective cover for your camera and lenses. My favorite camera protection for bad weather is the Ruggard DSLR Parka. This camera cover is built of strong water-resistant material which means it will last much longer than a plastic cover. In addition, the insulated cover will also help keep your hands warm while there are inside shooting.
My final and favorite thing is the plastic screen protection over the LCD screen. This feature makes it easy to take photos while still having high-quality protection on my camera. If you are looking to save some money or looking for quick weather protection purchasing a plastic transparent camera cover works as well.
Just remember plastic covers typically don’t last as long and are more prone to small tears and holes compared to other stronger materials.
It’s also a good idea to dress warmly with several waterproof layers. This will not only help keep you warm but will also keep you from shivering and shaking the camera.
5. Watch the Horizon
The horizon is a key component of most outdoor photography. That goes for cloudscape photography, too. Start by using the rule of thirds to break up your frame. Position the horizon on a horizontal line and use the rule of thirds for a balanced, visually-pleasing shot.
To emphasize dramatic skies, position your horizon in the lower third of your frame. This will allow more sky to occupy more of the frame. If on the other hand, your sky isn’t striking in appearance, place your horizon in the upper third of the frame. This will allow more land into the frame so that there’s enough visual interest to entice your viewer.
6. Feature Silhouettes
Silhouettes have a mysterious appearance that pairs well with the ethereal look of clouds in the sky.
Just remember to choose a subject with a distinct shape. If you create a silhouette where the viewer can’t tell what is being outlined, it won’t hold their attention. Since you can’t rely on contrast, texture, or tones to keep the attention of your viewers, choosing a subject with a recognizable shape will is necessary to create a compelling composition.
7. Shoot Bracketed Exposures
Skies, especially during sunsets typically have high contrast or high dynamic range.
Dynamic range is the ratio of the lightest and darkest elements in a picture. During sunset, this gap tends to increase. This causes the contrast of your scene to exceed your camera’s range and makes it difficult for you to adequately capture the details in your scene with a single image.
In most cases, if your scene has a high dynamic range, you’ll either need to expose for your highlights or your shadows. This means that one of the tonal ranges will be incorrectly exposed.
You can, however, get around this issue by bracketing your exposure. Exposure bracketing allows you to take multiple photos at different exposure levels.
Most cameras have an Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) setting that allows you to take multiple exposures of a scene and blend them during post-processing.
To get to this mode, set your camera to Aperture Priority, then select auto-bracketing, or AEB. Bracket exposures of -1.0 and +1 are ideal. This setting will give you one underexposed, one overexposed, and one properly exposed image.
However, you can adjust the number of shots you take based on how many underexposed and overexposed images you’ll need. For example, if you want to take five bracketed images, set your setting to a five-shot AEB. This will provide you with two underexposed, two overexposed, and one properly exposed image.
To blend your bracketed images, you can use HDR software, which will automatically do it for you.
You can also do it manually by blending your images in Photoshop using layers. Photoshop layers will allow you to selectively choose the elements you want from each photo and combine them into one picture.
Whichever method you choose, exposure bracketing and image blending will enable you to create an adequately exposed image, even in high contrast scenes. Just remember to use a tripod. Doing so will allow you to seamlessly blend these images later in post-processing.
8. Capture Water Reflections
To mix up your approach to cloudscape photography, consider capturing the sky’s reflection in a body of water. Calm bodies of water are best for this technique, such as a vast sea or lake. Also, for this composition, it’s ideal to capture both the water and a section of the sky to create a mirrored effect for the viewer.
To add greater depth in your composition, find an interesting focal point such as a floating boat, a tree or cabin. The inclusion of such elements can help ground the image and make the compositions easier for the viewers to relate to.
Also, consider positioning your horizon in the center of your image. Although this doesn’t work well for most compositions, it often works well for perfect mirror reflections.
Finally, pay attention to the angle from which you are shooting. Your point of view can have an enormous impact on reflections. For instance, an image from a camera positioned above a reflection will be entirely different from that of one positioned to the side of it.
Before pressing your shutter, make sure to play with a variety of angles.
9. Remember the Rule of Space
Negative space is space around or between your subject. It is based on the famous aphorism, “less is more.”
How you use negative space can make or break your image. Too little empty space can take away from the viewer’s attention from the subject in focus. Too much empty space, on the other hand, can leave your image looking dull.
A good amount of negative space will highlight your subject, as well as provide your viewers with enough breathing space. It allows them to focus on the central object while giving their eyes a place to rest. In contrast, a packed image can often be visually exhausting and disorienting,
When composing your image, keep negative space in mind. Other key rules of composition also apply to sky photography. Leading lines and the rule of thirds, among other trusted methods, will help you create a balanced, effective image.
Resource: How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography
9. Include Landscapes
As a photographer, it’s exciting to come across picture-perfect clouds in the sky. So, many photographers are inclined to showcase those clouds by filling the entire frame with the sky.
While the intention is good, the result of this strategy is often a flat, one-note image. Including additional elements in the frame will enhance the impact of the clouds by giving the viewer a point of reference.
Consider including a striking landscape underneath the sky full of clouds. Landscapes are imposing on their own and will make the clouds appear even more profound.
You don’t have to include a full landscape in your frame to achieve an interesting shot. Even a small section of a landscape can add greater depth and interest to your image.
10. Capture Cloud Streaks
Another great way to photograph clouds is by capturing its movements using long exposures.
The ideal exposure time will depend on how fast the clouds are moving and the amount of light available. In general, an exposure time of about 30 seconds is a good place to start.
Know that the longer the exposure time, the softer and less detailed the clouds will appear. In contrast, short exposure times make clouds look more sharp and stationary.
Cloud streaks are also impacted by the time of day. At midday, cloud streaks are generally made up of shades of white and blue. During the golden hours, however, cloud streaks can appear pink, red, and orange.
Also, make sure to bring a remote shutter with you. A remote shutter can be invaluable when taking photos beyond 30 seconds.
Past 30 seconds, your shutter speed will switch to Bulb mode or B. In this setting, the shutter will only stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. Using a shutter release button, in this case, will make photography much easier as it will allow you to take photos without having to physically press the shutter button.
Photographing cloud streaks is an unpredictable process. Understand that you’ll likely spend time experimenting before you capture your desired effect. It’s important to stay patient and keep trying until you achieve an optimally exposed image.
11. Use an ND Filter
Using an ND filter is a key tool for any type of long exposure photography during the day. This is because long exposures allow plenty of time for light to enter the lens. If unfiltered, an ample amount of light can result in an overexposed image.
ND filters keep too much light from entering the lens. There are different types of ND filters to let in different amounts of light, which is portrayed with a number. ND numbers increase along with the amount of f-stop reduction provided by the lens. The number of stops taken away from normal exposure is called f-stop reduction. An ND2 filter provides one f-stop reduction, ND4 provides two f-stop reduction, and so forth.
ND filters do more than just prevent overexposure in daytime photography. They can also be used to broaden your artistic horizons. For example, an ND16 filter keeps a high amount of light out, so you can use it to create an ethereal blur in your cloud photography.
If you are looking for an ND filter two of my favorite options are the B+W ND Filter and the Hoya Pro ND Filter. I like both of these because they are reasonably priced, made to fit several different lens sizes, and have a high build quality. If you purchase low-quality ND filters they can add color artifacts to your images, I can assure you if you use one of these you will not have this issue.
12. Use a Polarizing Filter
One way to make the clouds stand out against the sky in your images is by using a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter does this by reducing the amount of light from the sky that reaches your sensor. This will make the sky appear darker and the clouds brighter. The result is a more striking image.
The great thing is that polarizing filters are simple to use. All you need to do is place it over your lens, then twist it until you can see the difference in your viewfinder. As you turn the polarizing filter will prevent specific light waves from entering the lens. So, when it’s used at the right angle, the clouds in your frame will appear more distinct.
If you don’t have one yet or not happy with your polarizers performance, I recommend the B+W Circular Polarizer.
This is a great polarizing filter produced by a reliable name in the filter industry such as B+W.
13. Use a Tripod
It’s true that you can get away without using a tripod in some outdoor photography. But, using a tripod will give you tremendous creative flexibility.
For instance, when shooting clouds using a long exposure, a tripod is a must. Long exposure leaves the shutter open for an extended period of time. When the shutter is open, any shaking or instability will translate to a blurry image. So, securing your camera with a tripod is crucial to capturing detail in an image with long exposure time.
A tripod is also useful if you want to take photos in low light conditions. Using a tripod will allow you to shoot properly exposed images in these conditions, without needing to alter your aperture or ISO.
My favorite tripod to use is the Really Right Stuff Carbon Fiber Tripod. Really Right Stuff produces high quality and reliable gear that is well known in the photography industry. I like this model because The carbon fiber build makes it extremely lightweight and the locking mechanism is very easy to use and it’s extremely versatile.
If you are looking to save a bit of money I recommend using the Manfrotto Befree tripod. Once again I prefer the carbon fiber build to ensure that the tripod is lightweight and easy to carry over long distances. Manfrotto tripods are built very well; balanced, sturdy and very easy to use. The 4 section build of this model makes it quick and easy to position your camera in a variety of angles, even upside down.
14. Spend Time Post-Processing
Post-processing is the secret to dramatic images of clouds. After taking a large number of cloud photos, know that only half of the job is done. You’ll still need to put effort into post-processing to get the most out of those images.
If you want a quick boost, I recommend using Adobe Lightroom. This tool allows you to make effective adjustments to the color, contrast, and sharpness of an image, all within minutes. You can even add filters in Lightroom, such as a graduated filter, to enhance the mood of your image after it’s already been taken.
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