If you’re into landscape photography then you will almost certainly know that clouds can have a massive impact on the atmosphere and beauty of a shot. Whether they are wispy and light cirrus clouds or thick and smoky cumulus, a cloudy day is often the perfect time to pull out the camera. But how do you photograph clouds to get the perfect result? Let’s take a look at some methods you will want to learn and also take a look at some stunning examples!
Let’s Talk Lighting and Camera Filters
Perhaps one of the trickiest parts of getting a great cloud photograph is the fact that often, clouds will emit a large variance of light. From the deep dark greys of a storm cloud, you might find that the edges are bright white, especially if the sun is behind the cloud. This can make it difficult to meter the light. If you’re shooting digital, then it won’t be so much of a problem as you can see the results instantly and know if you’ve over or under exposed the shot. You can minimise the chances of getting it wrong by getting your filters right though.
The first thing you are going to need is a graduated neutral density filter. This will help you to expose the clouds well without overdoing the highlights. It will also help in situations with a bright sky and darker background. It will also make post-processing a lot less painful. Photoshop is great, but it’s a hell of a lot easier if you get the shot right when you’re shooting it!
If you really want to bring out the fine detail within the clouds (and you probably will) then you might also consider a polarising filter. This will help with the contrast within the clouds and against the sky if it’s showing.
Consider a sky filter to offset the bluishness that often happens when shooting clouds too. Sure, it can be fixed in Photoshop, but again – it’s better to get as much right as possible before you even upload your images to your computer.
If you are shooting in the golden hours (which you usually should be), then you will probably also need a tripod depending on the overall lighting conditions. Check out our guide on choosing a tripod because keeping your camera steady is almost always going to be an issue when you’re shooting clouds.
What About Composition?
First up, you’ll need to remember the rule of thirds. That is especially true for landscape photographers. With that in mind you will probably want to predetermine what the main focus of your image is going to be. Clouds can really either dominate an image or they can enhance the background. Decide which you want to do.
If you want your sky to be the main focus of them image then try to compose it so that it takes up the top two thirds of the frame. This will put the focus of the composition firmly on the clouds. You would usually do this if the clouds were very dramatic when you’re shooting. A brewing storm, a large repeated pattern of clouds – something interesting about the clouds themselves.
If you want the clouds to enhance an existing landscape as the background, then you are going to want only the top one third of the shot to be sky. This puts the focus on the landscape first and the clouds second.
Be careful with foreground elements. Usually you will not want to clutter the foreground with visual elements in a clouded landscape, but at times it can be ok to frame the shot with something like a tree or tree branch.
What Cloud Photos Need in Post-processing
Even if you have followed all of the above guidelines in getting your cloud photos, they are probably still going to need a little bit of work in whichever post processing software you use (or the darkroom if you’re old school).
In Photoshop of GIMP, you will probably want to play ever so lightly with the levels and saturation. You might also need to adjust the hue slightly, especially if you weren’t using camera filters.
With these adjustments, often you will only need to work on the clouds and sky with minimal adjustments for the other parts of the image – especially if you have taken care with your preparation and shooting.