As an investor by trade and nature photographer by hobby, I’m blessed to have been able to travel across the world to witness some of the world’s more beautiful natural phenomena. But not all of the best sights are half a world away. Sometimes, you need only look up for a stunning view.
I’m talking, of course, about the natural and always-changing canvas that is the sky. Clouds, in particular, add drama and texture to any photograph, but only if you know how to best capture them.
Most people have had the frustrating experience of being awestruck by a particular weather event, and unable to do it justice by photo. It can be especially hard to get the sky right when there is an object in the foreground: focus on the sky and you darken the object; focus on the object and you wash out the sky.
How to best capture clouds? Here are a few pointers.
When taking photos of the sky, or with the sky as a focal point, it’s all about atmosphere: literally and figuratively.
If your subjects are the clouds themselves, the more dynamic your clouds, the better. Things to pay attention to include:
- Time of day: If you wait until the sun is at its brightest, the sun will directly appear and disappear behind clouds, giving you a range in light and dark for a dynamic sky photograph. On the other hand, sunrise and sunset will give your clouds fiery, gorgeous coloring.
- Type of cloud: You learned this in school, but most adults forget the difference between cumulus, stratus, cumulonimbus, and statocumulus. Each has a unique personality, so just as the personality of a human subject will inform a portrait, the cloud’s personality informs the shot.
- Storms: Many photographers salivate over stormy weather for the cloudy drama it provides.
When photographing the sky, and clouds specifically, filters are your friend. Polorizing filters help to separate clouds from the sky. If you have objects in the foreground, you might also consider a graduated neutral density filter.
I also recommend using a tripod to experiment with different moods. Different exposures can be the difference between a dark and sinister atmosphere and a brighter, serene one.
Lastly, whipping out your equipment and snapping at random just won’t do if you want to get truly fantastic results. So here are a few steps to make sure your approach is on point.
- Research: Scope out the perfect spot well in advance. If you’re traveling, maybe there is a landmark you’d like to visit where great clouds would be the perfect accent. Look at the weather forecast, pick a time of day, and shoot away.
- Be prepared: Depending on the place and time of day, you’ll need to dress accordingly. At sunrise and sunset it can be cold; if there’s a storm, you’ll need a poncho; if it’s high noon, a hat will come in handy. Protect yourself and your gear.
- Composition: Every good photographer simply has to keep composition in mind. The rule of thirds is your friend — in cloud photographs, you might consider having the sky fill the top two thirds, and the land the extra third. Or, look for interesting elements in the foreground to frame the sky with, like trees or mountains.
All in all, it doesn’t take a trip to Bhutan to get a great photograph (although I highly recommend Bhutan!). All it takes is the right atmosphere, useful equipment, a smart approach, and the will to point your camera skywards.