Clouds – they can be fluffy, wispy, or even dark and foreboding. They’ve captured our imagination and have even been the subject of countless stories, myths and poems. While modern science has since removed much of the romanticism, these visually stimulating formations can be very effective in setting the mood and tone of your images. Today, we will cover the essentials to help you master cloudy compositions.
Want to know how your pictures will turn out? Check the weather report before you shoot. Temperature, sun, and precipitation all have profound effects on the appearance of clouds, and thus your images. For example, late afternoon is the easiest time to capture warm, vibrant colors. As the sun sets above the horizon, hues of pink, orange, yellow and blue take over the sky and clouds – something you won’t see at other times of the day.
Filters can have a dramatic impact on your images, especially clouds, as light plays an even bigger role in your skyward compositions. If you prefer the clouds to be more pronounced, try a polarizing filter. By reducing glare and increasing contrast, the filter helps capture images that exhibit cloud features more explicitly.
In case your day becomes too bright for the camera to handle, a graduated neutral-density (GND) filter can come in handy. These filters are an excellent addition to any equipment bag and can help bring down the brighter parts of the composition to the dynamic range of your camera sensor, so your images do not overexpose – a common mistake made in cloud and landscape photography.
Generally speaking, you should keep your shutter speed fast to avoid overexposure and blurring. But if your creative vision calls for cloud movement, there are a few things to keep in mind. Employing a long exposure time means easily overexposed shots, so you will need to take your images in low-light conditions. As such, your ideal shooting time is either at dawn or dusk. During golden hour, the brief moment after sunrise or before sunset, the sun is positioned slightly above the horizon, painting the clouds with dramatic colours.
Do be mindful of the wind. The speed that clouds are moving will dictate the shutter speed you need to capture movement and achieve that desired silky effect - the faster the cloud, the shorter the shutter speed.
Last but not least, you should definitely bring along a tripod, so you don’t need to worry about unintended blurring or smearing. Even when you do not intend to take a long exposure shot, lighting conditions may still require a slower shutter speed to fully take in the colours.
Remember, no two clouds are ever identical. So be bold in your compositions and capture your own slice of the sky.