I’ve talked about the sky on more than one occasion here. For any outdoors photography, the sky is a critical component of the shot- either because the nature of the sky dictates the quality of light falling on the subject (particularly in portraiture), or because the sky makes up a component of the photograph’s composition- and therefore interest. Even a neutral (e.g. monotone grey or white) sky contributes to a photograph- although if not done correctly, can have a negative effect, either leaving an image appearing dull and flat, or washing it out.
The great gift that varied clouds lend a photograph is a sense of depth and magnitude. Generally, the more textured and varied the cloud, the greater the sense of dimension in the image- although of course, there are times when a sky is so patterned with clouds that it can take away from the subject in the foreground (particularly when dealing with crossed contrails which can leave a sky looking messy and even polluted- though they can also add interest and depth to a photo).
There are times, however, when clouds are so full of texture and character that they take over the photo entirely and become the subject themselves. The taking and enjoyment of such images is often playfully referred to as ‘cloud porn’, and I confess I am a bit of an addict. I love to incorporate skyscapes into my scenic photography, and most of my strongest landscapes are not taken with a featureless blue backdrop, but with a variety of textured clouds. The times I find myself wanting to rush out with my camera are not those cloudless blue days, but times when I look outside and the clouds are doing all kinds of interesting things. As I mentioned in a recent post, since taking up photography I find myself watching the sky- and in particular, the clouds- all the time.
Here are a handful of cloud shots- some where clouds form backgrounds, and others exclusively of the clouds themselves- that I enjoy for the presence of the clouds’ texture and quality.
When taking photos of clouds, it’s important to consider issues such as lighting and contrast. Generally, there is a lot more light reflecting off clouds than off the ground. Under these circumstances, exposing for the ground will usually wash the clouds out and make them a featureless (and often unattractive) grey-white. Likewise, exposing for the sky will darken the foreground, often to obscurity.
You can do a few things to get around this. One is to accept the foreground as a lost cause and try and put an interesting silhouette in front of the clouds.
On a day where the light is patchy, wait for the sun to come out onto the foreground. Some of the most dramatic photos around are of dark skies with a well-lit foreground, and the sense of contrast can be wonderful.
Alternatively, using a gradient neutral density filter (a neutral grey filter that progressively darkens the higher or lower it goes without affecting the cast of the image) can allow you to have a dark sky but a well-lit foreground. This can be applied in-camera or in post-processing. A variant on this dual-processing is the use of HDR (High Dynamic Range) which essentially does away with the varied lighting by mapping two separate exposures one on the other to draw the best of both. Done well, it can [occasionally] yield dramatic and striking effects, although to be honest, most users of HDR blow it out and leave the image looking artificial and tacky. I don’t use HDR- partly because I don’t have the patience to learn how to apply it well- but there are some great examples of it.
Using a polarising filter on a partly cloudy day can increase the contrast in the sky and make for a very attractive image too.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to actively involve the clouds in your outdoor portraits and landscapes- and even if you’re out with a camera, make sure to look up and enjoy the puffs of condensing water vapour performing for your enjoyment.