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Cloudscape Photography: Exploring the Limitlessness of the Sky

June 18, 2013 by Marc Schenker

When you look up at the clouds in the vastness that is the sky, you may see a couple of different things. You may observe fast-moving clouds or clouds that appear to have faces in them. Many people have also observed this wondrous and almost ethereal quality of clouds, which is what paved the way for cloudscape photography to slowly but surely expand its reach as a genre.

Essentially, it is the photography of either clouds or the sky, no matter what time of day, color or sizes and shapes.

Not a dizzyingly popular photography genre by any means, cloudscape photography is more of a niche that’s an acquired taste… but what an acquired taste it can be if you know what you’re doing and have a passion for capturing the sky on film! This is such a photography niche that only a couple of photographers stand out in history as making famous contributions to the genre.

Dole Center Cloud
photo by David DeHetre

Leonard Misonne, a Belgian photographer, made his mark by producing black-and-white shots of dark clouds and brooding skies. Even more remarkable was the noted American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who actually created a series of shots of clouds called “Equivalents” in the early part of the 20th century. Equivalents is groundbreaking because it’s viewed today as one of the first examples of utterly abstract photographic art.

Are you a budding Misonne or Stieglitz? When you stare up at the clouds and the sky, do you find yourself getting lost in their wispy, dreamlike quality? If you answered yes to both questions, you may want to try your hand at cloudscape photography! Master the following tips, and you can be among a relatively small number of photographers who are intrepidly exploring this niche of photography.

Stability Is Ultra-Important

Stability’s always important when snapping photos, but it’s more so when it comes to cloudscape photography. A shaky hand can really ruin the chance to take a picture-perfect snapshot of a piece of sky.

Your first priority must be a very steady hand as you press the shutter release, but for some, that’s not an option.

Bring in your trusty tripod to give yourself that necessary stability; at the very least, rest your camera on a solid object that won’t move. You may want to try to hold your camera very firmly as you only concentrate on moving that one finger that’ll press the shutter release. If you have fast ASA film at your disposal, good! This will mitigate this issue considerably.

Use the Right Filter to Your Advantage

Photographers will many years of experience in shooting clouds recommend the continuous use of a polarizing filter. Such a filter will improve the contrast in between the clouds, especially clouds of the cumulus variety. The background sky will also experience improved contrast, thus resulting in a much-enhanced cloud picture.

Polarized light is going to optimize at about 90 degrees to a solar beam; you can double-check this by simply pointing your camera to different sections of the sky. Lots of point-and-shoot cameras won’t accept any screw-on filters.

This may seem problematic, but you can efficiently get around this issue by just holding up a filter to the lens and then rotating it to obtain the intended effect, while making sure not to permit any finger to interfere with incoming light.

Knowing How to Use the Light Is Power

In this niche genre, your success is very much tied to the available amount of light in the environment around you. Let’s take a brief look at different light situations. Suppose that you have an overcast day during your cloudscape-photography excursion. You’ll likely get relatively dull images due to the lack of light.

Clouds
photo by PhotoAtelier

Let’s now explore an ideal light situation: either dramatic weather conditions or a beautiful sunset. In this type of light situation, you’ll remark that the sky will produce powerful oranges and blues. This is the type of light that’s favorable for your cloudscape experiment.

Just position the camera on your tripod, and be sure to set your camera to aperture-priority mode or AV mode. Now, employ a smaller f-stop—such as one between f/11 and f/32—to obtain a larger depth of field. Use a wide-angle lens, too, and you’re all set to make the best possible use of the lighting conditions.

Sunsets and Sunrises to Empower Cloudscape Photography

Some of the most impressive cloudscape images are taken during sunsets or sunrises. This is because of the extremely vivid and vibrant colors that are present during each occasion. In fact, sunset and sunrise have been termed the “golden hour” due to the fact that they take place during either the last or first hour of sunlight.

To take advantage of these spectacular times of day to achieve stellar cloudscape pictures, start off with both a wide-angle lens and a sturdy tripod. Be sure to put your exposure-compensation mode at either -1 or -2. If you underexpose your shot, you’ll notice the very neat effect of improving the colors’ saturation. Pick a smaller aperture to obtain a wider depth of field.

Finally, when snapping cloudscape pictures of a scene like this, it’s really useful (not to mention safer for your eyes) to wait until the sun’s gone behind a tree or other object, so that you can avoid its bright glare.

The More Drama, the Better

Cloudscape photography is one of the few times in life when you actually want more drama rather than less! Here’s why: More drama in your cloudscape shots simply looks cooler… and more memorable. To capture this drama, watch out for a day when weather conditions are stormy and gray clouds are on the horizon.

Drama is created when the sun, on a day as described above, just barely peeks out from behind the clouds, thereby offering some much-needed backlighting for contrast. Take away this light, and the clouds are only going to appear as a dark mass. Much of the time, the sun will come out a bit after a rainstorm, so be vigilant for a perfect cloudscape shot in that situation.

Just bide your time and wait for the sun to start peeking out; you can’t control the sun, after all. To guard against wind, simply rely on a sturdy tripod for your shots. Only one thing left to do: Set your aperture at between f/11 and f/32. This will afford you a deeper depth of field.

Cloudscape Photography: Limitless Sky + Technique = Magic

Even if you don’t become the next Misonne or Stieglitz, it’s quite alright. Just by trying these cloudscape-photography techniques, you’ll expand your creative and artsy side. You’ll also have bragging rights—after all, how many people do you know who have even dabbled in cloudscape photography?

If clouds fascinate you, this is your niche. Even if they don’t, you can surely appreciate the drama of heavy, dark and brooding clouds as much as you can the warm and radiant colors of a sky experiencing sunset or sunrise. So remember to master stability, use the light to your advantage, embrace drama and have at it.

Your Turn To Talk

How about you? Have you already dabbled in magnificent cloudscape photography at any point in your life? Share your experiences in the comments section! And keep coming back to Contrastly for more highly interesting photography topics and practical tips.

Marc Schenker

About the author: Marc Schenker

Marc’s a copywriter who tackles the finer points of photography, but he also specializes in business and marketing topics like B2Bs and conversions. To find out what really makes him tick, head on over to his website, and don’t forget to make his day by liking his Facebook page!