Friday Foto Talk: Clouds   12 comments

Low clouds and fog filling the Columbia River Gorge help add impact to this image of the Vista House catching day's last light.

Low clouds and fog fill the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, helping to set off Vista House, subject of this recent image.

I think photographers take clouds for granted.  Most of us seem to believe there is nothing special or difficult about photographing them.  But most of us also seek out clouds when we are out shooting.  So I think they’re worth a second (and third) thought.  Whether doing landscape, outdoor portrait, street, really any photography is made more interesting with clouds.  They make the light that much nicer.

Winter weather brings moody clouds in the forests of western Oregon.

Winter weather brings moody clouds in the forests of western Oregon.

I’ve been going out in bad weather lately, looking for low-clouds and fog to set the typical atmosphere of the oft-stormy Columbia River Gorge near home.  It got me thinking about all the things one needs to consider when including clouds in photographs.  By the way I consider fog to be simply a cloud at ground level; blame the scientist in me.

So here are a few things to keep in mind when including clouds in your compositions:

      • When composing images, use cloud patterns to your advantage.  For example, when clouds form lineear patterns, use them to complement the patterns in your foreground.  They can help to define a vanishing point.  And layered clouds can help bring out the often more subtle layering in your foreground.  Also you can use clouds to help frame things, sort of like a natural vignette.
In this image from the Canyonlands area, Utah, layered clouds help to highlight the layers of color in the landscape.

In this image from the Canyonlands area, Utah, layered clouds help to highlight the layers of color in the landscape.

      • Depending on what you’re shooting, the right amount of cloudiness is key.  So it’s worth trying to match the type of photography you’re doing with the clouds.  Some examples follow.
      • With landscape photography near sunrise or sunset, a broken, partly to mostly cloudy sky can yield amazing light.  The ideal situation is when the low sun peaks underneath the clouds.  The light bounces off and is refracted by the clouds on its way to your subject.  This lengthens wavelengths, making light more orange or red.  It also bounces that reddish light onto the landscape, and generally gives things a beautifully soft glow.  You can easily be skunked too, when the sun sinks into a bank of clouds while the rest of the sky has perfectly scattered clouds.  Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Light can be a little harsh & contrasty in the desert southwest.  Clouds very late in the day help soften things in this image near Moab, Utah.

Light can be a little harsh & contrasty in the desert southwest. Clouds late in the day help soften things in this image near Moab, Utah.

      • If you are shooting outdoor portraits, a relatively thin overcast sky can act like a giant soft-box, diffusing the light source so that it falls evenly over your subject.  Of course beautiful light at golden hour can result in wonderful portraits too.  But sometimes the light is just too warm on your subject and you need to adjust for that later on the computer.  Overcast skies give you light that ‘gets out of the way’.  Macro photography is similarly benefited when there is a continuous cloud cover.
This spring tulip has nice even light due to the overcast sky.  Clouds also blessed it with the droplets.

This spring tulip has nice even light due to the overcast sky. Clouds also blessed my subject with water droplets.

      • When low clouds and fog invade your scene, a scenario that’s very common at sunrise, you should not be too disappointed.  Shoot the fog if it looks good, or simply wait for it to lift.  Sometimes it begins to dissipate very soon after sunrise, giving you magical light and atmosphere.
Mist and fog shrouds the celebrated view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

Mist and fog shrouds the celebrated view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

The images above and below were shot at Mount Rainier National Park as this was happening.  Other photographers had arrived at this popular spot, only to be discouraged by the thick fog.  They drove away as soon as they arrived.  Meantime I was hanging around shooting the fog.  When the sun started breaking through, they rushed back (I heard slamming doors up on the road).  But the transition from fog to full sun was very quick and I was the only one who was able to catch it by the lake (instead of from the road).  I was too busy shooting to feel smug; that came later!

The fog lifts quickly!

The fog lifts quickly!

      • When the cloud cover is heavy and there is very little chance of seeing the sun, certain types of nature and landscape subjects shine.  This is a great time to shoot during the day, with none of the time pressures you feel at golden hour.  Another advantage: it’s a great time to try black and white.
An angry sky in the Columbia River Gorge develops as a warm moist front moves in right after a day of snow and freezing rain.

An angry sky in the Columbia River Gorge develops as a warm moist front moves in right after a day of snow and freezing rain.

      • Low, heavy clouds can lend a moody feel similar to fog.  I will often go out in the worst weather just to see if I can capture one of these moody scenes.  Be selective; featureless cloudy skies do not tend to create this atmosphere as easily.  Go for times of rapid weather changes instead.
The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon draws in clouds and rain, viewed from a small back-road.

Along a back-road in the Columbia River Gorge, with typical clouds and rain.

  

      • A day with continuous cloud cover, however, is a great time to shoot in the forest.  It’s similar to outdoor portrait and macro photography.  The light is even, without the hot spots that plague sunny days in the trees.  Since the light is usually very dim, bring a tripod.  While more open landscapes lack color in these conditions, the forest’s green-dominated colors are richer and more vibrant.  If it has rained recently, use a circular polarizing filter to tame reflections and make colors pop.  If things are real dim and dreary, go with the mood – try black and white.
A small creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

Forest Mist

      • Clouds can easily be the main element in a photo.  If they are interesting enough, you shouldn’t be shy about featuring them in your images.  For instance when crepuscular rays invade a foggy forest (image below), a situation my friend calls “Jesus rays”, I almost always shoot so that the foreground is subtle or completely absent.
Winter is a great time to catch fog in the redwoods of northern California.

Winter is a great time to catch fog in the redwoods of northern California.

      • And speaking of  making clouds the focus of your shots, you can always shoot nothing but sky.  This rarely makes a good image on its own, but can always be combined (composited) with other images that lack a nice sky.  I can count on one hand the times I’ve done this; it’s because I really prefer capturing a single moment (and I’m painfully slow with Photoshop!).  But I continue to shoot interesting skies.  I place them in their own collection inside Lightroom.  Who knows, there may come a day when I want to do more compositing.  I try never to say never.
An early winter storm moves across the Alvord Desert in Oregon.

An early winter storm moves across the Alvord Desert in Oregon.

      • When the sun is bright, contrast between the blue sky and white clouds can be pretty intense.  Be careful about overexposing the clouds.  A little overexposure and contrast is okay; viewers expect this in a sky like that.  Programs like Lightroom do a great job of recovering highlights, so you can tame the contrast to some extent.  But no software can recover highlights where exposure is completely blown out (lacking detail).  Sure the sun, moon, and a few other exceptions can look natural when they’re blown out.  But you should avoid it in clouds; you don’t want solid white with zero detail.
Gokyo Lake in Nepal has that distinctive color that only glacial lakes can have.

Gokyo Lake in Nepal, with that distinctive color that only glacial lakes can have.

To deal with the situation of over-exposed clouds, start by turning on your camera’s highlight warning (blinkies) so that you see on your LCD screen where you have blown out highlights.  If your camera doesn’t have that feature, look at your histogram on the LCD and make sure it isn’t climbing way up the right edge.  Or you can simply judge over-bright areas by eye.  Bring down the exposure and re-shoot until the blinkies go away and you recover some detail in the bright portions.  If doing this makes your foreground too dark, use a graduated neutral density filter to darken just the sky and leave the foreground properly exposed. 

The Alvord Desert, southeastern Oregon.  I used a graduated neutral density filter for this high-contrast scene.

The Alvord Desert, southeastern Oregon. I used a graduated neutral density filter for this high-contrast scene.

      • The opposite can happen too.  You can underexpose your sky, especially when you have dark, brooding clouds.  Though you can, as above with highlights, recover shadow details later on the computer, it’s not ideal to do this.  You can end up increasing noise.  It’s better to capture dark clouds either perfectly exposed or somewhat brighter.  You can always darken them on the computer later.  This is much better than brightening.

So let’s take an example.  Say it’s a few hours before sunset and the sky is looking interesting, with broken or layered clouds.  You have some decisions to make.  Of course, as mentioned, you can go to the trouble: burn gas and time…only to be clouded out.  Or you could luck out and get a spectacular show!  It’s a gamble that will, sadly, not usually pan out.  But it’s worth taking that chance.  After all, it’s the only way you’ll get shots with truly amazing light!

      • So you wisely decide to go for it.  Now there are more decisions.  For starters, where to shoot?  If you think the sky will be really awesome, consider water, snow, or some other reflective surface.  Water can reflect those beautiful clouds.  Who doesn’t like double the beauty?
The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

      • If Mother Nature plays a trick on you and clouds thicken, graying out the sunset, don’t despair.  Wait for a bit.  I have seen gray, boring sunsets turn into truly technicolor skies after sundown.  It doesn’t happen frequently, but on occasion our home star performs a final encore after it’s passed below the horizon.  The atmosphere has a wonderful way of bending the light (it’s how mirages are formed).  Patience and hopeful realism, along with a headlamp to get back to your car, is all you need.  The same thing can happen before sunrise, so try to get there early in case the sunrise itself is dull.
The Grand Tetons in Wyoming appear to have caught fire just after an autumn sunset.

The Grand Tetons in Wyoming appear to have caught fire just after an autumn sunset.

      • Lastly, Mother Nature can also play the opposite trick, clearing the clouds out before golden hour.  Stick with it.  Though clouds are in many ways preferable, remember that a rainy and cloudy stretch has a way of cleaning the atmosphere.  When it clears, it’s a great time to shoot pictures with far-away elements.  For example, distant mountain and desert vistas are beautifully clear and pristine in fresh-scrubbed air.  And if you are using a telephoto lens to capture wildlife, recently cleared air helps get the detail you want in your subjects.
The Colorado Rockies!

The Colorado Rockies!

As always, these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  If you are interested in purchase options for any of them, just click on the picture.  Please contact me if you can’t find what you want or have any questions or special requests.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

Clouds gift a colorful sunset the other day at Crown Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

Clouds gift a colorful sunset the other day at Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

 

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12 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Clouds

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this priceless information, Michael. I’ve got a lot to learn and you’re a very good teacher. It’s easy to follow you and great fun too. Enjoyed this post vey much as well as your outstanding photography.
    Warm greetings to Oregon from the Rhine Valley
    Dina

  2. You don’t need me to say that these are spectacular photos of outstanding scenes, but consider it said just the same! I’m particularly moved by the scenes that are predominantly b&w, misty, and moody. Years ago, an old friend used to rave about the Columba River Gorge, and now I understand why.

  3. Breathtaking images!

  4. stunning images…and great tips for shooting clouds… love the misty bw in particular, such unique atmosphere there…

  5. Lots of great content and the photos were absolutely great. You have captured some amazing scenes with your eye on the weather systems. I quite enjoyed your comment about being smug later.

  6. Not only do you travel to pristine places, but you capture a special moment with integrity.

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