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Clouds and Image Composition

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I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils. William Wordsworth

One subject that interests me is Clouds. Clouds are everywhere, or not. Good clouds can make a landscape image go from not bad to WOW and yet you can never photograph the same clouds twice. They are always moving, changing form, metamorphosing so to speak into new forms and varieties. The sky and the clouds that are in it are often the key elements in a landscape image, thus they often set the mood of the image itself. For me, there is nothing more boring in a landscape photo than to have sky with no clouds. No clouds equals no character and it is this character that contributes to the overall special nature of an image.

For example, consider the following three images, the first one is the original, taken on a bright, sunny, prairie summer day. As is often the case, there were absolutely no clouds in the sky. The following pictures have been augmented using onOne Software’s Perfect Layers and Perfect Mask software. They are not the epitome of sky replacements, but they do provide an idea of the difference that clouds can make in an image.
My Standard Metadata

My Standard Metadata

My Standard Metadata

The other aspect of cloud photography is the capture of storm clouds and maybe even the storm itself. The following images show two aspects of storm clouds. The first image taken in the afternoon shows almost the complete storm spread out across the prairies, in fact, in my opinion, the image is really about the storm and the rain falling from below the clouds. Without this element in the photograph, it would be just another prairie landscape.

My Standard Metadata

This next image shows a prairie storm developing above a field of canola (I don’t have any daffodils!). The yellow and green of the canola field provides an interesting contrast for the developing clouds against the blue sky. The image was also processed to reveal as much of the structure in the sky as possible without turning the image into a cartoon.

My Standard Metadata

Perhaps the prime condition for the use of clouds lies in the colours they can assume during sunrise and sunset. The following image was taken during a somewhat cloudy sunrise over the Masai Mara in Kenya. The colours speak for themselves. Compare this one with the following two images, the first of a sunset over the South Dakota Badlands and the second of a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico taken in Naples, Florida.
20120912AA4Q1817-2 Sunrise over the Masai Mara.
20140613-_A4Q8690_HDR-2 Sunset in the South Dakota Badlands.

My Standard Metadata Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico from the beach in Naples, Florida.

Each one is different, yet they share some similarity. If the clouds were not present, then the resulting sunset image would probably be very boring and ordinary, and probably not even worthy of any photographic effort. The colours that show up in the clouds provide the character for the landscape image.
One other aspect of cloud photography is not concerned so much with the colours, but with the structure and details that one can find in them. You have everything from wispy cirrus to puffy cumulus clouds, each of which has their own particular appearance and structure. For those of you who are into the outdoors, knowing something about clouds in general and each type in particular will also give you some clues as to the type of weather to expect. Clear skies tell of high pressure and fair weather, whereas towering cumulus often foretell of stormy weather to come.

My Standard Metadata
High cirrus and lower fair weather cumulus that often form across the foothills and prairies during the day. They are both fair weather clouds, although the cirrus often are followed by rainy weather over the next few days.

20140810-_A4Q3727
This image is from the Alberta prairies and foothills. They are cirrus clouds in the near sky with what appears to be cirrostratus in the distance.

20131006-_A4Q8304
This image was captured over the Napo River in Ecuador. They are towering cumulus building towards cumulonimbus. We often saw these form during the day and the day often ended with a 1 to 2 hour thunderstorm and rain in the later part of the afternoon or early evening.

20140610-_A4Q8390-2
These are Mammatus clouds, the drooping underside of a cumulonimbus cloud that often form under the anvil of a severe thunderstorm. They can accompany non-severe storms as well. This image was taken in the Badlands of South Dakota. Within an hour, we experienced a fairly severe thunderstorm.

These are just a few of the various types of clouds that you can encounter in various landscape situations. They provide interesting images in themselves and, in my opinion, are always good to complement a landscape image. They provide another element of composition for the image and I would urge you to take advantage of what is above you in every landscape scenario.

Things to remember:
• Clouds with character can be the major focus in a landscape image. If this is the case, then place the horizon along the lower thirds line in the image. Make sure that there is nothing obscuring the sky or that there are things like trees sticking up into it.

• Clouds add character to sunrise and sunset images. This may require the use of a graduated neutral density (ND Grad) filter. If you are unsure how to use these, then check out this site – http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/graduated-neutral-density-filters.htm

• If you do not have ND Grads, then HDR imagery may be a way to capture the sunrise or sunset and provide you with detail in the foreground as well as the clouds.

• Try underexposing a bit as the sky is often very bright during the day.

• Try different things – for example, long exposures with a Neutral Density (ND) filter to give you blurs.

• You can always save cloud pictures for use as backgrounds in other images, either by inserting them during processing, or printing cloud images on large sheets of photo paper and using them as physical backgrounds in close-up images of flowers.

• Use a polarizer to darken the sky, but be careful if you are shooting with a wide angle lens as the polarizer will not produce uniform results across the entire sky.

• Take lots of images. Clouds are constantly changing and memory is cheap.

The next time you are photographing landscapes, remember to look up and see what is in the sky above you. More often than not, there will be clouds of one type or another that will add to the landscape. Their use is only limited by your imagination.

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