Clouds are so ubiquitous that many photographers take them for granted, but the truth is clouds are more than just visual elements inconsequentially placed in the background.
Any landscape photographer can tell you that clouds can dictate the overall mood of an image. For instance, puffy cumulus clouds floating in the blue sky may create a cheerful ambience, while thunderclouds can tend to make a scene feel threatening and ominous.
Taking photos of clouds may seem easy enough, but if you aren’t so sure where to start, we’ll show you six simple tips that can improve your images.
01. Learn about the different types of clouds
If you're interested in taking photos of clouds, it would be helpful if you learn a little bit about them. There are over a hundred types of clouds, and every one of them appears in a different condition. Fortunately, you only need to learn about the 10 fundamental cloud types to understand them.
Cumulus clouds have white puffy tops (like the ones you see in kids’ drawings) with dark flat bottoms. They’re called “fair weather” clouds because they appear on sunny days.
Stratus are typically flat and thinly spread out, covering the sky on an overcast day.
Stratocumulus look like cumulus clouds bunched up together. They’re bigger than cumulus, and their grey bottoms are also more prominent. These clouds can be seen either before or after bad weather.
Altocumulus are typically seen higher up in the sky than stratocumulus. They’re also called sheep backs because they look like sheep’s wool from afar. They’re fairly common during the summer, appearing ahead of thunderstorms and cold fronts.
Nimbostratus are those unmistakably thick grey clouds that cover the sky on a rainy day. When you see them, expect a rainfall.
Altostratus look like thin grey fog high in the atmosphere. They show up before warm or cold fronts arrive.
Cirrocumulus are found at high altitudes and appear as if a giant comb had passed through them. They're typically seen on clear days but are quite rare.
Cirrostratus are thin layer of white clouds that often cover the entire sky. You can find them ahead of warm fronts.
Cirrus look like giant feathers floating in the air. But don’t be fooled by their presence, because when they appear, it often means there’s a storm coming.
Cumulonimbus look like giant alien spaceships due to their massive size. They’re so big they occupy the low, middle and high layers of the atmosphere. Seeing them means there’s some nasty weather coming your way.
02. Use a tripod
When you’re dealing with varying conditions, your safest bet is to bring a tripod. It's especially invaluable when the lighting is poor, and you need to keep your camera stable to shoot with slow shutter speeds.
A tripod is also quite handy when you need to bracket your shots. Bracketing is used in tricky lighting situations when the camera’s auto metering system struggles to produce accurate measurements. The process requires taking several overexposed and underexposed images of the same scene while keeping your camera in the same position on a tripod.
03. Use filters
Filters are necessary for more control over the unpredictable light conditions outdoors. The most common types of filters you’ll need for photographing clouds are Neutral Density (ND) filters and polarizing filters.
ND filters limit the amount of light coming into the lens, much like sunglasses. They come with different levels of optical density. The higher the density, the lesser the light that could pass through them.
Polarizing filters, on the other hand, only permits light coming from certain angles, making them useful for darkening the sky and minimizing glare. Since they also increase contrast, they give clouds more definition as opposed to using a lens without any filter.
Remember that lenses have varying diameters, so you have to buy filters that are the same size. Filters, especially high-quality ones, can be expensive, so getting a set for every lens you have is impractical. Just choose one lens that you can use extensively for cloud photography, and buy your filters based on the size of that lens. It doesn't matter which one you choose since any lens from super wide angle to telephoto would work for cloud photography.
04. Play around with exposures
The exposure time dictates how your image is going to appear. Play around with different settings to achieve different effects on your photographs. In general, the longer you expose your image, the more surrealistic it would look.
Use a fast shutter speed if you want to take regular photos of clouds. To avoid any motion blur, select shutter speeds between 1/100th to 1/2000th or faster. Meanwhile, use short exposure times if you want the clouds in your photos to look exactly like you see them in real life.
You can also experiment with slower shutter speeds to transform the scenery into a dreamlike landscape. If you keep the shutter open even for just a few seconds, the clouds will start to blur and elongate. The typical exposure times can be between 5 seconds up to about a minute.
Just remember that any exposure lasting more than 30 seconds would require you to use bulb mode. When you're in manual or speed priority mode, turn your click wheel until you reach "bulb" (this setting usually comes after 30").
05. Take photos during sunrise or sunset
The most dramatic cloud photos are often shot during sunrise or sunset. When the sun is low enough on the horizon, it creates vibrant colors and deep contrasts that add character to the otherwise colorless clouds.
The best time to shoot is during the golden hour—about thirty minutes to an hour after sunrise or before sunset. The golden hour gets its name from the orange light that the sun casts when it’s rising or setting.
You can also wait for the blue hour, which occurs about twenty minutes after sunrise or before sunset. During this period, the sun tints the lower part of the horizon with a gradient of red, orange, and yellow, while the rest of the sky appears dark blue.
You can take photos of clouds during the night as well. To compensate for the lack of light, use a slow shutter speed. An exposure between a few seconds to a few minutes would be enough in most situations. Due to the long exposure times, the resulting image would make the clouds look like feathers floating on the horizon.
06. Shoot even in bad weather
Don’t just go out when the weather is beautiful; grab your camera even when you see storm clouds coming. Severe weather creates the most awe-inspiring images; dark giant clouds look beautiful as they are formidable.
Before you go out, cover your camera with a rain hood just in case it rains. Also, look for a safe location where you can easily escape in case the weather turns for the worse. Always trust your better judgment when you find yourself in a potentially hazardous situation.
Now that you've ensured your safety and found an excellent location, you can start shooting while the storm is still forming on the horizon. The most dramatic moments occur when dark clouds are on one side and fair skies are on the other.
If you want to take photos of lightning, set your camera to shutter priority and choose an exposure time between 3 to 30 seconds. You will have to figure out the values depending on the lighting conditions. Photographing lightning is extremely dangerous, so use a telephoto lens and stay a few miles away from the storm clouds (even this, however, doesn’t guarantee your safety).
It’s difficult to time lightning bolts since they appear at random, but just keep taking photographs, and you’ll land a great shot eventually. Thankfully, since your exposures last at least a few seconds, you have a good chance of capturing a lightning flash or two within that time frame.
Shooting clouds doesn’t require extensive technical expertise. For the most part, all you really have to do is point your camera towards the sky and press the button. But you should never underestimate their visual power. If your image looks a bit lackluster, perhaps all it’s missing are beautiful clouds—so start shooting those white puffs floating on the horizon!