Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taking pictures of Clouds

Tips, tricks and a lot of swooning. Cloud photography for beginners. BY INA AMOR MEJIA

THIS IS AN EASY TUTORIAL, if you're new to photography and have, like me, always been fascinated by clouds. To capture clouds in all their golden, moody, billowy greatness, you don't need special equipment, like a polarizing filter, which darkens skies and controls glare. And if you don't have a DSLR, you can use something like your iPhone to start. Although I strongly suggest you get your first real camera if you intend to get serious about photography. All the photos above were taken using a Canon Rebel T3i, the kit lens and a 50 mm F1.8. The Rebel T3i is a great first camera in my experience. I'll also quickly run through how to improve your photos in Photoshop once you've taken them.

Now about cloud photography, I try to remember just a few basic things.
First of all, LIGHT. This is important no matter who or what your subject. But I think it is especially crucial for clouds. SUNSET is the best time to take pictures. 

This is when we lose the glare and the sky is a gentler blue, and the sun's golden light is reflected on the clouds---defining their shape, creating shadows and texture. Don't wait until the sun is too low on the horizon though, it will be too dark. Aim to start shooting an hour leading to complete sunset for the best light. Sunrise would work too, except over here the best clouds appear later in the day.

Which brings me to number two, THE SUBJECT. Of all the clouds, I think that Cumulonimbus and Cumulus storm clouds are the most photogenic (sorry, Cirrus). They can get low enough so you capture detail, and tower up to 50,000 feet, creating a gradient of colors and light on the entire height of the cloud.

And unless winds are strong, these heavier clouds move slower. And if you're a true cloud geek like I am, this gives you enough time to pick up your jaw from the ground, grab your camera, compose yourself, and actually take the picture. 

Now about LOCATION. We have a roof deck on the 4th floor of our apartment where I have a largely unobstructed view of the sky. Though not crucial, taking your pictures from an elevated place would be ideal. Example:

The top floor of the building where you work or any building.
From an airplane (if you travel a lot and are flying around dawn or sunset. And have a window seat).
Or anywhere on the ground where you have a large view of the sky.

I don't necessarily COMPOSE my clouds photos. I just take as much of the cloud as clear as I can (on Automatic Focus) and CROP the photo after. And because time is of the essence, I first shoot on AUTO.

I then look at the photo on the viewer and check the numbers to remember them. I switch to MANUAL and adjust the SHUTTER and APERTURE (F-stop), which are two things you'll want to experiment with to give your photos the look and mood you want. Just basic info:

Shutter = Length of Exposure
Aperture = Size of the opening of your lens

Shutter number will look like this: 1/100
Aperture will look like this: f5.6

IMPORTANT: Lower your shutter number (From 1/100 to 1/60 for example), and you're actually INCREASING the time of exposure, and making the photo brighter. Lower your Aperture (from f5.6 to f4), and you're actually INCREASING the lens opening, again brightening your photo, and isolating your subject (making it stand out from a blurry background). And vice versa. 

The photo above began at 1/100 and f6.3 and went all the way to 1/250 and f4.5. I found that the darker shots gave me more detail. The clouds looked 'washed out' with anything from 1/100 and brighter.  

Now your photos could be great already, or you might want to correct and improve them in Photoshop. I find that some of my photos have this matte or dull cast over them, and I try to fix that. Notice the before and after shots.

If you use Photoshop you'll know the basic tools, although even if you're just starting with it, the process of improving your photos is quite easy. If you're a bit more advanced, you might have heard of Photoshop Actions. They are tools that come in an .ATN file format, and are a series of steps pre-recorded by the creator of the action, to improve, sharpen, or give all sorts of creative twists to an image. The great thing about actions is because you simply have to apply them with a click of a button, saving tons of time. Here's a simple guide to installing and using actions, and 50 free actions to start.

I use actions for things like portraits, and food photography. But I still find that using the basic Photoshop tools are enough most of the time.

The basic Photoshop tools I use:
Contrast/Brightness = basic to brighten highlights and darken shadows
Saturation/Vibrance = to boost colors
Shadows/Highlights = brilliant for deepening shadows and highlighting
Exposure = Quick way to brighten or darken exposure
Color Balance = To give a cooler or warmer cast
Smart Sharpen Filter = Quick way to sharpen the whole image
Sharpen Tool = I always use this to sharpen portions of an image

Please remember that although actions and basic tools are great (and FUN), if you don't keep the basics of photography in mind, or don't create an effort to faithfully capture your subject and the mood, you can only do so much with actions (or basic tools for that matter).

Now let's see that picture with the plane again.

We live along one of the flight routes to Manila's international airport. And it was great to catch the planes in the photos, which I think gives the images scale and perspective. Here's another one.

It can be some other thing: a distant building, a mountain, a tree, a flock of birds, Superman...that you might want to capture and keep in your cloud photos.

Let's not forget TRIPODS. I didn't use mine for the clouds because I find that it slows me down when the subject is moving. Although please use yours if you can get it at the right angle fast enough. Because your camera will be steadier, you'll get a sharper image. Otherwise, I just avoid shaking by keeping my arms as close to my body as possible when I take the shot, or I rest them and the camera on something solid (like the ledge on my roof deck). All the photos are largely blurred actually and it could be the tripod (lack thereof), or my aperture (or both), but I like how softly the colors blend.  

Lastly, take A LOT of pictures. Cumulonimbus clouds move slowly, but they do move. You might get different, interesting results with 5 or more photos. And to backtrack, don't forget to CROP. Something that really pulls together your final image. Let's go back to the first photo. Here's the original:
There's too much going on here. I didn't need the dark cloud on top, or the cranes on the tops of the buildings in the distance that are in the bottom of the photo. So I cropped them out, played with exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows, boosted the colors, and got this.

It's a bit softer that the original, but I CROPPED because I wanted to focus on those Cumulus clouds that look lit from the inside. To me they look like a herd of buffalo running along a lake, with clouds reflected on its surface. If you can't see it that's OK. Caroline sees chipmunks. 

Whatever you see in the clouds, I hope you find the time and inspiration to take lots of pictures.

And thanks for reading!

*For your safety, please don't walk along the ledges of the tops of tall buildings where you might fall, just to take photos. And be careful when outdoors with those storm clouds, especially if lightning might be a concern. 


  1. you have a great location for cloud and plane photography. more, more! :) have you also done taking cloud photos while in the plane? i think it's more challenging since you'll be the one moving faster than the clouds. lots of great scenery up there. :)

    1. Thank you Mslotts! I love taking photos of clouds from a plane yes. That's obviously a better view than my roof deck! I always book the window seat, and I always pray the window isn't foggy!


Thank you for your kind comments.


The Weekly Note