How to Photograph Clouds

Nature often rewards us with incredible opportunities for photographing sunrises, sunsets and sun rays piercing through the clouds, creating stunning views. As a landscape photographer, I tend to wait for partly cloudy and stormy days, because clouds make photographs appear much more dramatic and vivid. Without clouds, sunrises and sunsets often look boring, forcing us to cut out the sky and focus on foreground elements instead. In contrast, if you get to witness a sunrise or a sunset with puffy, stormy clouds that are lit up from underneath with colorful sun rays, creating a fiery view, including the clouds in your photographs would make the scene appear much more colorful and alive. In fact, clouds can be so beautiful, that they could become the main element of composition in your photographs. In this article, I will not only talk about the process of photographing clouds, but also will focus on making clouds appear much more dynamic and dramatic in your photographs.

Mt Rainier Lenticular Cloud

Because clouds appear in all kinds of shapes and forms, they are grouped into different fancy categories like cumulus, cumulonimbus, stratus and stratocumulus. And each of these categories contains different types of species and varieties that one could observe. For example, the above cloud above Mt Rainier is classified as “lenticular” and can appear in different shapes and forms throughout the year, sometimes looking like a flying saucer or a mushroom. In the below photo, the lenticular clouds around Mount Herard in the Great Sand Dunes National Park appear layered, covering two peaks and creating a stunning, dramatic view of the scene:

Mount Herard Lenticular Clouds

Without the clouds, both photographs would not have made their way to my portfolio, most likely forcing me to focus on something different and cutting out most of the sky. In short, clouds are a far more essential element of your photographs than you might think.

So what is the best way to photograph clouds? Let’s go over the process and cover some of the techniques that I personally use when photographing cloudscapes.

1) Weather Conditions

One of the first mistakes many beginners make is wait for sunny days, trying to avoid bad weather at all costs. I remember I used to look at weather forecast back in my beginner days, only planning travel when I knew I would be safe from storms, rain and wind. Overtime, I realized that my best shots were taken in bad weather – stormy days opened up opportunities for amazing clouds, especially at sunrise and sunset times. For example, the clouds above Mount Herard above were captured when I was in complete misery, walking on sand dunes on an extremely windy day, reaching gusts up to 40-50 miles per hour! I was with my friend Sergey on that day and he was a bit scared, constantly telling me that we needed to get back. I waited for the sun to set and the above was my last shot of the day, captured hand-held with my Nikon D700 using a panoramic photography technique.

Sunset Sunflower

Hence, you will have a much higher chance of capturing something beautiful if you get out on partly cloudy, mostly cloudy and stormy days. But be careful with stormy days – if wind gusts exceed 50 miles per hour or if there is a chance for tornadoes or hurricanes, it might be best to stay safe at home.

2) Polarizing Filter

If you do not already have a polarizing filter, it is time to buy one! As explained in my article, using a polarizing filter can help separate the clouds from the sky and darken the sky. All you have to do is attach the polarizing filter in front of your lens, then rotate it until you see the effect in the viewfinder. At the right angle, a polarizing filter can make a huge difference and make clouds really “pop” from the sky, by blocking certain light waves from entering the lens. If you are new to photography and want to read up more on using different types of filters, check out my in-depth article on lens filters.

Mt Sneffels in Fall

3) Graduated Neutral Density Filter

When photographing clouds at sunset and sunrise, the exposure range of the scene might be too large for your camera to be able to capture it. If you expose for the clouds, you risk underexposing the foreground elements. And if you expose for the foreground, you might overexpose or “blow out” the clouds. When dealing with such high dynamic range situations, there are two ways to capture the scene – by using the High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique or by using a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. Personally, I tend to stay away from using HDR, because it is hard to make it appear natural and it requires a lot of time and effort to make it look good. With a GND filter, you often do not need to worry about exposure variances, because the filter will help reduce the exposure gap and you can recover the rest during post-processing. It is all a matter of personal taste though, so I am not here to say that one technique is better than another.

Arches NP Sunrise

Since most nature scenes do not have a straight horizon and include mountains, trees and other elements, I would recommend to get a soft-edge GND filter. You will need a filter holder to be able to move the filter up and down, as explained in my above-referenced article on lens filters. If you have budget limitations and only can afford a single GND filter, go for a three stop GND filter (often referenced as a Soft-Edge 0.9 GND). With a three stop difference, you will be able to easily see the effect in the viewfinder. The only thing you have to watch out for is the transition area – if you have tall trees or a mountain peak, the tip of the object(s) might get too dark for the scene.

Dead Horse Point Sunrise

Every once in a while you will be treated with an opportunity to silhouette your foreground element(s). In such situations, removing your GND filter or reversing it to darken the foreground might actually yield even better-looking and more engaging results!

4) Exposure Length

If you have moving water in your foreground, it might be tempting to use very long exposures to create a smooth, “silky” look. However, clouds often move very fast, especially when they are very low, so long exposures could completely ruin your images, removing all shapes and forms from the clouds. If that’s your intent and you are trying to capture a surreal sky, then by all means do it. However, if you want to bring out the clouds as separate elements, then it is best to use shorter exposure times. There is no magic formula for the shutter speed, as it all depends on what you are trying to do and how dark the scene is, so take a shot and zoom in to see if you are blurring the clouds or not. Obviously, if you are dealing with a low light situation and long exposure times, you will need to use a tripod.

San Juan Mountains Hay Sunset

If you are not sure about the proper exposure, another tip is to bracket your shots. A three bracket shot one stop apart can potentially give you more options during post-processing, even when using a graduated neutral density filter.

5) Composition

Every once in a while, clouds form in such a way that they might look interesting and engaging on their own. However, despite the temptation to capture just the clouds, I urge you to try including foreground elements to the scene. While clouds certainly can be the key element of the scene, they often serve better as backgrops instead. I tend to look at them as sky “fillers”, so before resorting to capturing them alone, I often look around and try to include something interesting. And if you have absolutely nothing around you and you are looking at an empty field, even including a very small portion of that field will often make a difference and give the scene a scale.

When the clouds are patchy and separated, it is important to properly frame your shot so that you are not chopping anything off. If there is a big patch of clouds, try to fit it in your scene without cutting it – zoom out or step back, if necessary. Also, I always recommend our readers and workshop participants to give a scene some “breathing” space. Try not to place those patchy clouds too close to the edge of the frame.

Street Lamps at Sunset

Whether you are photographing the clouds by themselves, or including clouds as part of a composition when photographing landscapes, don’t forget about the basic rules of composition. Rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry, etc can all play a huge role in impacting the overall feel of the image. If clouds look beautiful and colorful, you could make them the main element of the scene and use up 2/3 of framing space or more. If they are just patchy clouds that add to the scene, reduce their presence to no more than 1/3 of the frame and use them as “fillers” instead.

If you are struggling with composition and need some help, Romanas has written some great composition articles for beginners before.

6) Post-Processing

Photographing clouds does not end with your camera – you can make clouds appear far more dramatic if you are willing to put some time in post-processing your shots. If you are struggling to make your cloudscape / landscape photographs appear more interesting, you probably need some help with post-processing! While there are many ways to enhance clouds in your photographs, I will show you the quickest method to increase the drama of the scene and make clouds “pop” in Lightroom.

Let’s go through the quick steps of enhancing a photograph with clouds in Lightroom. Here is a “before” RAW image that I imported to Ligthroom:

Before Lightroom Adjustments

As you can see, the image looks pretty flat. A hint of color is there in the clouds and there is some definition, but not enough to make an impact. Now take a look at what I was able to do in Lightroom with just a few clicks:

After Lightroom Adjustments

Now there is much more definition, colors and contrast, making the scene appear more alive. The best part is that it only took me a minute to make these adjustments! All I had to do was drop a graduated filter in Lightroom, then add Contrast, Clarity and Saturation to the clouds. The “Clarity” setting is the key component here – it is what effectively brings out the cloud from the sky and makes them appear separated. As you can see, I also added Clarity to the overall image, so that other parts of the scene (the lake) have some separation as well. Be careful when experimenting with the Clarity setting though – it can create halos around buildings, mountain tops and other objects, so in those situations it might be best to use the Adjustment Brush and mask just the sky with the clouds.

Lastly, switching to the “Standard” or “Landscape” camera profiles can also make a huge difference, as explained in my article on getting accurate Nikon or Canon colors in Lightroom. At times, if the clouds appear overly bright, just reducing exposure by about a stop inside the graduated filter settings can make a huge difference! Here is a screenshot from Lightroom, showing the above changes:

Lightroom Graduated Filter

If you are struggling with making the sky appear more blue, take a look at this tutorial on how to do it. Just be careful about using the blues on the clouds – it might be best to use Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush and apply the effect on the sky alone. You can also see my Landscape Photography Post-Processing Tutorial for more tips on post-processing photos in Lightroom.

And if you want to take it to the next level, I urge you try out Google’s Nik Collection, particularly its “Viveza” software that can be used to selectively add “structure” to clouds, making them appear much more vivid.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Ron
    May 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    Beautiful! Once I was at a museum of fine art in Montreal, some of the paintings were so spectacular that I would find myself staring at the painting in a state of facination. Landscapes with beautiful sky lines have a similar affect on me. Thanks for the tips, I must remember to bring the polarizing filter,… over the years I think I have bought a polarizer for every lens I own, but somehow the filter stays at home when I take off with camera in hand.
    Thanks Nasim, beautiful images!
    Ron

    • May 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      Thank you for your feedback Ron! Glad you enjoyed the article and the photos.

      • 13
        ) Ajit Menon
        May 25, 2014 at 7:43 pm

        I agree 0.9 NDs are more obvious. I sometimes use a 0.9 partially on top of a 0.6 to Tone down the hot are aid the sky a tad bit more. Or vice versa.
        I just feel 0.9s can tend to a bad habit of contrasting a sky too unnaturally against the landscape and you lose some of the subtlety of the light when a .6. :)
        Anyways it’s all a master of taste. :)
        I find the D800 does a nice job previewing the ND contribution and I remember reading a long time ago that one way to see the contribution of an ND was to stop down to f/11 or f/16 and u can see the change better.
        :)
        My only issue with the 0.9 has been that some of my uneven landscapes have been crushed to dark using a .9 and it’s a pain fixing it in post. :)

        But nice post though. It’s nice to have a lot of varying topics on this blog and I enjoy following it.

  2. 2
    ) Amar-Singh HSS
    May 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Magnificent Nasim. Enjoy clouds very much. Appreciate the tips.
    I upload a few of mine to 500px, two of which are linked here:
    http://500px.com/photo/71652121/ipoh-sunrise-by-amar-singh-hss?from=user_library
    http://500px.com/photo/71651937/rainbow-clouds-by-amar-singh-hss?from=user_library
    blessings
    Amar

    • May 25, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Amar, thanks for sharing! The rainbow colored clouds look interesting and surreal.

  3. 4
    ) Richard
    May 25, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Nice Images as always! The clarity slider works very nicely on clouds, and low contrast parts of the image but is ruinous if used on large dark hard edges as it makes very obvious high radius glow halos behind them and further darkens the edges themselves, so on cityscapes or mountain tops it really benefits from careful masking. If overused it has its own signature look that is as obvious as strong auto HDR. An alternative that takes a bit more time but gets good results within photoshop is to use a max radius/low strength unsharp mask filter, and then mask using luminosity layers/channels or manually.
    Thanks for posting!
    Richard

    • May 25, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      Richard, I had a paragraph on being careful when using the Clarity slider and somehow it got lost. I went back and edited the article and added a sentence. Thanks for pointing it out!

  4. Avatar of Rick Keller
    7
    ) Rick Keller
    May 25, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Nasim,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. What an excellent topic – I love clouds! You’ve provided an excellent discussion of both the approach and technique that will surely benefit your beginning photographers out there. And your photos are absolutely lovely! Thank you sharing, and well done. :-)

    Nasim, if I may, I’d like to add a few points to the general approach and technique, one of which bolsters the most important one that you nicely discussed – the weather. I agree, wholeheartedly. As the saying goes, bad weather is the friend of the photographer – at least for landscape photographers, that is. ;-) Having said that, despite the inherent challenges, pitfalls, and disappointments in photographing under bad weather, please “Don’t give up!” As landscape photographers will no doubt relate, if not commiserate, despite seeking out and patiently awaiting ominous weather and cloud cover to materialize, many times your plans to get “The Shot” may be foiled by Mother Nature. My advice: just keep going out. Personally, I’ve returned home empty-handed more times than I care to remember; yet in my stubborn and determined state of mind, I will keep trying until luck and Mother Nature intersect to cooperate to deliver the goods. And if you do the same, your patience and determination will eventually be rewarded. :-)

    Secondly, regarding the timing for capturing clouds at sunset, for the beginners out there, I would point out that “The Show”, so to speak, doesn’t necessarily end once the sun drops below the horizon. Once the sun sets, instead of packing up your gear to head out for dinner, I would highly recommend waiting an extra 10-15 minutes for the “Second Sunset”. Although never a guarantee to materialize, some of the most stunning colors in the sky will make their appearance well after the sun sets. Nasim, in your photos above, it appears that in photo #8 (and perhaps #5, too), those gorgeous colors made their presence after the sun had set. To illustrate, here is a link to a photo that I had taken several months ago. (Unfortunately, I’m not very tech savvy and don’t know how to insert the photo here.)

    http://ilovetheoutdoors.zenfolio.com/p448647963/h18a15128#h18a15128.

    In this sample photo, the colors started to appear 10 minutes after the sun had set but did not reach peak intensity until 15 minutes after sunset. Further, the same color phenomenon can also hold true for sunrise. If you plan accordingly and actually take delight in getting out of bed (or your tent) at 3 am, then if the conditions are right, there is a fair to good chance at recording lovely pink and magenta tones in the sky and clouds 30 minutes before the sun rises.

    Thirdly, to help make the clouds in your composition exert more impact in your scene, I would highly recommend to experiment with the telephoto perspective in order to compress the scene and make the clouds more prominent in dimension and scope than they would otherwise appear in a wider angle of view. The result can be quite dramatic. As an example, I’ve included a link to this photo:

    http://ilovetheoutdoors.zenfolio.com/p448647963/h186de7f0#h186de7f0.

    In this shot, I used a short telephoto (roughly an equivalent angle of view of 71 mm in the 35mm format) to compress the scene and make the clouds (which were actually more distant to the naked eye) appear to swallow the hills and the forest.

    Finally, for those of you out there who shoot film like me, black and white film can make otherwise dull clouds appear powerful and dramatic, in particular with the use of a red 25A filter, which strongly increases contrast and makes the sky turn dark. In fact, combining a polarizer with a 25A filter can make modest cloud cover appear impressively ominous. To illustrate this effect, here is a link to another sample photo in which I made the exposure with a 25A filter:

    http://ilovetheoutdoors.zenfolio.com/p448647963/h275aec93#h275aec93.

    With digital cameras, you can experiment with the B/W and red filters on the camera’s custom filter menus, although it does not look as good as film. Certainly, if you do B/W digital conversions during processing, you have additional options to manipulate the appearance of your clouds, if you so desire. Post-processing is not my thing, but I’m sure Nasim’s links on processing can help you get started. :-)

    Great job, Nasim, and Cheers!

    Rick

    • May 25, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Rick, thank you for sharing and additional insight! Your cloudscapes are beautiful!

  5. 9
    ) Ajit Menon
    May 25, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Regards an ND recommendation, I would lean towards a soft 0.6 nd than .9 if you are starting. If the tonal range is extreme enough for a .9, then I imagine the sky is too bright and any area of the nd going over landscape with a lower tonal range can get “darkened” a bit too much by the 3-stop reduction.
    Of course this depends on the scene and how the user uses the grad nd. I have though had better results with a 0.6 mostly and though a.9 is useful, I find that moment when I would use it to be a bit too harsh to get a pleasing image.
    Just my 2 cents of course. :)

    • May 25, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      Ajit, I used to recommend 0.6 myself, but many beginners find it hard to use it, because it is not easy to see the transition in the viewfinder. 3 stops is fairly obvious, but 2 stops not so, especially for the older folks. Many end up moving the filter all over the place!

  6. 11
    ) Marc Henry
    May 25, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    As always, wonderful to read and very informative. Thank you!
    My question Nasim is related to polarizing filters. It seems when I use them at wide angles, ie 24mm full frame I get banding in the sky. I have been reticent to purchase a large polarizer for 18-35 Nikkor figuring the banding of blue sky would be horrendous. What has been your experience?
    Marc

    • May 25, 2014 at 7:32 pm

      Marc, you are probably referring to posterization that often appears in JPEG images. If that’s the case, then shoot in RAW, then extract images in higher quality to avoid it. Now if you are referring to different tint/shade of blue across the sky, then that’s very normal when using a polarizer on a wide angle lens – either zoom in or remove the filter completely. Going too wide is not recommended with a polarizer, as explained in this article. If using a polarizer with your 18-35mm, I would only use it above 24mm or when I need to reduce reflections, boost colors or reduce haze.

  7. 14
    ) Glen Moffitt
    May 26, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Nasim, as usual an excellent article. Wanted to pass along a tip on a tool (it’s free!) and also support Rick’s message in that patience can be a virtue when shooting sunsets and sunrises. First the tool: The national weather service has a wonderful, information-packed hourly forecast graph for almost any area in the country. Simply google ‘7 day weather ‘, such as ‘7 day weather Kansas City’. Two or three links down you’ll see one from forecast.weather.gov. Click on that link. You will see a detailed forcast at the top, the good stuff is if you scroll down and on the lower left find the Hourly Weather Graph. Click on that. Here’s an example, a good one given the subject is clouds as it show predicted thunderstorms. Some of the best opportunities for shooting dramatic clouds is during transition periods when storms are arriving and leaving.

    http://goo.gl/SOgA2d

    At the top of the graph you can select any 48 hour period to view, this shows dew point (good to know for fog), wind, sky cover, expected thunder and of course rain. Great for planning when storms may be rolling in and out of the chosen area.

    Also wanted to support Rick’s comments regards planning for sunrises and sunsets. The show is just starting at the official sunset and perhaps 1/2 hour before sunrise. Wonderful, subtle colors are possible during those times. So get there early and get set up and plan on staying a little late. See link below, we were at Picture Lake near Mount Baker, Wa. About 6 or 8 photographers showed up for sunset. Most left shortly after. A few of us stuck around and the most beautiful hues developed:

    http://bit.ly/1hqzpTe

    Again, here, same situation in California:

    http://bit.ly/1kELWHf

    Best wishes and keep up the good work!

  8. 15
    ) Keith R. Starkey
    May 26, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Thanks Nasim!

  9. 16
    ) Raghuram
    May 29, 2014 at 12:38 am

    Nasim, wonderful stuff! I am now inspired to go out and shoot some clouds. Thank you for your pain staking efforts to bring this out and all the other articles here on PL. Good luck taking PL forward. It is now permanently bookmarked in my browser.

    As an aside, the inevitable quick question to you and other readers : if I were to start afresh in photography, what would be the best overall “system” to buy into, in 2014? Would it be DSLRs, Fuji or Olympus? Perhaps, this could be a separate article unto itself!

    Cheers.

    • 20
      ) Patrick O'Connor
      June 1, 2014 at 7:05 am

      I’m sure that more knowledgeable individuals will reply but, until then, there is no answer to your question. You need to refine your question with the type of photography you’re interested in, your budget, your level of dedication to photography (helps in determining future budget and other issues), etc. Even then, the best anyone can offer you is general guidance. You really need to do a LOT of research and try out as many systems as possible: in the store, friends’ gear, etc.
      A lot has been said about dSLR vs mirrorless but that transition (to whatever degree it occurs) will take some time so, unless you’re planning to buy a lot of lenses out of the gate, it won’t really matter that much which one (if either) you choose today.

  10. 17
    ) Mikhail
    May 29, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Nasim – great article, as always!

    I would also add (perhaps a very obvious tip) “experiment with direction” – a lot of times you have a subject that demands you to shoot in a certain direction; but when you have some flexibility, I recommend trying different angles. I noticed that more often than not, because of the position of the sun and how the light hits the clouds, they may look very plain and boring looking in one direction – but you turn 90-180 degrees and you have a completely different story.

    Also (and I think some guys mentioned this in their comments) – timing and patience is a biggie – especially during the sunset: the colors change very rapidly, and most expressive and beautiful moments last only minutes!

    ~M

  11. 18
    ) Jim
    May 30, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Nasim, Another great useful post. Thanks. As noted a cloudless sky can be problematic with a polarizer. However, the problems with polarizers and wide angle lenses are greatly reduced if there are clouds in the sky, which can mask the (sometimes) overly dramatic change is tint/shade effects. Another approach to creating better clouds is to use HDR. By increasing the exposure range frequently the “detail” in the clouds is enhanced.

  12. 19
    ) Patrick O'Connor
    June 1, 2014 at 5:27 am

    Articles like this are why I read photographylife. Thanks for doing them and it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you did more, at the expense of the gear articles…
    Regarding your section on GNDs vs HDR, there is a third option: I shoot a bracketed set, just as you would for HDR, then import the photos into PS as layers and use layer masks, starting with a graduated mask and editing as necessary, to blend them together. This exactly duplicates a GND while giving you more control over the transition. The only problem being situations with moving objects that “live” within the transition areas. If it’s a “spot” object, it’s easy to fix in PS; if it’s something like leaves blowing in the wind, pull out the GND.

  13. 21
    ) Jan Veres (Slovakia)
    June 3, 2014 at 5:15 am

    Amazing photos!!
    I love your articles. They´re very helpful for me.
    Thank you!

  14. 22
    ) albert murati
    July 19, 2014 at 6:26 am

    hi Nasim .Could be very interesting and helpful if you ad in your article the way of choosing even the right lens for any purpose.

  15. 23
    ) Vivek
    August 26, 2014 at 5:49 am

    Hi Nasim,

    Your articles have been great guides, always!

    I have a tokina 11-16 that I use on my D90. I know most would not quite like the idea of 11-16 which is awfully wide. My question is, would a grad gnd be a good idea to use on this lens while shooting sunrises/sets at high altitudes (hills/mountains)? Whether here is going to be unpredictable, and I am looking fwd to that…

    Thanks,
    Vivek

  16. 24
    ) Pratick Mondal
    August 28, 2014 at 6:10 am

    Sir,
    First of all thank you for sharing your valuable experience. Whenever, I read your article a new thing I learn rest of the other on the same topic. It’s very nice article. I am new to SLR photography, your articles help me a lot.
    Regards,

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