The sky is the single most abstract and dynamic canvas that a photographer could ever encounter; for me, it’s an endless source of inspiration. Plus, the sky is ultra-accessible, and photographing clouds is just a lot of fun.
But cloud photography isn’t without its difficulties. Given how bright the sky often appears, it can be tough to nail the exposure. And your camera will often struggle to focus on clouds, especially when the sky is low in contrast.
Fortunately, there are several easy solutions to these problems, which I share in this article – along with a handful of additional tips and techniques to help you photograph clouds like a pro.
So if you’re ready to make use of the gorgeous photo opportunities that exist right above your head, then let’s dive right in!
1. Deliberately overexpose the clouds
Clouds tend to be bright white, which generally causes camera meters to go haywire. Your camera sees the bright white tone, thinks it should look a medium gray, and then dramatically underexposes the clouds in response, resulting in dull, unpleasant-looking photos that lack pop.
So instead of letting your camera do all the work, make sure you’re set up in Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode. Point your camera at the clouds, note your camera’s exposure recommendation, then boost the exposure by one to two stops.
If you’re shooting in Aperture Priority mode, simply dial in positive exposure compensation. If you’re shooting in Manual mode, then you can technically choose whether to increase your ISO, widen your aperture, or lower your shutter speed – but in general, I recommend making adjustments to your shutter speed and nothing else.
2. Seek out areas of contrast to focus
Camera AF systems often struggle to get clouds in focus. On overcast days, for instance, skies tend to be very flat and low contrast; this is an absolute nightmare, and your camera’s autofocus system will spend long seconds hunting for perfect focus (and often failing to find it).
So what do you do? You have a few options.
First, as I mentioned above, the real difficulty with autofocusing in cloud photography is contrast. If you don’t have contrast, your AF system won’t know what to do, which will lead to lots of frustration and out-of-focus photos.
So set your AF mode to AF-S (also known as One-Shot AF); this tells your AF system to find focus and then lock it. And set your AF area mode to its single-point option. You want to be able to carefully target areas of contrast.
Next, take a long look at the sky and see if you can identify any clear contrast. Carefully position your single AF point over the high-contrast edge, then half-press the shutter button to lock focus.
Finally – while keeping the focus locked! – adjust your composition until you get the result you want. When you’re ready, take the shot!
Another approach is to switch your lens over to manual focus, then carefully adjust your lens’s focus ring until the clouds look sharp. This option depends on your ability to focus manually, but if you zoom in on the LCD and you use a narrower aperture for a slight depth-of-field buffer, you can get consistently great results. It’s the slower method of focus, sure, but if your AF system is causing problems, it won’t let you down.
3. Always carry a camera
Clouds are visible everywhere, and they’re constantly changing – which means that you often have great photo opportunities forming right above your head.
So whenever you head out, make sure there’s a camera in your bag, in your car, or around your neck. You don’t want to be driving along, only to see an amazing set of clouds and be unprepared to capture it!
You can technically use any camera and lens combination for cloud photography. But if you want to capture detailed cloud shots, I’d recommend grabbing a DSLR or mirrorless camera (any recent model will be fine, and many older models will also get the job done). I’d also recommend using a telephoto lens, like a 55-200mm kit lens or a 70-200mm f/4 zoom.
The higher-quality camera will ensure that your cloud photos include plenty of beautiful color and detail, while the telephoto lens will let you zoom in and out for a mix of tighter and wider cloud shots.
4. Look for powerful compositions
If you want to capture the best cloud photography, you can’t just notice an interesting cloud, fire off a shot or two, then call it a day. Instead, you must think carefully about the composition. In particular, ask yourself:
- What is it about this cloud scene that I find interesting? How can I highlight it?
- How can I create a frame that feels balanced overall?
- How can I change my framing to add flow?
Composition is a complex topic, but when just starting out, I encourage you to think carefully about what makes the scene feel special. Then do what you can to emphasize those features.
You can also use the rule of thirds, which encourages you to position key elements a third of the way into the frame. While the rule of thirds isn’t really a rule and it’ll occasionally give you bad results, it offers a simple layout to create balance and flow within the scene.
By the way, composition isn’t just about studying theory; it’s also about experimentation! Don’t ever feel hemmed in by composition rules and guidelines. If you notice an interesting composition, then try it and see what you can create.
5. Shoot at sunrise and sunset
It might seem obvious, but if you want cloud photos that are bursting with color, make sure you head out to catch the sunrise and sunset.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, at sunrise and sunset, skies turn red, orange, purple, blue, and everything in between. It’s a great time to photograph abstract, detailed shots with a zoom lens – but it’s also a great time to shoot wider images that capture the entire scene.
Some sunrises and sunsets are more spectacular than others. In my experience, you want a decent number of clouds in the sky, but not too many. I recommend checking the weather forecast in advance, and if the sunrise or sunset times promise partly cloudy conditions, make sure to head out with that camera!
6. Photograph before and after storms
While breathtaking sunrises and sunsets are great, you can also capture amazing cloud shots in other weather.
In particular, stormy skies look amazing and offer up all sorts of cloud photography opportunities. You can create gorgeous shots before the storm begins – when the clouds are still brewing in the distance – and you can also capture amazing shots after the storm has passed through. (Maybe you’ll even get to photograph a stunning rainbow!)
You can even try shooting during the storm, but make sure you stay safe at all times, and also take steps to protect your camera equipment. If you want to capture storm clouds in peak action, consider shooting through the window of your house; that way, you get plenty of photo opportunities, but you don’t have to worry about lightning or rain.
7. Try a long-exposure technique
If you like the idea of cloud photography but want to take that abstract, fine-art look to the next level…
…then long exposures are the way to go. You see, long exposure techniques will create stunning cloud streaks, which look absolutely gorgeous.
Unless you want to shoot at night, you’ll need a neutral density filter (the darker, the better). You’ll also need a sturdy tripod and a remote release to keep your camera steady as you expose each shot.
Here’s how it works:
First, mount your camera on your tripod and select your composition. (Bear in mind that clouds will move, so once you’ve chosen a composition, you’ll need to work quickly.)
Switch your camera to Manual mode. Then dial in a longer shutter speed to capture the cloud movement. Next, set your camera’s lowest ISO; finally, pick your aperture based on exposure considerations. (In other words, choose the aperture value so that you can capture a bright – but not too bright! – image.) Then use a remote release to trigger the shutter.
What shutter speed is ideal? That depends on the speed of the clouds and your focal length, so you’ll need to do some experimentation. However, 20 seconds is a good starting point; I encourage you to take a few shots, check the results on your camera LCD, then adjust the shutter speed accordingly. Eventually, you’ll hit on a speed that works, and you’ll end up with some amazing fine-art cloud photos!
8. Post-process your cloud photography
While it’s always important to nail the exposure, select the composition, and optimize the image quality in-camera, you can also dramatically improve your cloud photos with some careful processing.
I’d recommend using a program like Lightroom, but any basic editing software will do. Once you import a new image, make sure you:
- Crop as needed to improve the composition
- Correct the white balance
- Adjust the contrast for extra pop
- Add saturation or vibrance for more intense colors
And those are just the basics! You can also adjust specific colors using an HSL tool, add interesting hues via a color-grading or split-toning panel, and even dodge and burn with adjustment brushes. At the end of the day, you have to decide how much you actually want to tweak your photos, but a little editing can go a long way.
Cloud photography tips: final words
I love photographing clouds – and I’m guessing you do, too! (If you don’t already, you will soon!) Clouds are amazing subjects, and they offer plenty of breathtaking photo opportunities.
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Spend plenty of time practicing. And appreciate the sky!
Now over to you:
What type of cloud photos do you plan on taking? Do you have any additional tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Ryan Cooper is the founder and president of jitZul.
jitZul is an online resource and company dedicated to helping aspiring artists market and monetize their creative talent so that they can turn their passion into a career.
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