How to Use Clouds to Enhance and Improve Your Images

How to Use Clouds to Enhance and Improve Your Images

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Many photographers enjoy taking pictures of clouds, and it’s easy to see why. From the vivid patterns and brilliant sunset formations, to the storm clouds and unusual styles, there’s almost always something interesting happening in the sky. While there’s no doubt that clouds can make great subjects in their own right, I feel that they are most useful, photographically speaking when they’re used as backgrounds for other subjects. The proper use of clouds in an image can add texture, dimension, and drama to many photos, while enhancing or serving as an additional storytelling feature for your main subject.

Bill Dickinson

By Bill Dickinson

Making clouds work for you in this way usually requires a little bit of planning, some location scouting (always fun!), the right subject, and, course, keeping a sharp eye on the sky for weather that will produce great clouds. Let’s get started!

Clouds = texture

First let’s examine how clouds can turn boring into brilliant. This image below of a dog was taken on a clear day without any clouds at all. The plain blue background is striking, but the solid color perhaps lacks interest.

Agnes Scholiers

By Agnes Scholiers

Now consider this shot, taken of another dog, but on a day with large summer clouds. The difference is immediately obvious – the clouds add some much-needed texture and drama, elevating this image above the plain blue version.

F/orme Pet Photography

By f/orme Pet Photography

A good landscape photo can also often benefit from some cloudy texture.

Barnyz

By barnyz

Reach for the sky

Finding a way to include clouds behind the subject is one of those photographic puzzles that we have to solve from time to time. Often, the key is to figure out how to raise the subject, or lower yourself. A great way to do this is to utilize a hill. Generally, the bigger the hill, the better, but even tiny knolls and rises can work.

The hill blocks out anything distracting, and gives the photo a clean horizon line. But again, if this was just a blank, blue sky, the photo wouldn’t be as interesting, and wouldn’t pack as much of a punch. The clouds provide added texture, and help balance out the top of the photo.Giuseppe Milo

Dai Williams

By Dai Williams

A big part of photography is understanding what not to include in the viewfinder. You can also take advantage of subjects that are already higher than you are.

Sara

By Sara

Storytelling

It’s great to be able to use clouds as a storytelling device. Let’s look at a few examples of this:

Kelly DeLay

By Kelly DeLay

What do the clouds in the image above tell you? How about this one?

Theaucitron

By theaucitron

Again, even though the clouds aren’t the star, they’re still pulling their weight composition-wise, and add a lot of drama and balance to this shot. What do the clouds tell you about the location of the shot below?

Will_cyclist

By will_cyclist

Increase depth of field

If you’re using a telephoto lens, or if you’re close to your subject, you may want to stop your lens down a bit to increase your depth of field and keep your cloudy background looking distinct. If you would normally shoot a portrait at f/4 or f/5.6 for instance, try using f/11 or f/16 to help retain cloud detail.

Colorful clouds

One last takeaway, remember that clouds aren’t always white and grey. As with all types of outdoor photography, the golden hours can be your friend. In the case of clouds, a great sunrise or sunset can make the clouds turn red, pink, and orange. Don’t necessarily shoot towards the sun either, look on the opposite side of the sky to find more subtle, but still beautiful, colors.

Indigo Skies Photography

By Indigo Skies Photography

Got a favorite image with a cloudy background?

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Daniel Johnson is a professional animal, rural life, and food photographer with Fox Hill Photo, and the author of several animal and photography books. His dog, horse, and rural life images appear regularly in books, magazines, and calendars. For those ready to take the next step in their photography, Dan offers online photography mentoring and critiquing. To learn more or to view Dan’s photography, visit his website.