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?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • Tim Lowe

    I shoot almost exclusively in b/w (120/220 and 4×5). I never leave home without an orange and red filter to enhance the sky.

  • Alan D Granger

    I try not to take landscapes without well defined clouds. High white skies are worse that cloudless blue.

  • Nico

    The sky in Les Gorges du Verdon (France)

  • Chetan

    I have captured the Clouds @ Goa Beach

  • Chetan

    I have captured this @ goa beach

  • Gerard N.

    Red Rock National Conservation Area, Nevada

  • Pauline

    Pretty!

  • Pauline

    Or get up high and amongst them! Blue Mountains National Park, Australia (1000 metres above sea level)

  • Daniel Johnson

    Excellent point! Filters for black and white film photography have also been important, especially for controlling sky contrast. Do you ever scan your large format film for digital processing? What film do you use?

  • Daniel Johnson

    Great shot–I like how you used the clouds to help the composition and almost mirror the mountains below…was it a difficult climb?

  • Daniel Johnson

    In many photos I would say that’s true–pure blue skies are probably better than pure white. Of course it depends on the shot.

  • Tim Lowe

    I do. Having space for a darkroom is a luxury I don’t afford. I process 4×5 in a Yankee tank and 120 in a steel tank and spool. I scan on an Epson only large enough for 120 and then stitch the two halves together in CS. 🙁 I make darkroom prints only for shows in university darkrooms where I have friends teaching.

    I’m currently partial to Ilford Delta and Fuji ACROS Neopan. I have a box of Velvia I’m saving for Either the Andes or the Rockies.

  • Emily

    I’m sorry, farm girl here, and pretty sure that is a windmill, not a weather vane. Some gorgeous skies in these shots!

  • Sarah Christine

    Sunset in Monterey, California

  • Pauline

    Thanks Daniel & thanks for a great article. Actually it was just a few hours hiking to get here, then a bit of a scramble to reach the top!

  • Daniel Johnson

    Stitching the scans is actually a very good idea!

  • Tim Lowe

    It’s a pretty simple and automated operation in Photoshop. Never fails.

    Example: https://www.flickr.com/photos/harebaremi/25649866763/

  • Marc Thibault

    bracketing is good,,for cloud ????

  • Daniel Johnson

    Lightroom can do it too, now, which is a feature I’m glad they added.

  • Daniel Johnson

    I like the low perspective here. I bet those rocks really glow at sunrise or sunset–have you ever tried visiting this spot at those times?

  • Daniel Johnson

    Great use of clouds to add drama!

  • Daniel Johnson

    Bracketing is never a bad idea if you are unsure about the proper exposure. Any time you’re including a lot of sky your meter may underexpose the land, so bracketing can allow you to pick the best exposure later. Keep an eye on the histogram!

  • Marc Thibault

    thank,,yu,,for your information…A_+

  • Gerard N.

    Thanks Daniel. I’ve shot the Milky Way there at night and the rocks sure glows just from the moonlight!

  • Virgilio Rodriguez

    Clouds = Texture… All is about to find a good composition. Thanks for the post

  • https://www.facebook.com/gauravkhurana.in/photos/pb.1499410197008770.-2207520000.1460199064./1544094932540296/?type=3&theater

    this photo is not the best…. as taken from a phone… but following the above things..

    1) going so down to cover the subjects

  • Redhorse89

    Promise of Rain. At a horse pulling contest, sunny skies quickly turned stormy, and it did pour buckets!

  • Daryl Gilbert

    Sunrise on the Space Coast, Florida

  • Daryl Gilbert

    Sunrise on the Space Coast!

  • Dan Cassidy

    Natural Bridges, UT

  • Daniel Johnson

    Adding the person for scale really makes this one work. Great clouds!

  • Daniel Johnson

    Yes, using approaching clouds as a backdrop while the subject is still sunlit can often make for interesting lighting situations, as you demonstrate. Nice!

  • Daniel Johnson

    The silhouettes of the distance figures are, of course, what makes this shot work. Right now the cloud detail is visible, but it’s a little “flat.” I wonder if the image could be made even better by locally adding some contrast to the sky?

  • Tim

    I went out last week for an early morning shoot of this “thing” thinking that the colours would look great against the morning blue-hour sky. When the sun came up and started hitting the clouds I thought the colours looked even better.
    see more at timoss.redbubble.com

  • Daryl Gilbert

    Thanks! I actually didn’t add the SUP’er. I arrived before sunrise to shoot a surfing contest and he was already out on the water. My goal was to time the shot to the surf break. Many folks ask me if i altered the color of the sunrise but it is actually isn’t retouched.

  • Daniel Johnson

    Of course–I meant to say “including” the person.

  • pete guaron

    Years ago, I knew a guy who was often sneered at by others because he wasn’t well off, wasn’t “all that bright”, and wasn’t whatever else they all seemed to think everyone should be, or have, or do.

    One prob – he had the most extraordinary talent for sniffing out photo opportunities with amazingly powerful cloud formations. Practically every shot of his that I ever saw bowled you over – so dramatic, so powerful, so well composed.

    I sometimes despair of humanity. I never did work out why those other guys didn’t just accept him and appreciate his amazing talent.

  • jhdvorsky

    Here is a shot I got this weekend. The Texas bluebonnets are making there last stand of the season.

  • Bruce

    Storm Clouds Leaving

  • Bruce

    Big White And Beautiful

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