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.
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.
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.
A good landscape photo can also often benefit from some cloudy texture.
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.
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.
It’s great to be able to use clouds as a storytelling device. Let’s look at a few examples of this:
What do the clouds in the image above tell you? How about this one?
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?
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.
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.
Got a favorite image with a cloudy background?