Look To The Clouds

Soaring Spirit

Soaring Spirit - Copyright Peter West Carey

I’ve been on a cloud kick.  I’m not sure why, but as of late I find myself looking up more, remembering what it’s like to be a kid searching for mystery in the sky.  Living in Western Washington State, clouds are often taken for granted and most of the time uneventful.  However, when I get a chance to travel I’m almost always inspired by the clouds above.  It’s on the road that I’ve found some of the best chances for cloud photos.

The thing I like about cloud photography is the pure chance of it all, as well as the power clouds can add to an image.  Chance means I look up often in the course of the day.  Sometimes wistfully, sometimes hunting for a shot.  And sometimes the shot is there and I don’t realize it until later.  Take the photo at left for instance.  It was shot on a pleasant Spring morning in Arches National Park on the Devil’s Garden Trail.  This trail weaves through some of the most beautiful and rugged country Utah has to offer.  A place where, depending on the time of day, photographic opportunities will make your head spin.

At the time I had a wide angle lens on the camera, having lent my zoom to my wife who was also shooting.  I noticed the cloud above Dark Tower and thought it added something nice to the frame dominated by a lot of sky.  What would have been a bland shot, was made slightly more interesting by the addition of a cloud.  Snapping the shot, I thought nothing of it until I got home and reviewed the photos on a PC.  It was then I saw, as you may have, the form of a a soaring bird in the shape of the clouds.  And it was then that my interest in clouds jumped about 300%.

What I’ve learned in the years since that trip to Utah can be distilled into a few simple suggestions.

Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue - Copyright Peter West Carey

First, look up.  I know, this seems to tediously overstate the issue, but how often in the course of your day do you stop and look to the sky?  Most of us don’t unless a jet or helicopter passes by.  It’s a good habit to get into.  Once established in your daily routine, you’ll start to see more and more in the clouds.  Shapes, patterns, lines, textures, colors.  And then it becomes second nature to find those elements of design in the clouds above.

Next, grab a polarizing filter.  While not vital, a polarizing filter will help in adding a dramatic feel to your cloud photographs.  Polarizing filters work by blocking out light reflected at certain angles to the light source (in this case, the sun).  Particles in the atmosphere, such as dust and smog, can cause a haze that is easily diminished with the proper use of the filter.  This allows clouds to stand out more clearly against a blue sky background.  The filters work best when aimed approximately 90 degree away from the light source, making them ideal for work shot during the ‘golden hours’ when the sun is low to the horizon.  This doesn’t mean they can’t be employed in the middle of the day, but the effect will be less dramatic.

Third, leave some ground in the shot.  My two examples here let the sky dominate the photo, but literally use the Earth as a ground for the sky.  Foreground objects will give the sky some relevance and scale.  While not vital (all rules are meant to be broken after all!) adding something else in the frame can help show just how vast the sky and clouds are in your field of view.

Lastly, go as wide as you like.  Most of the time I’m out shooting, my wide zoom stays in the bag.  I’m not sure why, but I’m not always inspired to bring it out.  Until I look up.  Then I realize the vastness of what’s to be captured and 28mm just isn’t going to handle it.  I prefer wide angle shots of clouds because there is almost always something I miss when zeroed in on one particular cloud.  That’s not to say a telephoto zoom isn’t handy, it can be very useful for cloud photos.  However, I think a wide lens brings out the best in cloud photography.

The next time you’re outside with your camera, take a moment to stop and check out the clouds.  Look for patterns and shapes, both familiar and unfamiliar.  Then take a couple shots for the fun of it.  I must warn you, though, cloud photography can become very addicting!

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Panama, Alaska, Seattle and Los Angeles. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • david hoogland August 21, 2009 03:07 pm

    Love the article. I just started photography and I'm already hooked on clouds! I'm 31 now and I never really looked at the clouds, but now with my 450d I just look at them all the time. I sometimes even feel a bit nerdy when I talk about the clouds, but I just can't believe I never really looked at them until now. So it's very true what you said. Once you get used to looking up for some nice shots you get addicted to it very very easily! =)

  • Murray Schwartz August 2, 2009 12:38 am

    Good morning. I have been to Arches National Park gorgeous.
    I live in a condo on a lake facing east & take a multitude of stormy clouds in the AM about 6: to 7 AM Getting better as I practice Love them.
    Murray Tamarac Fla. artmajor3 @ Yahoo

  • Rajev August 1, 2009 02:42 am

    Clouds are my best friends. I adore them, spend hours wathching them and even talk to them. I love the sky and ev erything in it, birds, huge bats that silhouette the evening sky, the rainbows, the lightning, the myriad hues of different colours the sky wears every morning and evening, which change every minute. I can go on and on and on..................... Camera or no camera, I never miss enjoying every sight my eyes can drink in.

  • Sandip Niroula July 31, 2009 02:48 pm

    Hmmm thanks Peter..its an awsm tips.

  • William Leong July 31, 2009 11:26 am

    Clouds are fascinating...

    Using the ground to give a sense of perspective really makes you appreciate Mother Nature more as shown in pic below


  • Michael Rosa July 31, 2009 09:23 am

    On Mothers day we took Mom to a waterfront restaurant to watch a sunset. Our Service Dog Abby always comes with us. Here's what we saw at sunset. I put a profile of Abby up for comparison.


  • Anne-Marie Ladegaard July 31, 2009 08:21 am

    Thank you for that great information, Peter. Very useful! I just love looking at clouds and the various formations. Ever since I have had my Sony A200 DSLR, I look at my environment in a very different light, and looking UP is something I do all the time now!! :)

  • Tom Poynton July 31, 2009 07:02 am

    My recent cloud pictures:


  • alex July 31, 2009 06:24 am

    Speaking about clouds photography I want you to take a visit at
    my gallery at the famous enchantedceiling.com - the website which is dedicated to clouds, sky and everything above us.

  • Nate July 31, 2009 04:41 am

    I love shooting clouds... catching different light patterns, etc. Great article

  • Highlander69 July 31, 2009 03:51 am

    Finally got Flickr-ed... here is a blatant example pic of the faces you might see!


  • Akshat Gait July 31, 2009 03:31 am

    I for one am a total lover of clouds and always tend to look at the sky when shooting landscapes. Have a few nice shots on my photoblog ( http://akshatgait.com) . All I lack is the filter, which is soon going to find my way in my camera bag.

  • Highlander69 July 31, 2009 03:15 am

    Great article Peter.
    If this were an AA type meeting, I would be standing up saying my name & telling you that "I am a cloud junkie" !!
    I love clouds, what's great is the things you find after making the shot but didn't see when you took it.
    Try shooting storm clouds & look very carefully for patterns & shapes. Almost every shot I get, I can find faces of some type, some drastically clear others not. Sometimes they are scary or mean looking sometimes they are animals like a lion, depending on the severity of the storm. It might take a little imagination or a Photoshop tweak to bring it out a little clearer but very seldom do I not find something interesting.

  • Verneitta July 31, 2009 02:49 am

    Beautiful pictures. I also love clouds, I walk around looking up at the sky all of the time. I'm a beginning photograher. When I get better, I'll be able to take awesome shots of clouds.

  • Teresa July 31, 2009 02:45 am

    In having had to travel everyday for weeks at a time, I couldn't help but fall in love with clouds. Flying above them, through them, etc, is like nothing else in the world. I have captured some incredible photos through my travels...unfortunately, they were back in the day of film and sit waiting for scanning. :(

    Question for you: I need tips on best capturing those awesome chance moments when we see the actual sun's rays through the clouds. I know a filter is recommended but seems polarizing would knock out that detail. ??

  • Finola Prescott July 31, 2009 02:36 am

    The clouds and I are constant friends - there's a never ending magic to me in the sky. I may not have a great camera at the moment but I still can't help snapping the drama of the Caribbean sky.

  • Sue T July 31, 2009 02:13 am

    We all love clouds...this year it's been really great for clouds

  • Gary July 31, 2009 01:28 am


    My two cents- never short of a cloud in Ireland! :)

  • jus'learnin July 30, 2009 10:07 pm

    I took your advice, thanks...


  • Coach B July 30, 2009 05:11 am

    Very nice article, Peter. I feel like, at 50, I'm discovering clouds for the first time. I'm constantly photographing them now - looking for various formations. I'm extremely taken by the thick, bright-white ones against a deep blue sky - wow! Needless to say, when I saw this article - I just spoke outloud "yes, yes, yes - this is it". Thanks!

  • Evangelio Gonzalez July 30, 2009 01:08 am

    Great article, I would like to; know what kind of wide angle lens he uses.

  • Praveen July 29, 2009 02:46 pm

    Good i thought i was the only one who has similar interest, check some of the shots which i have taken over a period of time.....


  • MeiTeng July 29, 2009 02:06 pm

    I love cloudwatching. Sometimes, you can spot funny looking cloud shapes in the skies.

  • PotatoEYE July 29, 2009 11:51 am

    Clouds have been my inspiration for a while, though I took it on a completely different level, check out my set on Flickr


    A little tease

  • OzShadow July 29, 2009 09:43 am

    Clouds in a photo can make all the difference

    Here's a few HDR shots of mine that illustrates the point :)


  • Maureen July 29, 2009 07:47 am

    I am fortunate to live in the country, as in, outside the city. I think that's why I have become obsessed with the sky of late. It simply seems so big here. We have had the most wonderful July weather here in the mid-west, deep blue skys with big white puffy clouds. I long for a wide angle lens to capture it and do it justice. Until then, I will try some of your suggestions. Thanks for the post.

  • Joel July 29, 2009 06:57 am

    Great post, Peter. I'm definitely going to get that ultra wide angle now. :-)

  • ken klassy July 29, 2009 05:53 am


    Clouds are going to be the center of attention over the next month or two here in Antarctica. This time of season the Nacreous clouds form and produce a brilliant show.

    This set is from 2008.

  • krill July 29, 2009 05:38 am

    I caught a shot purely by accident the other day as I led down in a field which I was really happy with. Have to love those pure chance photos nature offers you. Using a bit of dodge and burn in photoshop can really help pop the clouds out a bit aswell


  • Patricia Reiser July 29, 2009 05:22 am

    I have always loved capturing the clouds. Especially at sunrise and sunset times when the clouds take on different hues. Amazing to watch.



  • Danferno July 29, 2009 02:55 am

    Make sure there aren't any pits in front of you when looking up.

  • Matthew Hartman July 29, 2009 02:52 am

    Peter, we Meteorologists / storm chasers obviously take photography of clouds very seriously! I almost exclusively photograph the sky, myself... Most of which is in my Photo Gallery.

    Photography and Nature belong together!

    Good luck...
    - MH

  • Rob July 29, 2009 02:37 am

    Nice post. I'm also a great lover of the clouds. Living in Utah, I'm quite spoiled. We had a particularly nice spring for clouds.

  • kimrose July 29, 2009 02:15 am

    I'm a bit obsessed with clouds too :P I'm always looking up!

  • Robin Ryan July 29, 2009 01:27 am

    Very good suggestions on an interesting topic. The suggestion to use a polarizer is a good point that many now forget in the digital age. The only rule I'd break is that if you are shooting a dramatic shot/silhouette of a bird, forget the ground - the bird is sufficient context. example of this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/1282131831/in/set-72157603329594706/

    Also, keep clouds in mind when shooting scenes with water (lakes, ocean, rivers, etc.) because clouds will add interest to an otherwise flat colour as well as provide more symmetry to your shot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2732669452/in/set-72157603329594706/

    If using Lightroom and you want to boost the attention given to your clouds, bump up the clarity a bit:

    Good article, Peter.

  • Dave Kozlowski July 29, 2009 01:23 am

    Living in Texas, I'm intrigued by our cloud formations, and weather events. Having shot quite a bit of hyper-realistic photos, I'm attracted to the contrast that clouds can bring to the composition.

    I shoot alot of clouds!

    Check out my cloud/weather photos: Dallas Photoworks

  • Ilan July 29, 2009 12:53 am

    Clouds are natures free bonus to photo.
    They add another layer, change the light in the photo, and many times, clouds can change the whole feel and mood of the photo - Dark clouds are "drama", light fluffy clouds adds the the "great day" feeling.

    Love your examples and the post, thank you!


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