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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
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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