In the late sixties Joni Mitchell wrote the lyrics:
“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow its cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all”
Joni may not have known about clouds back then, but we should as outdoor photographers today. They are so important to our compositions they can’t be underestimated…and without them our skies have very little interest and almost no depth. Severely clear is a weather forecast most photographers dread, and quite possibly might change some minds about getting their fannies out of bed to go shoot. Watching a weather forecast the night before is a darn good idea even though there’s never a guarantee you’ll have clouds!
If blank blue skies just happen to be what Mother Nature served for breakfast and you reluctantly got your fanny out of bed for it, a good approach might be to minimize the amount of sky (negative space) so it’s not such a distraction by placing the horizon close to top of the frame. Another great idea is to fill the sky with subject matter that’s interesting.
Some weather (wx) forecasting sites on the computer like the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and weather apps for your smart phone have visible and infrared red (IR) satellite video feeds which allow you to see cloud movement in real time or if any clouds actually exist around your location. This technology also helps us predict where they might be in the near future. The IR feed is extremely helpful when there’s no visible light, like at night before a shoot the next day or in the predawn hours before hopping in the car or crawling from a warm bed. My favorite iPhone app that includes an IR feed is My-Cast Weather Radar from Garmin DCI. This wx app is $3.99 worth of pure love and available for Android devices as well.
Scientifically, these atmospheric wonders form when air pockets that hold water vapor, and are warmer than their surroundings, rise (like a balloon) and then cool. Cooling causes the water vapor to condense into droplets and together with the wind form the cloud’s limitless possibilities of shape and form. These yummy little visual treats can be the main dish or the whipped cream that goes on top of your favorite landscape.
The atmosphere is always in a constant state of evolution and clouds go along for the ride, changing shape and position in the sky from one moment in time to another. Waiting for the perfect moment can make or a break the composition and requires patience, experience and lot of luck. One thing to keep in mind however, is the more you’re out there, the less you need to rely on the “luck.”
Clouds not only supply our limitless imagination with countless shapes to enjoy and marvel at, they also provide balance and support for the most breathtaking and dynamic landscapes compositions.
To take full advantage of the beautiful and ever-changing personality of clouds, we should consider a few basic compositional ideas to strengthen the communication.
1. Use the concept (rule) of thirds when arranging or waiting for clouds.
2. Support the landscape characteristics (shape, line, texture, color and or idea) by including similar cloud characteristics.
3. Give clouds a little room to breathe…I know it sounds funny, but be aware of merges with other elements and that includes the edge of the frame.
4. Timing is everything.
One last thought…never forget the polarizing filter (if your camera’s perspective and the heavenly clouds in your view finder are 90 degrees from the sun angle)…
They will sing “hallelujah,” and so will your photographs!