How to Photograph Clouds

Dramatic black and white image of clouds against a near black skyCanon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm lens @ 58mm, Exposure Details: 1/250 second @ f8 ISO 100.

Don't you just love clouds: cirrus, lenticular and the wonderful cumulus. I particularly like the abstract qualities and graphic nature of this photo. It presents a view that's almost as much like a reflection as it is about the sky and clouds. Perhaps it's the sense of mystery that illusion creates that interests me the most.

My good friend, Joseph San Laureano, with whom I traveled to Iceland and Greenland during 2011, helped educate me about the different varieties of cloud. To be able to identify one cloud from another and to understand the nature of a particular cloud is interesting and does add to our understanding of the nature of the subject we're photographing. What's more, after recording the image onto our camera's sensor, there's lots of fun things we can explore on the desktop to enhance the photo's communicative powers.

How do you Make a Blue Sky Black

Let's consider the relative brightness (luminosity) of a blue sky in relation to white clouds. If you've accurately recorded the brightness of a light blue sky it will appear light grey in a black and white image. Likewise if the sky is mid blue it will render as mid grey (gray) in a black and white rendering.

Most black and white films are described as panchromatic meaning they are equally sensitive to all colors. In reality panchromatic film tends to be particularly sensitive to blue light which means blue subjects photograph lighter than expected. So don't be surprised if skies photograph lighter than you anticipate when you're out and about (selectively) snapping with your film camera.

Given that most folks perceive the world in color, a black and white rendering is just one example that traditional film-based photography is in no way an accurate rendition of reality, at least as we perceive it. The skewed rendering of black and white panchromatic film further challenges our perception.

Back in the days of black and white film-based photography (or today for those in the extreme minority - LOL) you could attach an orange filter to the front of your lens to significantly darken anything that was blue in color. And that's as true for water, clothing and Bolian hairdressers (as on the Starship Enterprise) as it is for a blue sky.

As a consequence of changing the brightness a particular color, when rendered into black and white, color fitlers also altered contrast within the black and white image. Replacing the orange filter with a deep red colored filter produced an even more dramatic result, furter darkening blues and lighening reds and greens. Even on a bright sunny day you'd likely achieve a near black sky on a black and photo made with a red filter in front of the lens. So much for the notion of truth in photography, at least when the word truth is mistakenly used to indicate fact.

What's great about orange and red filters (in black and white film photography) is that by significantly darkening a blue sky clouds stand out and appear more 3-dimensional (i.e. fluffy) than they otherwise would. Polarizing filters can have a similar effect, albeit usually less dramatic, on clouds pictured against a blue sky in color photography.

A Word or Two on Shutter Speed

To freeze the clouds you'll likely need a relatively fast shutter speed. Probably 1/250 second or faster as the less dense clouds can scoot across the sky pretty quickly.

But I Don't Use a Film Camera

No worries as polarizing filters work just the same with DSLR cameras. But the days of yellow, orange, red, green and blue filters are now behind us. Photo processing programs like Adobe Lightroom make it really easy to both render an original color file into black and white, and back again should you change your mind, and then to change the brightness of any color within the frame with much more control than was the case with color filters on a film-based camera.

Just another example of how so much of what was old is now new again.

The above cloudscape was made in Vienna, Austria in homage to my good friend, Dr. Joseph San Laureano.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru