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How many times have you heard, “Oh, what a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky!”? Those are the days my camera and I stay home and watch TV. (My camera likes to watch Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe; he gets to see his cousins.) Being a landscape photographer, I can’t think of anything more boring than a cloudless sky. Clouds add so much interest to almost any scene, that it really isn’t worth venturing out when they aren’t there.
Of course, there are some instances that a cloudless sky works.If you have a lot of visual interest in the subject itself, you may not need any added interest.But for most shots, having clouds in the composition will liven them up beyond belief.
I actually never consciously thought about this—it was just something I did. But I recently bought a new house, and was having some of my work enlarged for the walls, and once they were up, I noticed what prominence clouds played in all the work I had selected.
The clouds may be great white puffy clouds, but even mean, gray menacing clouds add to your work. Which means you shouldn’t be afraid to venture out when the weather takes a nasty turn. Just be prepared with the right accessories to keep your camera and lens nice and dry. If you don’t want to buy something, keep a large heavyweight plastic bag in your kit for just such an occasion. I keep one that fits over my whole camera and the top of my tripod. When it gets too nasty to shoot, it gives me time to get back to the truck.
Now, I live in an area that unfortunately/fortunately does not get much of clouds or rain. But recently, when a storm came through the area and most people headed to the movies, I headed to the beach, and I was able to get this:
Full of drama, full of interesting light.
So big puffy white clouds are good, broken dark gray clouds are good. What about totally overcast days? Well, they might not be great for a big landscape, but take those days to do your detail shots. The full overcast acts like a giant softbox; it softens the light and lessens the shadows. Get your flower shots or your wildlife—shots in which you want great amounts of detail, that may not be as attainable with harsher, mid-day sun.
There are a few precautions to take when shooting a scene with a lot of clouds. In the first instance, where you have a large amount of big white puffy clouds—if the clouds are a large percentage of what your camera’s reflective meter will be reading, you have to remember that those meters are looking for a neutral tone and will tend to underexpose white. So in that instance, you may want to dial in from 1 to 2 stops of positive-exposure compensation to the scene. Otherwise you will end up with big gray clouds that should be white.
On days when you have dark gray storm clouds with the sun breaking through, you have the problem of too much dynamic range—from the bright sunlight to the deep shadows—which that type of scene will produce. This would be a good time to try HDR Imagery (High Dynamic Range Imagery), or you can use a split neutral-density filter to try to tame the dynamic range.
So next time you go out to shoot, embrace the clouds. They are your photographic friends.
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