Well-defined, interesting cloud formations can turn otherwise run-of-the-mill photos into special pictures, so it’s worth the effort to seek them out. You may even wish to make the clouds the main focus of the shot.



Clouds can add interest to pictures without necessarily being the main subject.

Meteorologists identify many types of clouds, from the common blue-skies cumulus (shown in the illustration on this page) and towering cumulonimbus clouds that presage a storm to wispy, high-altitude cirrus and cirrocumulus clouds. As a photographic subject, clouds present an infinity of variety. They come in different shapes and sizes and can hide the sun or reflect its light. They may also cover part or all of the sky.

Unfortunately, clouds can be quite difficult to photograph. It’s often difficult to gauge the correct exposure because cloudy skies can contain a very wide brightness range. Consequently, clouds are difficult to meter, and you must rely on judging exposure levels by looking at the brightness histogram provided by your camera. (Find out more about using histograms in our Insider feature on page ??)


Some clouds can contain a very wide brightness range, making it difficult to determine the best exposure setting.

Unless your camera has a large, high-resolution LCD monitor that is colour-accurate, the preview display in Live View mode can’t be relied upon to judge exposure. At best it will show whether an exposure is grossly off-the-mark. In many situations you’ll need to bracket exposures or take a couple of shots to get the result you want – and some post-capture adjustments are usually required.

No special techniques are required to take good cloud pictures. However, there are a number of decisions you must take to achieve the results you want.

1. Composition: The first decision concerns the composition of the shot; specifically what will be included and what will be left out. In other words, what is the main subject of the picture. When the clouds are the main subject they typically occupy at least 75% of the frame. Anything less than about 50% makes the clouds an incidental item in a larger subject.

Cumulus clouds are best photographed from a distance, which shows their structure by making their bases appear darker than the top and sides, thus highlighting their lighter, convective (puffy) nature. Flat clouds like altocumulus and cirriform (cirrus, cirrostratus and cirrocumulus) clouds show their structure better when you look up from below.

Sometimes the subject will dictate whether you should shoot in portrait or landscape orientation, although in many situations that decision is a matter of your own taste. Take both shots and decide when you have time to assess them. The same advice applies when choosing which focal length to use; if in doubt, take a couple of shots with varying camera settings.


The same subject photographed with different lens focal lengths and camera orientations. The landscape format shot was captured with a 24mm lens while the portrait format shot was taken with a 45mm lens.

Cloud reflections can produce interesting pictures, particularly in still conditions and with low light angles. Still waters in lakes and larger rivers provide ideal conditions for these shots.


This shot was taken on the Frankland River in south-western Western Australia roughly 20 minutes after sunrise. The still conditions ensured the morning mist remained on the river and reflections could be clearly seen.

2. Time of Day: Although you can photograph clouds at almost any time of day, harsh midday light on sunny days can make metering more difficult. You may also be confronted with a subject brightness range well in excess of the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor.

The ‘magic hours’ centred around sunrise and sunset usually deliver the most satisfying results. Be prepared to start taking photos before the sun actually rises and stick around after it has set because these times often yield the most dramatic colours.


Sunsets and sunrises can provide dramatic colours and exposures are usually easier to judge because the subject brightness range is much lower than when the sun is high in the sky.

Take advantage of backlighting. Dramatic shots are possible when the sun is hidden behind a cloud – or any other object that prevents its light from directly entering the camera’s lens.


Backlit situations where you block the direct light from the sun by shooting from behind a solid object can produce some dramatic results.

3. Weather: Be alert for potentially interesting weather events. Check the Bureau of Meteorology’s website (www.bom.gov.au) to find out when changes are likely to sweep in and watch for storm warnings so you can be in the right place to take advantage of the photo opportunities they present.


The approach of a storm front can provide great opportunities for dramatic shots of cloud patterns – and even rainbows.


Another shot of a storm front, this time taken from the Kangaroo Island ferry at 6:12 pm on December 7, when Adelaide was enduring severe storms. Exposure compensation of +1.0 EV was required to obtain the desired brightness levels.

Many photographers become storm watchers, seeking to record dramatic shots of lightning. But plenty of other weather events are easier to photograph. Look for unusual types of lighting, such as low-level clouds, sea mist, light scattering (which produces shafts of light through clouds) and diffraction phenomena that produce iridescence and rainbows of colour when the sunlight comes from particular directions.


Sea mist can create dramatic patterns as it flows across the landscape.

4. Filters: Many photographers use polarising or graduated neutral density (ND) filters to ‘bring out’ clouds in shots. However, care should be exercised when fitting any filter to your lens.

For starters, you’re adding an extra layer of glass for the light to pass through – and it may not match the optical quality of your lens. Filters can also collect dust and grime, so there’s the extra effort of keeping them clean.

However, the worst problem is that they may not produce the result you want and may even make your photo look less appealing. It is easy to overexpose the cloud and/or underexpose the sky when you fit a polariser – and both will produce an unnatural balance of saturation and contrast.

The sky around clouds is always polarised to some degree; most at right angles to the sun, and least near the sun or opposite the sun. And the clearer the sky, the greater the degree to which this polarisation will affect your pictures.

The aim of using a polariser is to partially block out the polarised light from the blue sky, to increase contrast. You must adjust its angle carefully, however, since clouds are already much brighter than the blue sky, unless it is very hazy or dusty.


Fitting a polariser has emphasised the clouds in this shot but the end result is an unnaturally dark sky due. This is partially due to the clear alpine conditions but also because the polariser was set for maximum polarisation, which was much more than the conditions required.

Graduated ND filters are easier to control but tend to split the field of view in half – which may not suit your composition. The main reason for using a graduated ND filter is to control the exposure difference between the sky and the foreground. As they affect the overall brightness of the scene, you should use manual metering to gauge exposures.

You can choose from three strengths that give one, two or three f-stops of darkening. Start by determining the strength of filter you’ll need by taking a meter reading without the filter in place and with the ground filling the whole of the frame.

Then take a second reading with the sky filling the frame. The difference between these two readings will indicate the strength of graduated filter that you need. Once you’ve decided the strength of the filter you need, use the meter reading you took from the foreground to take your shot.


Two shots showing the effect of a two-stop graduated ND filter on the lower image.

All graduated filters need careful positioning for optimal results and are best used when the camera is tripod-mounted. If your camera supports depth-of-field previewing, use it to set the position of the filter.

5. Other Considerations: Most camera settings can be adjusted as you would for other subjects. However, where possible use small lens apertures to maximise depth of field, balancing the ambient lighting with the aperture setting. When shooting with an unstabilised camera and lens, use a tripod for shutter speeds slower than about 1/60 second.

Where possible, avoid sensitivity settings above ISO 400 (ISO 100 for small-sensor digicams). The less image noise in the shot, the larger you can print and display it. Never point your camera directly at the sun; the intensity of direct sunlight can damage the sensor – and your eye when you look through the viewfinder.

Take plenty of shots; clouds are ephemeral and constantly changing. Memory is cheap, so click and capture the moment. Make sure you start with enough memory to store all the pictures you’re likely to take.

This is an article from Photo Review Magazine Mar-May 2011 Issue 47.

Subscribe to Photo Review:
Quarterly Print Edition and PDF/eMag
Monthly Mag App

eBook: Landscape Photography by Margaret Brown only $9.99
Filled with trusted tips and advice on how to improve your landscape photography.