Cloudy sky pictures

Distant weak storm front build with Cumulus clouds, photo is monochrome with a dead tree branch dominating the right hand corner of the frame. Cloudy sky pictures for Excitations photo adventures and photography training.

Never take cloudy sky pictures


Words of wisdom delivered over the phone by my photo-agent many years ago, going on to tell me “not even a single puffy white cloud” was acceptable. I’m serious, that was his advice. And to be clear, this gentleman was no fool when it came to marketing photography. At the time he would have been one of Australia’s top agents.

So why offer advice like that? Simple really, he was on the front line of selling to commercial clients. Anything less than perfectly blues skies resulted in a no sale. And, he was largely correct. At the time, a quick look through magazines and brochures would reveal picture after picture of blue sky. The best explanation I’ve heard was that subliminally people associate clouds, with ruining holidays and recreational time.

Dramatic photo of huge thunderstorm glowing orange with the last rays of sun hitting it. Photo by Excitations Photo Adventures, photography training Australia.
Remnants of late afternoon thunderstorm over grazing country.
License this imag

Naturally, I set out to prove him wrong. I shot every dramatic cloud and sunset I could find. And, for years he rejected every image with cloudy skies or the setting sun I submitted to him. Fast forward 25 years and cloudy skies are in.

Light rays against a very dark sky
License this image

Weather, clouds and storms are camera fodder for almost everyone with an imaging device these days. Most shot with phones or tablets, I suspect because they are the recording devices we most often have with us. For the rest of us, we need to ensure we are carrying our cameras always. And Or live on our phones weather apps looking for current or near future events that may provide opportunities.

Are there tricks to taking cloudy sky pictures?

Off course there are little things you can do to make your weather or cloud pictures stand out. Firstly you need to decide what it is you are trying to say with your picture. For me, and I acknowledge you will be different. I always try to decide if the event is strong enough to stand alone. Does this cloud or storm look so dramatic that it is the picture. If the answer is yes, I don’t bother looking for any other compositional elements to add to the scene.

If the answer is no, then there is a mad panic as I search for a foreground element that may add interest, drama or context to the photograph. This part of the act of creating cloudy sky pictures is often the hardest. Of course, you may be lucky enough to have a weather event between you and the element of interest. Think here a mountain range in the background with a raging storm in the middle distance. heaven on earth for a weather photographer.

Storm front at sunset over a dry salt lake, panoramic and dramatic. Photo by Excitations Photo Adventures and training, across regional Australia.
Late evening dry storm over Lake Crosbie, Linga, Victoria, Australia.
License this image

The images above and below are gifts from the pixel gods. A tiny little front appeared and over a period of about an hour just kept on growing. Plus it arrived on set just and the sun was saying goodnight. Had I had time I would have prayed to the little pixel pixies.

As you can see from the top image I felt the cloud formation was strong enough to use a minimalistic approach to the composition. Then as the light started to fade and the drama recede. I ran back and added the trees and grass and reshot. But here is the thing. My favourite image is the top one. However, it has never sold. The lower image has added to my bank account though. Maybe I’m influenced by the excitement of creating the first picture. The second was just a cover my backside shot.

Panoramic photograph of a storm front moving across Lake Crosbie with mallee trees in the foreground. Cloudy sky pictures for Excitations Photo Adventures
Dry thunderstorm crosses Lake Crosbie, North Western Victoria.
License this image.

Now for a technical trick.

Anytime I take cloudy sky pictures, especially around sunset, I always have my little buddy, the histogram available. And instead of using the white histogram I use the red, blue and green version of the display. Why do that? Doesn’t that just add complication? It’s like this if I rely on only the one channel of the histogram, the white one. That just happens to be an average of the three coloured channels. And, remember I’m shooting late so the colours are way out of whack. It is likely I will have two colour channels under control but the third can often be doing its own thing. If two channels out of three are looking good. My white channel (the average of all three) will tell me it is all good shoot, shoot, shoot. But it’s not all good, because one channel is not playing nice.

The event is too big to fit in

That happens a lot. The quickest way out is shoot a stitched panorama. When doing this there are a few tricks to help. Mount your camera on a tripod if possible. Work out your exposure for the brightest part of the scene and set that exposure on your camera in manual mode. Focus carefully and then disable auto-focus.

I usually shoot about twelve or more vertical images overlapping each frame by at least 30% often more. Then shoot your sequence as quickly as you can. Because your clouds are continually changing, much more quickly than you imagine. But the most important thing you can do in a stitched pano. Make certain that you don’t impart camera movement while hurrying to complete the sequence. One blurred frame anywhere in your set of images means a ruined panorama.