We all tend to take clouds for granted. When it comes to photography we mostly think of them as a bad thing - overcast drab days with blankets of light grey or white skies making you pictures look dull. Yet clouds can make a good picture great: all you need is the right cloud.
Out of the blue
The sort of 'not-a-cloud-in-the-sky' blue sky that might be striking when you're having a picnic or lying on the beach will often make for fairly dull pictures. To really make the sky stand out, you'll need a few puffy white clouds in the frame. A few white clouds will effectively make a blue sky seem bluer. The secret is to notice them, and then take your picture in such a way as to accentuate their effect.
It's surprising how many photographers don't take any notice of the sky. Too many will point the camera directly at the subject - whether it's a landscape, building or person - and treat the sky as purely incidental. The result is a picture with too much foreground and no emphasis elsewhere. If there’s an interesting sky you can accentuate it by placing the subject in the bottom third of the picture and filling the rest of the picture with the sky. You can even exaggerate this by tilting the camera upwards and shooting with a wide-angle lens. If you can, try to compose the picture so as not to break the cloud with the edge of the frame.
Emphasise the clouds
It can also be effective to shoot with a single puffy cloud or wisp in the sky. Sometimes I'll even adjust the entire composition just to emphasise a single cloud. If the clouds are particularly interesting of course, you can photograph them on their own. Using a telephoto lens, crop out a single cloud that has an interesting shape, or fill the frame with an interesting pattern of clouds.
You can make clouds stand out even more using a polarising filter. Under certain conditions, this can make a blue sky much darker, relative to the clouds. Put the filter on the lens and look through the camera. Rotate the filter until you get the desired effect. You should do this before you set the exposure as a polarising filter is quite dark and will affect it. If you're shooting using an automatic mode, this will be done for you.
Don't just look out for puffy white clouds in a blue sky though; sometimes a stormy sky with dark grey or black clouds will result in a much more dramatic and atmospheric shot. If the weather is particularly bad, it can be a great time to go out and take pictures. If you shoot using RAW format and post-process the effect can be emphasised even more.
A great time to photograph clouds can be at sunrise when the clouds will pick up the light and change colours depending on the sunset. If the clouds are particularly dark and heavy they can range in colour from bright orange on the bottoms to dark grey or even black at the top.
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