Good Clouds!

by Zach Schierl
Originally posted as a blog entry on December 2, 2011
Altocumulus clouds fill a deep blue sky above the Whitman memorial obelisk.
The Whitman Memorial sits beneath a layer of altocumulus clouds. The deep blue hue of the sky is the result of using a polarizing filter. Altocumulus clouds typically precede a cold front and are generally indicators of impending bad weather.

NPS - Zach Schierl

Last time on the Photographer's Eye we discussed approaches for taking photographs on overcast days, when things around you might seem gray and lifeless. While such conditions can make photography challenging, oftentimes clouds can actually be the photographer's best long as they aren't taking up the entire sky!

The combination of clouds and a sunny, blue sky can make for fantastic photographs. In fact, cloud formations are one of my favorite things to photograph. They can make an otherwise uninteresting scene worth photographing and are often spectacular in their own right as well. A variety of different high clouds made for some out-of-the-ordinary shots at Whitman Mission this past weekend.

A really useful piece of equipment for photographing clouds is a circular polarizing filter, which we will hereafter refer to as simply a "polarizer" (you can also buy what's called a linear polarizer, but since these don't work on autofocus cameras, which is what everyone has these days, linear polarizers are rarely used today). Starting around $30, a polarizer is a filter that screws onto the end of a DSLR lens (DSLRs are cameras with interchangeable lenses) and is an indispensible tool for every landscape photographer. While some cameras have software algorithms that simulate the use of a polarizer, the impact of this filter is something you just cannot accurately replicate with fancy computer technology or through the use of photo-editing programs.

Wispy horsetail and cirrus clouds fill a blue sky above the trail leading to the top of the hill.
Horsetail and cirrus clouds are some of the highest altitude clouds, found at heights of 30,000-40,000 feet above the ground. They consist mostly of ice crystals.

Zach Schierl

Polarizers utilize the same properties as polarizing sunglasses to cut down on reflections and glare. In doing this, the contrast of your shot will increase, and colors will become brighter and more vibrant. For cloud photography these are both good things, as it means that your sky will be bluer and your clouds will be whiter, which can ultimately lead to a better image. [Note: polarizers for smaller point-and-shoot type cameras without lens threads can be difficult, if not impossible, to find. Your best bet is to buy a polarizer designed to screw into the lens of a DSLR and simply hold it up against your lens while taking a shot. It may sound like a jury-rig out of MacGyver, but trust me it really works wonders!

Another thing you'll want to keep an eye on when shooting clouds is your exposure time. Including large amounts of sky in your shot tends to throw off the exposure meter of the camera, which can lead to overexposed images. It's normally best to decrease your exposure time by a few stops in order to compensate for this. This is something that is easy to do regardless of what type of camera you might have: look for a P, M, or PASM setting, or check your camera's manual for instructions. It'll be worth it. Few things are as frustrating as downloading your images only to find that all of the delicate cloud formations are completely washed out!

Winter time in the northern U.S. is more likely to produce the high, wispy cirrus and altocumulus clouds like you see in these two pictures. While in the summer, unstable warm air tends to produce puffy, white cumulus clouds, and towering, thunderstorm-producing cumulonimbus clouds. So, your opportunities for cloud photography will change throughout the year. For now, keep your eye on the skies and may the clouds be with you!


Want to learn more about exploring Whitman Mission with your camera? Click here for more blog entries from the Photographer's Eye.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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