Landscape Photo Essentials: Tips For Cloud Photography

For me, an otherwise beautiful mountain vista with nothing but a clear blue sky overhead looks like it’s missing something and is certainly much less dramatic. When it comes to landscape photography, clouds add interest to the sky and can really set the mood. Whether they’re soft and fluffy or dark and foreboding, clouds can make or break a landscape photo.

Panoramic cloud filled sky over the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains.

Photographing those big puffy clouds can often times be tricky though. Since the clouds are quite often much, much brighter that the land they’re floating over, it is very easy to either over expose the clouds or under expose the rest of the scene. Here are a few ways to get the most out of the clouds in your photography.

Get the most from the clouds in your photos with these tips:

Expose for the highlights.

When photographing a scene like the one above you want to avoid overexposing the bright white clouds. I find the easiest way to do this is to shoot in Manual mode, with your cameras metering mode set to spot meter. Set your aperture and meter off of the brightest part of the clouds. Then adjust your shutter speed, so the needle of the meter in the viewfinder shows 1 1/2 – 2 stops overexposed (needle towards the right). Recompose the shot and fire away.

You may have to adjust your shutter speed a little one way or the other, but I think you’ll find that somewhere in that 1 1/2 – 2 stops overexposed range will provide you with well exposed clouds and land below.

Exclude the flat and featureless.

Lone fence post in a winter pasture.

Clouds are a great addition to almost any landscape photo, with one exception, those flat and featureless gray overcast kind of clouds that fill the sky yet have no distinguishable shape or structure. While a high overcast sky can be great at providing nice even lighting when photographing things like flowers, those kinds of clouds don’t do anything for a landscape photo, so I include very little or none at all.

Capture the fire early or late in the day.

Fiery sunrise on Mount Washington

Clouds that are big puffy and white, floating over the land in a deep blue sky are quite beautiful, but flaming orange clouds can really add a dramatic element to your photos. For clouds like those in the photo above, you’re going to need to be photographing around sunset or sunrise. Actually, you’re more likely to see clouds like this well before or well after the sun has risen above or dipped below the horizon.

Use a long exposure.

Long exposure clouds from Mt. Washington, NH.

To give your clouds an interesting and mystical look, try a long exposure. As with any long exposure photography, I feel a sturdy tripod is a must, and to get the most from using a long exposure it helps to have some wind, and let me tell you it was pretty windy during the 47-second exposure above. Just like using a long exposure to create the silky look so common in photos of moving water, the same effect works well with windblown clouds.

Make them the star of the show.

A sky full of billowy white clouds drifts over the New Hampshire mountains.

Normally playing the part of supporting actor in a landscape photo, clouds can also be used as the main subject of the image with the land below adding the finishing touch to the photo and not the other way around.

How do you get the most from your cloud photography? Let me know in the comments section below.

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