The Conversation

The conversation with one of my students always starts something like this:  “Nice clouds don’t you think?”   Yes, we don’t see such nice clouds that often.  “Indeed we don’t, don’t forget to capture them for your cloud database.”   Eh?  Cloud database?   And their surprised expression lets me know they haven’t yet been considering the future.  Or maybe the past.

 

The conversation with one of my students always starts something like this:  “Nice clouds don’t you think?”   Yes, we don’t see such nice clouds that often.  “Indeed we don’t, don’t forget to capture them for your cloud database.”   Eh?  Cloud database?   And their surprised expression lets me know they haven’t yet been considering the future.  Or maybe the past.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/800th   42mm  ISO 100

 

A Cloud Database

We really only get nice heavy rain swollen clouds in the Kingdown for one or maybe two months a year.  The rest of the time we get either nice very barren but blue skies, or the more usual white blown our skies that ruin many a promising image.   Wouldn’t it be nice to have a small database of different cloud horizons and formations native to the area to replace those less than desirable skies?  Most professionals maintain a cloud database just for this reason. 

 

We really only get nice heavy rain swollen clouds in the Kingdown for one or maybe two months a year.  The rest of the time we get either nice very barren but blue skies, or the more usual white blown our skies that ruin many a promising image.   Wouldn’t it be nice to have a small database of different cloud horizons and formations native to the area to replace those less than desirable skies?  Most professionals maintain a cloud database just for this reason.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/320th   38mm  ISO 100

 

Perhaps they’ve been commissioned to provide a somewhat dramatic image of a new office building or home and the time of the year only allows the dismal and very average white blown out skies we’re so used to seeing.  Instead of hiring a rain maker and standing in front of the building for days on end waiting for clouds to form, you simply capture the image of the building as is and then replace the sky in post processing with a selection from your cloud database.

 

Capturing Clouds

Most people tend to overexpose skies in their quest to properly expose their main subject whether it be a personal portrait, a building, or even a mountain.  The sky is sacrificed so the main subject can be properly exposed.  We end up with either  a totally blown out white sky, or if we’re lucky and it’s the right time of day we’ll get lifeless clouds void of significant or dramatic detail.

 

Most people tend to overexpose skies in their quest to properly expose their main subject whether it be a personal portrait, a building, or even a mountain.  The sky is sacrificed so the main subject can be properly exposed.  We end up with either  a totally blown out white sky, or if we’re lucky and it’s the right time of day we’ll get lifeless clouds void of significant or dramatic detail.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/800th   42mm  ISO 100

 

However, if we exposed the exact same scene, but only for the sky, the image would yield a dramatic formation of clouds rich in both drama and detail.  Which cloud formation would you rather have playing background for your main subject?

 

However, if we exposed the exact same scene, but only for the sky, the image would yield a dramatic formation of clouds rich in both drama and detail.  Which cloud formation would you rather have playing background for your main subject?

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/800th   42mm  ISO 100

 

There are several ways of accomplishing a balanced scene between subject and sky so as to expose attractive cloud formations properly.

 

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography

HDR is very common now and my newest toy, the Sony NEX-5 even includes a mode that takes all the work (and fun) out of capturing an HDR image by automating the process.  In essence you’re merely taking 2 or more exposures of the same scene and then combining the tones using a HDR processing program such as the excellent Photomatix such as we’ve demonstrated in past articles such as our first HDR tutorial here   or the sequel tutorial here or the third tutorial here.

Blending

Blending is a bit like HDR except you’re merely laying one image taken at one exposure over another image taken at another exposure, and then using your eraser to remove the parts of the exposure you don’t want in the image.  This is a bit time consuming but there are programs like Photomatix which automate the process considerably.

Neutral Density Filters

You buy these in sets, usually of 1, 2, and 3 stops and then you can combine them as necessary.  These are filters with nothing on the bottom half, and that block the light 1, 2, or 3 stops on the other half.  It takes a bit of practice to use these correctly and learn where to put that transition area in the frame, but a ND filter set is part of every experienced photographers toolbox.

 

Subject and Sky Examples

As you build your cloud database the sky becomes the focus more than the horizon, but you still should capture a part of the horizon which might help you in the future.

 

The image above has a very powerful dramatic cloud formation and the land mass is roughly 2 stops underexposed.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/400th  63mm  ISO 100

 

The image above has a very powerful dramatic cloud formation and the land mass is roughly 2 stops underexposed.

 

In this image you can practically feel the clouds looming from the very end of the horizon to right over the top of you.  Notice the many details in a properly exposed cloud formation?  And also notice the exposure will vary from overexposed in the least dense part of the formation, to underexposed in the most dense part of the formation where the clouds are swollen with rain.  You might want to bracket such skies so when you need a cloud formation from your cloud database you can tailor the look you’re after.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/320th  64mm  ISO 100

 

In this image you can practically feel the clouds looming from the very end of the horizon to right over the top of you.  Notice the many details in a properly exposed cloud formation?  And also notice the exposure will vary from overexposed in the least dense part of the formation, to underexposed in the most dense part of the formation where the clouds are swollen with rain.  You might want to bracket such skies so when you need a cloud formation from your cloud database you can tailor the look you’re after.

 

This image imparts a powerful feeling of a pending storm.  The land mass is roughly 1 stop underexposed.  This image like the ones above were captured without HDR, Blending, or ND filters because my focus was on the clouds themselves so this is where I metered my exposure.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @F8  1/320th  34mm  ISO 100

 

This image imparts a powerful feeling of a pending storm.  The land mass is roughly 1 stop underexposed.  This image like the ones above were captured without HDR, Blending, or ND filters because my focus was on the clouds themselves so this is where I metered my exposure.

 

Conclusion

So far we’ve concentrated on two things. 

Making cloud captures to be used in a composite image at a later time and this takes little time or effort as you’re out in the natural course of enjoying photography.  If you see a nice cloud formation or any unusual sky, capture it for possible future use.  Expose only for the sky to capture maximum cloud detail and dynamic range.

If the sky and the land mass or subject require two different exposures, we have three main tools to bring them into balance either before or after the exposure.  ND filters during exposure, and then HDR and Blending processing for after the exposure.

However, sometimes the weather cooperates and we get a perfect well balanced exposure where the sky and landscape are both ideally exposed.

 

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Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L  @2.8  1/3200th   25mm  ISO 100

 

 

Bonus Section

The above image is a nice example of this cooperation.   Would it interest you to know that this capture was made remotely?  Yes, the camera was on a tripod, pre-framed, and a long USB cable ran from the camera to the Thinkpad laptop I recently reviewed.

As we sat comfortably in the truck with the laptop between myself and my workshop student the rain gently fell as we selected the ideal ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and focus (from the computer we controlled the camera) via a program I’m currently reviewing and will bring to you later.

The tripod had ballast attached and was well protected as were we inside the vehicle and out of the weather.  A bit much if this was just for a single shot.. but ideal if we were learning time lapse, focus bracketing, and exposure bracketing techniques and shooting the same.  We hope to bring you a full review and tutorial of these techniques soon.