By Daniel Johnson

Siberian Husky, 7 months old, male, white, lying on a hill with dramatic sky

Many photographers enjoy taking pictures of clouds, and it’s easy to see why. From the vivid patterns and brilliant sunset formations, to the storm clouds and unusual styles, there’s almost always something interesting happening in the sky. While there’s no doubt that clouds can make great subjects in their own right, I feel that they are most useful, photographically speaking when they’re used as backgrounds for other subjects. The proper use of clouds in an image can add texture, dimension, and drama to many photos, while enhancing or serving as an additional storytelling feature for your main subject.

Making clouds work for you in this way usually requires a little bit of planning, some location scouting (always fun!), the right subject, and, course, keeping a sharp eye on the sky for weather that will produce great clouds. Let’s get started!

Clouds = texture

First let’s examine how clouds can turn boring into brilliant. This image below of a Whippet was taken on a hill, on a clear day without any clouds at all. The plain blue background is striking, but the solid color perhaps lacks interest:

Whippet, portrait on hill

Now consider this shot, taken of the same dog back in the same location, but on a day with large summer clouds. The difference is immediately obvious – the clouds add some much-needed texture and drama, elevating this image above the plain blue version (and earned it a spot in an upcoming Whippet calendar).

Whippet, portrait on hill

A good landscape photo can also often benefit from some cloudy texture:

Farm fencing, fields, clouds

Reach for the sky

Finding a way to include clouds behind the subject is one of those photographic puzzles that we have to solve from time to time. Often, the key is to figure out how to raise the subject, or lower yourself. A great way to do this is to utilize a hill. Generally, the bigger the hill, the better, but even tiny knolls and rises can work.

Here’s a shot taken on a large hill, where I was able to get much lower than the horses.

Herd of horses grazing on hill, clouds

The hill blocks out anything distracting, and gives the photo a clean horizon line. But again, if this was just a blank, blue sky, the photo wouldn’t be as interesting, and wouldn’t pack as much of a punch. The clouds provide added texture, and help balance out the top of the photo.

Now here’s a photo where the subject was on just a tiny rise.

DJ-SM-20-159

Getting this shot required a little extra work on my part, as I had to get myself and my camera down close to ground and look up, but it worked. What you can’t see is that there were actually a lot of distracting elements all around the scene, that I was able to remove just by getting down low. A big part of photography is understanding what not to include in the viewfinder.

You can also take advantage of subjects that are already higher than you are.

Person pitching loose hay on haywagon with tractor, clouds in sky

Person pitching loose hay on wagon with tractor, clouds in sky.

Silhouettes optional

Remember, not all subjects against a sky have to be black silhouettes. Because the horses and clouds are being lit with the same light, from the same direction, detail and color remain consistent for both. In the case of the Whippet image, I used a large reflector board to illuminate her body, until her brightness matched the sky and clouds, preventing the Whippet from becoming underexposed.

Storytelling

It’s great to be able to use clouds as a storytelling device. Let’s look at a few examples of this:

Windmill on farm with clouds

I thought the big weathervane was an interesting subject, but the terrific approaching storm clouds were what really made me look twice. The weathervane says “weather,” but the subject combined with some actual weather maybe suggests the question, “What’s going to happen when the storm comes?”

How about this one?

Two cowgirls on hill with dramatic clouds and fencing

Again, even though the clouds aren’t the star, they’re still pulling their weight composition-wise, and add a lot of drama and balance to this shot. The cowgirls and their fence may be the main subject, but the clouds are adding some storytelling, too. It looks like rain, is that good? Do the cowgirls want rain, or not? It’s all up to the viewer to decide.

Girl on farm hill with clouds and stormy skies

Increase depth of field

If you’re using a telephoto lens, or if you’re close to your subject, you may want to stop your lens down a bit to increase your depth of field and keep your cloudy background looking distinct. If you would normally shoot a portrait at f/4 or f/5.6 for instance, try using f/11 or f/16 to help retain cloud detail.

Colorful clouds

One last takeaway, remember that clouds aren’t always white and grey. As with all types of outdoor photography, the golden hours can be your friend. In the case of clouds, a great sunrise or sunset can make the clouds turn red, pink, and orange. Don’t necessarily shoot towards the sun either, look on the opposite side of the sky to find more subtle, but still beautiful, colors.

Moon and clouds

Got a favorite image with a cloudy background?

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