Do Clouds Set The Story?

Church on The Palouse
captured by D850 / 24-70f2.8

“Dances with Clouds,” what my good friend Joe McNally called me once. That’s because I turn to the heavens every opportunity I can to get help telling my visual story. Clouds can set the stage, be the background that will make or break your photograph. That is if you take in all the other elements in the frame and incorporate them along with the clouds.

Church on The Palouse
captured by Z7 / Z14-30

Here is my favorite little church out on The Palouse. I visit it at least once every time I’m on The Palouse because it is never the same. When there are no clouds, it is a photographic challenge. When there are clouds, the challenge then becomes what I want to say. Look at these two photographs of the same church shot on two different trips. Do you see the one thing that made me change where I stood and the lens I selected? You might be fooled and think it was the clouds but actually, it was the trees! The trees not only changed lenses and location I shot, but also exposure. I went 24-70f2.8 so I could stand down the hill and put the church up on the rise so the spring green of the trees “hold” the church. I used the Z14-30 and stood closer so the bare trees seem to defend the church. While the clouds made it all come together, without the trees, the clouds wouldn’t have made the photo, visa versa as well. So next time when you have clouds in the viewfinder ask yourself, do clouds set the story?

Simple Click – “The Clouds Caught My Eye”

Nieuport 17
Captured by Z6 / 105f1.4

The skies were gray, the plane is gray so I instantly and quickly thought B&W. A WWI French fighter, the Nieuport 17 on the grass with those clouds quickly caught my eye. I grabbed the Z6 / 105f1.4 (@f1.4), got down slightly and went click. Since I have access to this aircraft, it’s a theme I plan on working on. I think there is a stronger image to be crafted.

“Are Those Clouds Real?”

Mammoth Flats
captured by D500 / 10-24AFS

This question came in not once, but twice over the weekend in response to an Instagram photo I posted. I take that as a great compliment! There is a reason my bud McNally calls me “Dances with Clouds” and that’s because I can’t pass up a good cloud. And that’s where it all starts the challenge for many, determining if it’s a good cloud or not. There are a couple of key elements in my approach to a romantic cloud photograph and that does it have character and will finishing bring out that character? What’s cloud character? In my mind that comes from the shape(s) in and about the cloud that shades of blacks, whites, and grays create (foreground earth is key here as well). The way the light plays on the shape and texture in the cloud is key! To see this I think you need to have a vivid imagination which I have. I’m not talking about seeing a face or critter in the clouds but rather, design elements that move the eye around the frame while touching the heart. Clouds require heart. The challenge in this is seeing what’s actually there and what will come forth in the digital darkroom tying this all up in drama.

Mammoth Flats
captured by D500 / 10-24AFS

What you’re seeing at the top is the finished photo, the bottom what the camera captured. You can see what I saw in both instances, the character I saw in reality and that in which I envisioned. In this photo, the main character is the “formation” that is dead center in the frame with the highlight on the right and the darkness on the left moving the eye through the frame once finished. Now part of this equation is knowing how the image will finish in post. It’s kinda which came first, the pixel or the egg? Working with Luminar, I knew exactly how the Preset I created would make that center formation pop. So those two elements I count on in my cloud photography might be the biggest challenge for your cloud photography that only time and playing in post will make successful. Until you come across that next great cloud, take one you have in your files now and start experimenting with the post processing that makes your passion come alive. Then remember that as you frame up those floating pillows of drama.

All Clouds Are Not Created Equally

B-25s “Betty’s Dream” & “God & Country”
captured by D5 / 70-200f4 AFS

To me, nothing can visually express the magic of flight quite like clouds! We can’t help ourselves but look up and take note of clouds and as they float past us in the heavens, we can’t but think of the vastness of our skies. In bringing life, flight and romance to our aviation photography, nothing does it better nor simpler than clouds in the frame. With that said, being selective when you have the opportunity to include clouds helps refine your story and that romance.

B-25s “Betty’s Dream” & “God & Country”
captured by D5 / 24-70VR

Last week we had a three and a half hour ferry flight with B-25s Texas Flying Legends “Betty’s Dream” and Mid America’s “God & Country.” During that time we experienced everything from bald skies, ground scuz and building cumulous clouds. Each presented varying photographic opportunities from none to buffer filling! Might sound hard to believe but we were selective in our shooting, Brent coming back with 500GB of video and I with 9k stills. That’s because not all clouds are created equally.

B-25s “Betty’s Dream”
captured by D5 / 24-70VR

Here are just four examples of what I’m referring to giving you an idea for your own photography. What am I lookin for? When you have “holes” in the clouds, I love being able to see through those holes back to earth. But the background is still very important and can’t be full of humanity. As the density of clouds build, there are other factors that come into play.

B-25s “Betty’s Dream” & “God & Country”
captured by D5 / 24-70VR

The first thing you might notice in the captions is I change up focal length. Just how much cloud do you want in the frame? Cloud character is really important to me. The examples here are ones with character. Character has to do with shape as well as density, whites and blacks. A solid carpet of white is visually boring and not at all romantic. Blue strip of sky can be distracting. Is there a guide to what works and what doesn’t? If you think about it while shooting and avoid getting swept up in it all, you will see the differences. The issue is that once you go by that perfect cloud, it’s gone! There is no going back as it all changes way too fast. You gotta be looking ahead, thinking it through and then rip when you see the best clouds. So for every cloud shot I like, there are at least a dozen in the series and I’m picking the best back at the computer. That’s a lot going on in an air to air, the background when it includes clouds complicates that in the challenge of making your favorite shot. That’s simply because, not all clouds are created equally!

B-25s “Betty’s Dream”
captured by D5 / 24-70VR

The Clouds Kept On Rolling

click on image to see larger

click on image to see larger

Ok, those chores can wait even longer! We decided to head down the flats, the skies were just getting prettier. My thought was showing a before and after, the same basic landscape of the mountains shot up close with the 18-35AFS at 18mm and then down a few miles and shoot the same thing with the 70-200f4 at 70mm. I made the first stop and I saw the clouds along the Sierra Crest and said, hell with that idea, and raced out to the last stop to shoot a pano. At 70mm with the D5, it was a slam dunk to shoot and with the Panorama feature in ACR, a slam dunk to assemble. A few moments latter, the whole crest had changed, the pano had come and gone. That happens a lot with clouds which is why when you seem, them you gotta shoot them. Cause the clouds kept on rolling.

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