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.

Work The Clouds

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Ever since I first saw the Monocoupe 110 Special a couple of years back, it has been on the top of my list of aircraft to photograph. This individual plane is a very historic aircraft. The badass of the 30’s built by a farmer, it just has the meanest lines. So when photographing it as a static, making the most of those lines is essential both in telling its unique story and being photographically pleasing. At the same time, planes are meant to be in the sky, not sitting on the ground. So that needs to be included in the storytelling as well. Hard for one photograph to do it all. Then there are clouds.

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We started the morning “trapped” in the hangar by a huge thunderstorm. You don’t take such aircraft as this out in the rain. So after the sun had kissed the horizon, we pushed it out and into place. Actually, we pushed out four aircraft his morning for the folks of our AirAdventure to photograph. Being the most esoteric of the planes (two others were a Zero and Corsair), I figured I’d be the only one wanting to photograph the Monocoupe. Wrong! All saw the beauty in its lines as the morning unfolded. With a wet tarmac, a basically clean background wherever you point your lens and light that didn’t suck, the photography was easy. But then if you go with making the uncommon out of the common, the challenge arose.

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The top frame was taken at 05:45 and you can see the skies, pretty bald. The thunderstorm let go all their energy so the clouds dissipated. Once the sun rose though the cycle started over and clouds started to build. Shooting with the D750 / 14-24AFS, the newly formed clouds made for a gorgeous background. But this was still a common shot, no more than taking a knee and shooting up. The second photo was taken at 06:15. Watching the winds, the clouds not only behind the Monocoupe but behind us as well to predict the light, waiting and physically moving was called for. The third photo, the one I wanted was taken at 06:22. If you have a wild imagination you can see an outline of a plane in the clouds. All three photos were taken with the same gear and finished the same way (ACR & Color Efex Pro Contrast + Tonal Contrast + Darken/Lighten) but all three were taken at different angles based on the clouds. So while clouds in themselves make a photo, in order to make the uncommon, you gotta work the clouds!

Abnormal Obsession with Clouds

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Ya, I love clouds! I received an email this morning from a fan watching us on The Grid yesterday who said, “You’re obsessed with clouds.” I’ve been thinking about that comment and I would have to agree, I am. Currently, I’m in Florida getting ready for the premiere of The Film. Flying down here, I shot out the window of our flight that great clouds (what you see here). I shot a lot of them actually, made easy with the Nikon V3. Those who know me can tell you that I often stop in my tracks to look at great clouds. There is something magical about puffies. But I don’t think I’m alone.

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After Photoshop World, we went down to the Venetian and headed to the channels. It’s all inside, not a window on the second floor where the channels are located. But in the curved ceiling they are spent a lot of money to install “clouds” and lighting to communicate sunrise and sunset and mid day light. I sat there and watched hundreds of folks stop, jaw drop and take a photo of the clouds. They would point, smile and click. What is it about clouds that grab our attention, tap our imagination? I bet we could write a book answering that question and still have material leftover. But when you watch folks become entranced to “fake” clouds, you know that when you can, you need to incorporate them into your photography. And while that sounds simple, it’s really not.

Zero Clouds

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Working with others involved in education, great things always come from the colaboration. Today is just such an example. The A6M2 Zero from Texas Flying Legends Museum and AT-6 from Dakota Territory Air Museum went to Grand Fork’s Int’l for their 50yr celebration. Being here, we hitched a ride and in my case, it was in the back of the T-6 and I had my camera in hand. Heading up to 7500′ AGL, we had the clouds to work, again looking for that South Pacific look. With Warren at the stick and “Cruise” flying me, we had an amazing 70min flight stuffed with photography. When we landed, there simple were no words for the experience. mtc

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