How to add a dynamic look to your outdoor photos by incorporating clouds in your frame

Intermediate

It’s a cloudy day so best leave your camera at home, right? No way!

Forget any notion that clear blue skies are interesting (they are not) and appreciate that if you want your landscape and urban photography to really stand out then what you really want are clouds. Done correctly these floating clumps of water drops or ice crystals can add a dynamic, textured and even colourful dimension to your outdoor compositions.

Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 When to shoot clouds

"...if you want your landscape and urban photography to really stand out then what you really want are clouds."

The best cloud photos tend to be taken on days when there are plenty of cumulus clouds around, which occur on bright sunny days.

You’ll get puffy cumulus clouds drifting behind your subject, which can only enhance the scene. You can also use moments when they physically hide the Sun to photograph a landscape that’s dotted with patches of sunlight.

Big white clouds over the sea
Bright sunny days provide some of the best conditions for cloud photography, when you can encounter them big, fluffy, and cotton candy-like. Photo by Rio Brooks - f/5.6 | 1/640s

Another great time to shoot clouds is close to sunrise or sunset, when the rising or setting Sun can illuminate clouds and turn them various shades of blue, orange and pink.

Birds heading south through the clouds at sunset
Another great time to photograph clouds is during the golden hour (sunrise and sunset) when they are transformed with dreamy hues of blue, orange and pink. "Cloudscape" by Thomas Berge - f/11 | 1/5000s
Equipment tip:

Outdoor photography demands some preparation. After all, you don't want to risk getting your expensive camera getting wet. The best option is to go for a hiking style camera backpack that is both comfortable and offers a lot of protection against the elements. While some high-end camera backpacks are made from fully waterproof materials, these tend to be both expensive and fairly heavy. More common is to find cheaper, lighter camera backpacks that include an elasticated waterproof cover that can be placed over the backpack when it starts to rain. 


2 Get a polarising filter

"A polarising filter will hugely improve the look of clouds by blocking polarized light from hitting your camera’s sensor, thus darkening them and the sky."

A polarising filter will hugely improve the look of clouds by blocking polarized light from hitting your camera’s sensor, thus darkening them and the sky.They tend to be circular. Once it’s on your lens you can gently twist it until it darkens the clouds, but not the landscape below. Note that polarising filters tend to work best when the Sun is either side of you, not behind or in front of you.

You can learn more about polarizers and other camera filters with our dedicated guide here.

Looking at clouds through a polarizer filter
A circular polarizer (pictured from Philip Mowbray) can be applied to the front of your lens and will block out polarized light, making the sky and clouds darker and more contrasted. See the image below...
Cloud formations in the Australian wilderness
The polarizer filter used to capture this shot by Simon Bath has brought out the strong contrasts of the blue sky against the white clouds - f/5.6 | 1/1600s

Another technique to consider is the ‘blurry cloud’ shot. If clouds are fast-moving then a long exposure can blur their movement slightly, thus creating movement in your composition. To do that you’ll need to try a slow shutter speed of at least 10 seconds, so you’ll need a tripod. To prevent your photo being over-exposed you should use ISO 100 and experiment with various small apertures, such as f/22. If you need to use even slower shutter speeds then ND filters will help to further reduce the amount of light.

Long exposure of the old Royal Naval College at Greenwich
Use the long exposure technique to blur clouds and draw them across your frame, but remember to have some foreground interest in your frame too. Photo by Michael Townsend - f/18 | 1 minute 23s exposure

3 Capture a cloudy time-lapse


A timelapse that shows dark clouds building across a landscape can be a very powerful way of capturing nature at its most dynamic. The end result is a short video composed of individual photographs.

That’s no different to all video, which is mostly shot at around 30 frames per second (fps). Since a video of the sky will generally be uninteresting, the concept behind a time-lapse video is essentially to speed-up nature, imaging the sky at intervals and then combining them at 30 fps to produce a dramatic-looking video. Take identical photographs of cloud formations every 15 seconds for an hour and you’ll have 240 shots, which at 30 fps is enough to produce an eight-second video. It helps induce a sense of dread if you have clouds moving towards you rather than drifting across the frame or, worse, rolling away. 

View of sunset through there passing clouds heading inwards towards the Dovercourt Low Light in Essex in August 2020
When the sky is at its most dramatic - like in this stunning shot by Matthew Mallett - f/4.5 | 1/50s - consider doing a time lapse series of images to capture the changing sky. Also, notice how the clouds create beautiful leading lines toward the subject of the image? Read more about leading lines in composition here
Author tip:

To shoot a time-lapse you’ll need a camera with a wide-angle lens on a tripod. Shoot in raw and be sure to have a large memory card in your camera. Once you’re happy with your shot and the clouds look well defined and contrasty in your shot, use an intervalometer (advanced remote shutter release) to automatically take an image every 15 or 30 seconds, depending on how fast the clouds are moving. You can also do it manually using a shutter release cable, but that’s a little laborious. Be careful not to move your tripod during the sequence. After you’ve got all of your shots use software like Chronolapse to combine them into a time-lapse video. Also try Panolapse to add some perspective-correction motion.


4 Clouds and crepuscular rays 


Rays of sunlight that spread out across the sky from the Sun’s position, sunbeams – also called crepuscular rays and sunrays – can often be seen shining through gaps in clouds close to sunset, when the Sun is low in winter from northern latitudes, or in dusty, hazy or moisture-laden atmospheric conditions. From the viewer’s perspective on Earth the parallel beams of particle-scattered sunlight appear to fan outwards, which can lend photos a beautiful symmetrical pattern.

To capture these shafts of sunlight with lots of clarity, spot meter on a shaft of light and use a small aperture of around f/8.

Looking to the Isle of Skye from Applecross at sunset
Capture sunlight breaking through the clouds by spot metering on a shaft of light (spot metering will ensure the exposure is calculated for the ray of light rather than other areas of the frame) and use a small aperture of around f/8 to get the best results. This will mean the shaft of light will be correctly exposed with the rest of the frame darker creating a dramatic effect. Photo by Simon Willis
Author tip:

When shooting the sky consider using bracketing, which will allow you to capture several images each with different camera settings – in this case aperture. Another trick is to use a graduated ND filter (GND), which reduces the amount of light that gets through from top to bottom. A GND essentially allows you to use a different aperture for the landscape and the sky, thus preventing the sky from being overexposed. 


5 Noctilucent clouds


A captivating sight in twilight during the northern hemisphere’s summer, noctilucent or ‘night-shining clouds’ are the highest clouds that occur in our planet’s atmosphere.

"A captivating sight in twilight during the northern hemisphere’s summer, noctilucent or ‘night-shining clouds’ are the highest clouds that occur in our planet’s atmosphere."

Occurring about 50 miles/80 km up in the mesosphere on the edge of space, these ethereal ripples are caused by rising tendrils of water vapour that crystallise in the cold air. Most commonly seen between June and August from mid-northern latitudes after particularly wet periods, they are usually spotted in the northern sky where during summer the Sun is not far below the horizon and still catching these high clouds.

You’ll need a clear sky and a good view to the north to chance upon noctilucent clouds, which tend to appear in twilight about 30 minutes to an hour after sunset. They often take on a bluish or even cyan tone and look like loose, sometimes luminous strands, with a sometimes reddish look along the top where a setting Sun is catching them.

Night shot of the Tyne Bridge and the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides on the river Tyne glowing, with rare Noctilucent clouds in the sky. Taken with a 7.5mm Fisheye lens.
Noctilucent clouds are a captivating sight in the northern hemisphere during the summer and make an excellent photographic subject, as seen with this shot of the Tyne Bridge, Newcastle/ Gateshead with rare noctilucent clouds in the sky. Taken with a 7.5mm Fisheye lens by Alan Chun - 4s exposure
Author tip:

Noctilucent clouds occur in twilight when light levels are rapidly changing. During this period it’s too dark for daytime settings yet too light for night-settings and long exposures, so use something in-between; try ISO 400 and expose for a few seconds, adjusting your aperture until you capture the tendrils against a reasonably dark sky. Post-processing tweaks to contrast and clarity will help you reveal their delicate texture.