Why Clouds Matter to a Landscape Photographer

Near Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England © Charlie Wait
Near Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England © Charlie Wait

Why Clouds Matter to a Landscape Photographer

Charlie Waite, world-renowned landscape photographer and CAS Member 39,333, tells us why the sky is one of the most important things to consider when creating a successful landscape photograph.

Any landscape photographer who takes their photography seriously has to consider the sky. If the sky seems to be lacking in interest and appears to have little character then it may be better to wait until it does or possibly leave the sky out of the image altogether. The sky should be in keeping with the photographer’s objective and should be integral to the overall composition. It is a mistake to simply accept the prevailing sky as it is found; no painter would, so why would a landscape photographer?

I have often found that it is of benefit to establish the wind direction before setting up the tripod and beginning the whole business of making an image. There have been many an occasion when the sky on offer is dull and having no relationship with the land beneath and yet a glance over my shoulder reveals that in perhaps in as little as thirty minutes, there will be ravishing sky on offer; waiting is often the key and if you are serious, it matters not how long you have to wait.

Valfin-Lès-Saint-Claude, France © Charlie Waite
Valfin-Lès-Saint-Claude, France © Charlie Waite
Loch Indaal, Scotland © Charlie Waite
Loch Indaal, Scotland © Charlie Waite

How is a ‘good sky’ defined? Puffy white continents of cumulus clouds, or the high cirrus that I particularly favour. One thing is sure, the sky will never be the same twice unless it is monotonous blue – as uninteresting, at least to landscape photographers, as a low pressure ‘grey duvet’ sky.Many years ago, I remember finding some cylindrical bales, which then were still an unusual sight. They had taken over from the rectangular blocks that one rarely sees these days. I had seen a collection of building cumulous cloud across to the west, which was uncannily similar in shape to the bales in front of me. Within fifteen minutes and barely changing shape, they had miraculously arrived and placed themselves directly above the bales echoing them so precisely that I could have wept with joy.

If clouds are your thing (and as you are reading this, I expect they are) then perhaps the following thoughts on making the most of clouds in a landscape photograph will be of interest.

1. The polarising filter is mandatory for pronouncing clouds against a background sky but have a look through the filter first to see the effect that it may have on the sky prior to fitting it to the camera. Depending on the angle of reflection, the polararising filter removes some ‘white light reflection’ from surfaces and is not advised if the sky is plain blue with no clouds, as the blue sky may appear too violet or indigo. People who like to fish may often use polarising sunglasses as they remove reflection from the surface of the water. Reflections of sky and clouds should always be darker than the sky itself.

2. If the sky appears too bright, consider acquiring a neutral density graduated filter, which will reduce exposure in the sky area. They can be used in conjunction with a polarizer. Beware using a graduated filter in a mountain scene as the peaks of the mountains may receive underexposure and this will be noticeable.

3. Remember clouds have characters. See them as living things and think carefully about where you crop them in your frame and if clouds are reflected in water, try and include them in their entirety.

4. Have a look at the landscape beneath and see if there is a possibility of a link between the shape of the clouds and the land beneath. A beach is good for this where you may find some patterns presented in the sand by a retreating tide and possibly cirrus cloud making a good relationship between the above and the below.

5. Always look up to see what the clouds are doing so that you can make decisions as to what clouds you would like to include in your photograph.

Lammermuir, The Borders, Scotland © Charlie Waite
Lammermuir, The Borders, Scotland © Charlie Waite

Charlie Waite is one of the most celebrated English landscape photographers. He is the owner and founder of Light and Land, Europe’s leading photographic workshop and tour company and has launched two photography competitions: UK Landscape Photographer of the Year (now in its ninth year) and American Photographer of the Year (in its second year). In 2014 Charlie was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society.

www.charliewaite.com
https://www.facebook.com/Charlie-Waite-Photography-519101258116541/

CharlieWaite
1 Comment
  • Harry

    February 10, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    Dear Charlie (I hope you won’t mind the familiarity from a fellow CAS member!),

    Thank you for a very enjoyable, useful and succinct piece and some wonderful photos. My favourite of these is perhaps the cows. (Come to think of it, turning round your comment that clouds can be seen as living things, cows are a bit like clouds – sometimes drifting about in a dreamy kind of way, sometimes purposefully striding towards some unseen goal, sometimes just lying around…)

    I also have a serious point, however. I was interested to read your comment on using polarizing sunglasses. Half a century and more ago, I occasionally used a polarizing filter to what I at least considered good effect. Now that I have more time and a tiny bit more disposable income, I find to my dismay that the good old filters I used to use are no longer available – or at least are difficult to find. I find the circular-polarizing filters that apparently have to be used with autofocus systems (is this still true?) distinctly unsatisfactory. I recommend anyone who hasn’t tried it: take Charlie’s tip and experiment with your Polaroids (or, if like me you hate sunglasses as such, borrow someone else’s). After all, if we’re photographing clouds, we can leave the camera on manual focus set to infinity!

    Cheers,

    Harry Lake

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