Capturing Clouds

With the onset of rainy season, the sky gets beautifully covered with clouds. Instead of getting scared by rains and storing away the camera, why not capture their beauty?

Landscape with Clouds

(A landscape with clouds. Captured with a Graduated ND8 filter mounted on the lens and -1 EV compensation since 3D matrix metering was used. Read the article below for details. Nikkor Micro 105mm f/2.8 AI-s lens used.)

First and foremost. Leave the fear of rains. Take your camera out and start photographing. Sure, cameras and lenses hate rains, but with a little bit of effort and carefulness, rainy season can be fun to photograph and the clouds can be the easiest subjects to capture. (Rainy Season)

Fields after rains

(Clouds clearing up after a bout of rain. A polarizer was used to darken the sky further to enhance the demarcation between sky and the cumulus clouds.)

Technical aspects

Even with really dark clouds, the sky may not get captured properly. The clouded sky maybe even 5 stops (or more) brighter than the rest of the scene. The reason? The landscapes in daytime are lit by the direct light from the sun. So, when the sky is covered by clouds, the landscapes also get less amount of sun and therefore the difference still exists. Sometimes when sun shows itself from a corner while the dark clouds cover rest of the sky, the sky may come close to the landscapes in terms of brightness.

The first requirement is to reduce the brightness of the clouds in comparison to the foreground landscape. I recommend using graduated ND filters at the time of capturing the images. Yes, the actual filters that are mounted in front of the lens and not the ones used on computer! For most of the cloudy skies, I use a Graduated ND8 filter. It seems to work in most scenarios for me. This brings about a reduction of around 3 stops in the darkest region. (Neutral Density Filters)

For blue sky dotted with white/grey clouds, try using a polarizer. Polarizer will darken the sky while maintaining the brightness of the clouds. This improves the demarcation between the clouds and the sky. (Polarizing Filters) If you are photographing cumulus clouds, which appear like cotton candy in the sky, let the polarizer be mounted all the time.

For good depth of field, a small aperture is to be used. Don’t use too small an aperture since the light rays getting bent from the edges of the aperture blade may soften the image. (Read about hyperfocal distance method of focusing – Staying Focused).

Though hyperfocal distance focusing is useful, there are two things to consider – 1. The aperture should not be very small as pointed out above. 2. Regardless of the deep depth of field when everything appears to be in focus, the sharpest plane of focus will always remain the same as with the wide open aperture. Think of this second point when your scene contains just distant elements. In such a scenario, forget the hyperfocal distance focusing and have the focus set on the horizon.

Even with focus set on horizon, use a moderate aperture. This is not to increase the depth of the field but to get the maximum sharpness out of your lens. It also helps to cover up slight errors in focusing by increasing the depth of field.

Don’t use evaluative or matrix metering. These metering modes don’t understand the concept of dark filters and dark skies. (Metering Modes) Based on their mode of working, such scenarios invariably get overexposed. For the first photograph in the article, I had to dial in -1EV correction to get properly exposed clouds.

Click raw and post-process. Even after using proper graduated ND filters and exposure correction, the image may require a lot of effort during post-processing. Having raw to work on helps. (If however you use a compact camera and your camera does not have a raw mode, search for HDR. Maybe HDR mode will help retain some of the textures in the clouds.)


(This image was post-processed to bring out the details in the clouds. More about this story here – Making of a Photograph)

What not to do with clouds

Do not attempt motion blurs with clouds initially (Creating Motion Blurs). Too much of blur does away with the outlines and the clouds appear as blotches. Once you know what you are doing, give motion blurs a try with the clouds in the composition. Clouds look fine when they are few in number and there is strong directional wind. In such a composition, the clouds appear as bold streaks in the sky which gives a sense of quickly passing time.

Do not use graduated colored filters. Grey clouds with slight bluish hue are fine. Sepia toned clouds in the day time are not! Especially look out for the biggest flaw with graduated colored filters – the cloud may come out as differently colored at the upper end than at the lower end. This looks weird. So, avoid these filters for clouds and stick with only the ‘no-color’ ones (neutral density).

Do not use poor quality filters. The bright light between the clouds can very easily cause lens flares or decrease the amount of sharpness and contrast. Use good quality filters and use only those filters which are required for the photograph. If you are planning on using a polarizer, remove the clear filter first if you use it.

With present day digital cameras, there’s almost no use of UV filters (To use a clear filter or not?). If you are capturing photographs on film, use a UV filter for all the photographs, but if it is a digital camera, remove the filter.


(Photographed from a plane on a Nikon D200. The clouds themselves can be an interesting subject.)


Clouds give the wonderful colors at sunrises and sunsets. So, do plan on capturing some of those too in the rainy season. See this article on capturing sunsets – Capturing Sunsets. All the colorful photographs in the linked article look beautiful because of the clouds.

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