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Where Are The Clouds?

Refine and simplify your compositions to better focus the viewer’s attention

I was recently teaching at a winter workshop for five days in Yosemite, and we had no clouds. The students had come from far and wide with visions of winter snow and clearing storms with dramatic clouds. It was not to be. But the instructors, a very experienced and creative lot, knew how to improvise. Was not Yosemite always beautiful?

Image of clouds at sunset in Yosemite.

Clouds at Sunset, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California, 2016.

We adjusted to the conditions and focused on subjects that worked well, such as sunlit cliffs reflecting in river rapids or ice formations, patterns of spray of the waterfalls. The workshop was scheduled to coincide with a full moon, which worked well for students, but even that was tougher given the lack of clouds. In the end, the participants embraced the challenges and created many beautiful images.

This experience led me to look through my archives to see how I’ve used clouds in my landscape images. More specifically, with the clouds as the main subject, the star of the show. Usually, we landscape photographers use clouds as an accent, a bonus addition to a scenic view. There is a lesson in all of this somewhere. Bear with me.

I find it useful when composing an image to consider what you are trying to say, to ask yourself what is most important. A common error for many of us is to frame too broadly, to include the full view with more info than needed. The result is there are often areas of the composition that don’t contribute to the image’s intent. Once it is clear to you what you want the viewer to focus upon, simplify your composition by trying different framings, such as including more sky than land. Or zoom in with a longer focal length. Changing one’s camera position can often be used to clarify and focus the viewer’s eyes to what is essential to you.

Each photograph included here focuses you on the clouds. I often talk to students about proportion when discussing image design. How much sky? How much foreground? How much you include of one aspect of a scene often reflects its importance. Sometimes a photograph can be better balanced by adjusting the amounts of light and shadow. Here are some examples of how I featured clouds as my main subject.

Clouds at Sunset, El Capitan (above). Seeing incredible clouds streaming off El Capitan, my framing treated the clouds as the primary subject, and El Cap was secondary. Still, El Capitan is an icon, solid and massive, so I included just the top to give a clue about the location. I moved my camera so I could zoom above the foreground trees with my telephoto lens. I photographed intensively while the sunset colors shifted shades of orange and red, and the cloud shapes stretched and morphed until the light faded away.

Image of vernal pools in California.

Vernal Pools, Little Table Mountain, California, 2016.

Vernal Pools. While driving through the nearby foothills and seeing the unusual scalloped clouds, I drove up and down in search of vernal pools. Anywhere I could have stopped, I could take a good photo, but I knew that finding an intriguing pool of water for reflecting those clouds would give me a chance to make an even better photograph. Imagine this image without the reflecting pool—just lovely clouds and green fields. Finding this, with its intriguing shape and reflections, makes the clouds the central subject.

Black-and-white image of clouds at Cathedral Rocks.

Clouds and Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite National Park, California, 2015.

Clouds and Cathedral Rocks. As clouds floated across Yosemite Valley on this day, I was fascinated by their shapes. I set up to photograph them, zooming to see if I could capture an especially exciting form. An image of any one of them would have been successful, but as they moved across the sky toward Cathedral Rocks, I saw the opportunity to make an even better image. The formidable cliff offered a strong counterpoint to the ephemeral cloud. I timed the exposure to catch the white cloud silhouetting a few trees clinging to existence on the granite wall. I didn’t include the top or bottom areas of the well-known rock face so that the focus would be on the cloud and not on the iconic location.

With most photographic endeavors, some plans work out and some don’t. Sometimes the weather cooperates and sometimes not. Mother nature is out of our control. When it comes to composition, however, we can always control how we place elements inside the frame. Remove the excess. Balance the proportions of key elements. The lesson is simple: Find your focus and simplify!

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.