Landscapes are one of the most popular subjects of every level of photographer. Whether you’re a family vacation snap shooter or a seasoned professional, I’m sure you have many landscape images in your files. What determines a good landscape? Characteristics such as the time of day at which the image is made, composition, leading lines, foreground elements, balance, texture, etc., all contribute to the success of the photo. If you’re a regular reader of the Outdoor Photographer Tip of the Week, you already know my key characteristic: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LIGHT. Hand in hand with this concept is the introduction of clouds to add drama as important compositional elements.
Clouds are integral components of any landscape. Where they’re positioned in the frame, whether they add dramatic color at sunrise or sunset, how thick they are, what type they are, are they on the edge of a storm, etc., all should be taken into account before you press the shutter. For instance, on what’s known as a “severe clear day” where the sky is completely blue, I choose to include as little sky as possible, as it proves to be a featureless mass of blue. The same holds true for when the sky is mostly gray. As a matter of fact, on these types of days, I find myself creating compositions wherein I use no sky at all.
Much of my landscape shooting is done around the hours of sunrise and sunset, as these times of day provide the best lighting conditions. If the sky below the horizon is clear yet clouds exist above, this is often the recipe for dramatic color. The undersides get lit and create tones of pink, red, yellow and orange. If you’re lucky enough to be near a still body of water, be sure to include the reflection of the sky in the image. Use a graduated neutral density filter to even out the exposure between the sky and foreground.
If clouds are in the vicinity of your primary landscape formation, wait for interesting ones to drift into negative sky space so they become an integral element within the photo. Patience is often required, and those who wait are often rewarded. Sometimes the clouds dissipate before they reach the desired location. Sometimes the wind blows them the wrong way. But unless you persist, you’re guaranteed to never have the negative space filled.
Monitor the weather, and if the forecast calls for clouds, get up early and stay out late. If the sky is bright and the foreground dark, make a bracketed series to combine the files into an HDR image, or use a graduated neutral density filter over the bright sky to help tame the contrast. Capture the images in RAW, as you’ll have more latitude to bring back shadow or highlight detail. Be cognizant of how the clouds frame important elements or fill in key areas of the composition to help create balance. Keep watching where they move, and make the photo when all elements come together.