Shooting the Clouds

(This post is adapted and expanded from a recent Pic 4 Today post!)

I had forgotten how big the sky is on the High Plains of Colorado. The Rockies push up amazing clouds that drift (or drive as the case may be) out over the gently rolling prairie.

I spent an afternoon and early evening at a shooting range north of Byers demonstrating spotting scopes (work), and had an ideal opportunity to watch (and, between sessions, capture) the variety of High Plains clouds that you can see in a single day.

The problem with cloud photography is dynamic range. White puffy cloud on a sunny day is so bright that exposing for the highlights in the clouds plunges the landscape below into muddy shadow. Balancing exposure evenly results in a landscape that is just a bit dark, and white highlights in the clouds that are totally burnt-out…so white they have no detail or texture. And exposing for the landscape results in large expanses of featureless white in the clouds. DSLRs have more inherent dynamic range (I am told) then today’s small sensor digital Point & Shoot cameras, but even so, masses of clouds over landscape can be a challenge. Some of today’s P&S cameras, especially ultra-zoom or bridge cameras, and some P&Ss designed for more serious shooters, have built in routines to extend dynamic range that can help with clouded skys (clouded, as opposed to cloudy…by clouded I mean clouds over a sunny landscape…to me a cloudy sky implies overcast, which is a whole other issue :).  Take a look at your owner’s manual to see how to set your camera for extended dynamic range (if available).

The Nikon Coolpix P500 that I am using these days has three levels of dynamic range expansion. Nikon calls it Active D-Lighting. You can set it for Low, Normal, or High and it effects mostly the shadowed or darker areas of the image, adding exposure selectively to those areas.

I generally leave Active D-Lighting set to Normal for almost all my photography, as it does a good job of balancing difficult exposures without any unnatural effects in normal exposures. On my day of cloud photography, however, I was experimenting with the Low setting, as it seemed to preserve the most detail in the clouds.

The shot above, and the one directly below, received only my normal Lightroom processing for Clarity and Sharpness, with minimal adjustments using Fill Light and Blackpoint. For my tastes the landscape, most of which I cropped out to hide the rather ugly buildings of the shooting range, is still a bit dark. I do like the cloud rendering though! The top shot especially, is a very difficult shot, with the wispy clouds and that amount of blue sky showing.

The image below demonstrates another cloud problem. The clouds, especially storm clouds, can themselves have a wide dynamic range…from almost black to pure white. Again, the Low Active D-Lighting setting on the Coolpix did the clouds well, while leaving the landscape just a shade dark.

The shot below really pushes the boundaries. The shaft of sun passing through the dark cloud mass on the upper right, with the bright white clouds framing it, contrasts dramatically with dark blue-grey of storm clouds. Low Active D-Lighting managed to catch the full range in the clouds, but the landscape was considerably too dark and muddy. Cropping out the landscape entirely would have changed the composition, removing all sense of scale…not what I wanted. To save the landscape I used the Graduated Filter Effect in Lightroom. Lightroom allows you to pull a GFE in from any edge (or corner for that matter) of an image and apply Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, Clarity, Saturation, and Sharpness effects gradually, with the darkest (strongest) effects at the trailing edge of the filter and the lightest (weakest) effects at the leading edge. The effect is very like a physical graduated filter over the lens of a DSLR, except that a physical filter only changes exposure.

For this image I pulled the GFE up from the bottom of the image to about 1/3 of the way and added Brightness, Clarity, and Saturation. It also required some selective color adjustment as the cloud shadows were too blue.


In the image below, I used several techniques. Active D-Lighting in camera, then a GFE from the bottom in Lightroom to bring up the foreground. Two areas of burnt-out pure white remained…one on the upper left and one about 1/3rd down and 1/5th in from the top left corner. Pure featureless white. Ugh.

I used another Lightroom tool…the Local Adjustment Brush…to paint on a mask that reduced the Brightness and Exposure of those areas slightly. Doing so brought up at least a little texture, and filled the “holes” in the cloud with something other than white. I know where they are. Can you find them? And did you notice them before I told you they were there?

The next image is perhaps the most difficult from the afternoon.

This is my first attempt, selected from 3 exposures made at the time, using different levels of Active D-Lighting. This shot was the High setting. The clouds are certainly dramatic, but the foreground was seriously dark and without much color at all. Application of a GFE using a combination of Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation, along with some Color Temperature adjustment, brought out some green in the foreground. Because the clouds were full of noise, I had to apply noise reduction over the whole image.

The image below is the same file as the image above…except…I experimented with one of the post-processing features of the Coolpix P500. In addition to the Active D-Lighting that is applied at the time of exposure, the Coolpix has D-Lighting, which is applied to the file after exposure, in the View menus. I applied a Normal level of D-Lighting and resaved the image, then used similar procedures in Lightroom to produce this version.

This version required less noise reduction in Lightroom, maintaining more detail in the foreground, and I was able to bring up the green with less Brightness. I am not certain which I prefer.

Finally I took the Normal Active D-Lighting version, applied Normal D-Lighting in camera, and processed in Lightroom for this version.

There is less drama in the sky, but the foreground looks more natural. Overall, I think I prefer the second image. I would be interested in your opinions.

The shot below is a close up version of the shot above, with Low Active D-Lighting and a GFE in Lightroom to bring up the foreground.

Finally I had to try a panorama. What follows is 4 frames, using the Nikon’s Assisted Panorama, and stitched in PhotoShop Elements 9’s PhotoMerge tool. Assisted Panorama displays 1/3rd of the first shot in semi-transparent form so you can line up the second shot, etc., etc. PhotoMerge does an amazing job of matching, masking, and blending the individual frames, but in this Panorama, the lighting varied quite a bit over the 4 frames. I used a GFE, pulled up diagonally from the bottom left corner in Lightroom to selectively brighten that edge of the resulting pano.

Personally, I love the drama of a big sky with clouds, and today’s sophisticated P&S cameras, with the help of some judicious post processing, make it very possible to catch them in an image.

This entry was posted in bridge camera, clouds, dramatic landscape, editing, inspiration, instruction, Lightroom, Nikon Coolpix P500, panorama, PhotoShop Elements, postprocessing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Shooting the Clouds

  1. Wes says:

    Very interesting post, Stephen- would have been interesting to have seen some Photomatix versions mixed in for comparison. This sounds like a good scenario for bracketing/slight HDR processing- to cover the dynamic range.
    Thanks for sharing your tips and notes with us!

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