I spent many wonder-filled afternoons lying on my back in spring pastures or early summer hayfields watching cotton clouds lumber across blue skies. It was a magical, entertaining, curiosity-filled time, my dreams floating upward, attaching to slow-moving shapes before disappearing to faraway lands.
I often wondered where the clouds went after they left my view. Perhaps they dropped my dreams in the lap of another boy far away.
I imagined riding on a cloud and seeing where it took me. Years later, looking out of jet windows above mushrooming clouds, I still wished I could push past the plexiglass and ride a cloud.
Sometimes, I even imagined the sky was the ocean and clouds were whitecaps.
Straddling worlds of reality and fantasy, my siblings and I spent hours spotting animals and figures in the ever-changing sky.
“There’s a woodpecker; see his pointed head?” Another would holler, “I see a dog or a lion, or a scary monster face.”
Gazing into the heavens or across the plains, we feel a range of emotions—from delight to gratitude to fear—from the different formations: fluffy cumulus; layered stratus meandering across the horizon; thin, feathery cirrus, like streaking white fireflies; tall, billowing, intimidating several-mile-high cumulonimbus formations that climb into the heavens so powerfully.
How could we be bored as long as we have eyes to see or a camera to record a unique cloud-filled tapestry?
Whatever your emotions, never stop being amazed or grow indifferent seeing our creator’s handiwork.
As you try to record the beauty of cloud-filled heavens:
- Use foreground to create scale and depth. As with photographing most large things, scale helps us understand size. Choosing a contrasting or complimentary foreground is often the difference between a so-so image and a compelling, even breathtaking, one.
- Notice how time of day changes the direction of light, color and mood. Though I talk a lot about using early morning or late afternoon light and avoiding high noon light, using mid-day sunlight to photograph clouds is often best because the sun bleaches the tops, which creates lovely contrasts to azure blue skies. The bottoms of the clouds, hidden from direct sunlight, are darker and grayer, reflecting light from the earth or ocean.
Watch how landscapes change as clouds pass before the sun. This creates shadows, which, in turn, create beautiful layers of tones and depth on the land or water.
- Capitalize on sunrise and sunset. As children, most of us heard the weather forecast: Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. I watch the sky during the day. When I see opaque clouds beginning to gather in the early afternoon, I know a beautiful, colorful sunset is possible. I begin considering what foreground might work best and scout at least an hour before sunset. Sunrises require more planning to be in position before the clouds explode in color before actual sunrise. Sunsets develop gradually. Sunrises happen quickly. Color fades and changes in seconds.
- Look above and below. The angle from which we view anything can change our perception and our feelings. Get a window seat and put your phone on airplane mode.
I never tire of documenting God’s handiwork. Full of beauty, tension and unending surprises, each cloud-filled sky is a unique, complex masterpiece never to be seen again.
Internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer David LaBelle has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He spent his magical boyhood years taking photos. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.