No landscape image is complete without a dynamic skyline. Discover the secrets of capturing beautiful cloud formations with tips from these five pros.

Photographers have long been enchanted by clouds. As early as the mid-1850s, the French photographer Gustave Le Gray headed to the seashore in search of dramatic and ethereal cloudscapes. In the 1920s, when photography truly entered the fine art scene worldwide, Alfred Stieglitz made his own abstract cloud studies. At approximately the same time, the Belgian pictorialist photographer Leonard Misonne claimed, “The sky is the key to the landscape.”

In the past century, the technology has improved. These days, it’s easier to capture the true range of shapes and colors in the clouds that hang above us. And still, there’s nothing quite as magical as a perfect cloud photograph. We asked five photographers from around the world to tell us about some of the most memorable skies they’ve seen, and along the way, they shared their best tips for capturing some clouds of your own.

1. “I prefer shooting around sunset or especially when storms are rolling through.”

Joyce Vincent

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Shoot at Sunset

Image by Joyce Vincent. Gear: Nikon D700 camera, Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/60 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

One summer, when I lived in a third-floor apartment, a thunderstorm came through the area. I had my camera ready and sat on my front porch, excitedly photographing the constantly changing clouds as the storm progressed. I took this image toward the end of the storm, when things were clearing up and the sun was starting to peek back through. Lucky for me, it was close to sunset, and the colors were soft but rich at the same time. It always amazes me the range of color that nature provides us. No need to edit this one for color!

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Look for Oncoming Storms

Image by Joyce Vincent

Pro Tip

A big tip is to look beyond fluffy clouds on sunny, blue sky days. Yes, they’re very pretty. But they’re also very common around the world as well as on the internet. I prefer shooting around sunset or especially when storms are rolling through. They produce the most dramatic and colorful cloud formations. And those unique photos are what will set your cloud images apart from the crowd.

Here in New England, summer and fall seem like the best times of the year to get some interesting cloud photos. We get thunderstorms in the summer, and when the clouds come rolling in, they can produce interesting formations and ranges of color. If I know there is a storm coming, I tend to keep my eye on the sky. I’m not sure what it is about fall, but something about the atmosphere produces some really pretty clouds, especially around sunset. Spring is your next best bet, but winter can be most difficult. However, when conditions are just right, you can get some really amazing contrast with the snow on the ground and the trees against some intensely blue skies.

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2. “I love taking landscape photos, and no landscape is ever complete without a beautiful sky.”

Alexey Stiop

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Capture Whole Landscapes

Image by Alexey Stiop. Gear: Canon 5D MKII camera, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm, exposure 1/30 sec; f4; ISO 800.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this photograph by the lake Tso Moriri in Ladakh (Kashmir) a few minutes before sunset. The storm clouds on the horizon make the scene even more dramatic. For photos like this, it’s very important to pay attention to the white balance in post-processing, as the sensor can be easily fooled in the field.

Pictured: [1] Alexey Stiop [2] Alexey Stiop

Pro Tip

I love taking landscape photos, and no landscape is ever complete without a beautiful sky. When nature doesn’t cooperate, and the sky is boring blue or gray, I will often try to replace it with one from my library of sky photos that I keep building whenever I see a nice cloudscape. It’s always best, however, to capture it all in a single shot. As one might expect, the best time to do this is during golden hour or blue hour. What makes it even better is an approaching storm, like the one in the photo above.

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3. “Always remember to protect your equipment from sudden water splashes with waterproof covers.”

Dario Lo Presti

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Protect Your Equipment

Image by Dario Lo Presti. Gear: Sony RX-100 compact camera. Settings: Focal length 37.1mm (100mm equivalent); exposure 1/800 sec; f8; ISO 125.

What’s the story behind this photo?

It was a warm June afternoon, and I was looking at places to rent in southern Austria. While visiting a lovely countryside property, I noticed this big cumulonimbus towering over the mountains in the distance. I had my compact camera with me and quickly snapped several pictures of it. Since the cloud was a long way off, I used a long focal length (about 100mm equivalent) to create the illusion of looking at it from a higher position than the ground. The weather was fairly dry, and the visibility was good, so I just slightly increased the clarity and the contrast in post-processing to bring back the cloud’s fine detail.

Would I have benefitted from having a larger camera with me? Marginally. When shooting clouds, you really don’t need a shallow depth of field, so having a bigger sensor or a wider aperture would have been almost useless, apart from maybe reducing the noise, but in this particular case, the small amount of noise in the picture was easily corrected using Adobe Lightroom. Maybe having a longer lens with me would have given me more framing choices, but doing a reframe in post-production will work just fine unless you need a higher resolution for large prints. All considered, since you really can’t tell when you will stumble on a beautiful cloud formation, having a compact camera with you always is the way to go.

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Learn About Meteorology

Image by Dario Lo Presti

Pro Tip

Taking photographs of clouds can be an enriching activity, but, in my book, whenever you start working in a new area of photography, you should always try to learn more about the subject you are engaging with. I learned about clouds by studying the science behind them and discovered that they are far more complex than you might think at first. Different types of clouds form in particular weather conditions and at different altitudes, each with special shapes that generate different feelings when photographed. Compare, for example, the ominous cumulonimbus with the light and dainty cirrus.

On the technical side, you should always try to get a good contrast to avoid a dull shot. Use a polarizing filter, which shields your sensor from most of the light coming from the haze. Also, pick a day when the air is dry and clean. Although you can get gorgeous cloud shots using a wide angle lens, I tend to use long focal lengths as I like the unusual perspectives they bring to clouds, making them seem closer than they really are. Special circumstances, such as the angles you get when flying above them during a commercial flight, provide opportunities for original viewpoints. Even if you have to cope with the window’s double glass, which can cause reflections, you can take amazing shots using a long focal length (I suggest 100mm or higher), even with a compact camera.

Although it is harder to shoot a good cloudscape during adverse weather conditions, there are some rare circumstances when even a thick and uniform cloud layer completely covering the sky will still retain some contrast and structure. Usually, these conditions arise just before it starts raining but not when it is actually raining, unless you are lucky enough to witness a cloud pouring water on the ground from a safe distance, avoiding being engulfed by the contrast-killing haze that rain usually brings. Always remember to protect your equipment from sudden water splashes with waterproof covers.

If you are fascinated by clouds and want to get serious about cloud photography, then think about chasing after the rarest and most stunning cloud formations that occur around the globe, such as noctilucent clouds, found only near polar regions and at particular times of the year, or lenticular clouds, which usually form over mountains and are shaped like flying saucers. Those are just two examples of the many unusual cloud formations that exist and which you’ve probably never seen before or even thought possible.

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4. “Use a tripod and a remote release whenever possible, and choose live view and manual focus.”

Steve Lansdell

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Trust in Luck

Image by Steve Lansdell. Gear: Canon EOS 5D MKII camera, Canon L series 24-105 lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 8 sec; f4; ISO 1000.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was my twelfth tour of Tornado Alley in the American Midwest. It cost a lot for us to come over and stay for three weeks, but 2013 was a bumper year and worth every penny! It was May 27th, and we were in Nebraska. We had been waiting all day in nearly 90-degree heat for storms, and late in the afternoon, they appeared.

This show came at the end of our chase, and it was one of the most beautiful displays of nature I have ever witnessed: a corkscrew updraft of a decaying supercell with so much lightning and so much structure. We couldn’t believe our luck. It’s a memory I will share with my storm chasing buddies for the rest of my life.

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Give Your Images a Sense of Scale

Image by Steve Lansdell

Pro Tip

Try to position the shot with an interesting foreground, not only for content but also for scale—some of these cloud structures are massive! Always shoot in RAW if you can. Grad ND filters and polarizers can help with getting the most data on your shot by avoiding burn out from bright daytime light. Use your histograms on the camera as well to maximize the data in your shot. Use a tripod and a remote release whenever possible, and choose live view and manual focus.

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5. “The single most important piece of equipment that I carry for cloud photography is my super wide angle lens.”

Wildnerdpix

Five Photographers on Shooting Out-of-this-World Cloud Photos — Choose Your Lenses Wisely

Image by Wildnerdpix. Gear: Nikon D300S camera, 10-24 super wide angle lens. Settings: Focal length 10mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f71; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

For this image, I was actually in a boat in the English Channel—not in the wilderness, where I usually shoot—but it is still a cool shot. I used my 10mm super wide angle to take this picture. It was one of those times in which the clouds looked nice, but once I looked at them through the super wide lens, it was even cooler.

Pictured: [1] Wildnerdpix [2] Wildnerdpix

Pro Tip

The single most important piece of equipment that I carry for cloud photography is my super wide angle lens. I shoot DX format (lighter weight for when I’m in the wilderness), so I use a 10mm super wide lens. Those shooting with FX would shoot a 15mm lens. It always amazes me how this lens can transform clouds. It is the only lens I have seen that lets you see the panorama that your eye thinks it can see. It is important to put the lens on the camera because you won’t see the cool cloud views until you look through the super wide lens on the camera. I often will have people look at the scene through my camera, and they are amazed at the difference.

In regards to timing, I have found that cumulus clouds tend to be the most photogenic, and those are most common in spring and summer. That being said, I take pictures all year, and there are always chances for getting good cloud shots. The key is to be outside to take those pictures. I sometimes spend as long as eleven days on a wilderness trip, where I get a lot of opportunities to see cloud formations. Since there are not even phone connections in the wilderness, I have little else to do but look at the scenery and take pictures of it.

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Top Image by Alexey Stiop