FIELD TECHNIQUE: Get Your Head in the Clouds

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

With summer now in full swing, a day at the beach is one of the best ways to beat the heat. The beach is also a great place to photograph interesting cloud formations.

I was recently in Antigua, West Indies, photographing the seascape of Dickenson Bay, located on the northwestern coast of the country. Dickenson Bay is a beach known for its calm seas and white sand. Like other Caribbean beaches, its beauty is often enhanced by magnificent skies filled with puffy, cumulus clouds. If you’ve been to the tropics, you have probably encountered dramatic skies like these, which are mainly due to the region’s rising warm, moist air.

Photos of seascapes consisting only of water and sky can be a little boring. That’s why it’s always a good idea to anchor an image with an interesting foreground element to give it more depth. Since palm trees are such a clichéd choice, I decided to use parts of the shoreline instead.

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Cokin blue/yellow Varicolor polarizer filter

Cokin blue/red Varicolor polarizer filter.

                                      

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most valuable piece of equipment is a polarizer filter. It removes polarized light by reducing reflections and glare, resulting in increased color saturation. This can make white clouds pop in a blue sky. In the images above, I used Cokin Varicolor polarizing filters, providing all of the aforementioned effects as well as an enhanced color scheme. Just like standard polarizers, these filters work through rotation. As they’re rotated in a special holder attached to the lens, the reflections in the scene are toned with various colors. I used a blue/yellow polarizer for the shoreline photo (left) to emphasize the blue in the sky and to add a touch of warmth to the sand. The rock jetty image was better suited to a blue/red polarizer. It enabled me to saturate the color of the sky while enhancing the tone of the rocks. There are other color combinations available, but these two produce the most realistic results.

When dealing with such an impressive collection of clouds, it’s fun to emphasize movement. The photo below is a 30-second, in-camera exposure. I obtained the long exposure by using a Big Stopper filter—an extreme neutral density filter made by Lee.

In-camera long exposure using Big Stopper filter.

In-camera long exposure using Big Stopper filter.

 

This filter blocks 10 stops of light and is the perfect choice for whenever super-long exposures are needed in bright, daylight conditions. Incidentally, this is another reason why I decided to forgo the inclusion of trees—their constantly billowing palms would have deteriorated into a blurry mess during such a lengthy exposure. Keep in mind, though, that this filter is dark; I mean, practically jet-black dark. All focusing, composing and metering must be done prior to putting it on the lens. You don’t have to worry about complicated exposure calculations, since a handy exposure guide is included in the purchase of the filter. It tells you how long the exposure should be based on the reading you get before attaching the filter.

I’m a little old-school, so I prefer to create most of my effects in-camera. Sometimes that may not produce the precise look I envision. In this image, I liked the look of the water, but I felt that the clouds, which are being blown sideways across the sky, were unattractive. In the real world, you can’t control which way the wind blows, but you have total control in the virtual reality world.

Cumulus clouds over Dickenson Bay St. John's, Antigua West Indies (Blur effect applied to clouds)

Photoshop “long exposure” using Radial Blur filter.

 

Although technically not a long exposure, the image above more accurately reflects how I wanted the clouds to move. The Radial Blur filter in Photoshop CS6 allowed me to create a more controlled effect. Like the Big Stopper, Radial Blur’s effects are global. What sets it apart is the fact that its effects can be completely customized to your image and/or preferences.

The Radial Blur filter does require a bit of work to tweak it to your exact liking. I used the brush tool to gradually “paint out” (or reduce) the blur as I worked toward the clouds in the center—leaving the full effect on the clouds on the extreme edges. This created the illusion that they were literally exploding out of the sky. I then completely removed the blur from the water and the foreground. It’s this type of customization that makes the Radial Blur infinitely more adjustable than the Big Stopper.

Of course, every photo is different.

One-minute in-camera exposure using Big Stopper

One-minute in-camera exposure using Big Stopper

The Big Stopper filter worked much better on the image below. The cloud movement formed straight lines that closely mirrored those on the shoreline. As an added bonus, the one-minute exposure smoothed out the surf to an almost cloud-like consistency, with the rock jetty appearing to float above it—an effect the Radial Blur filter could never achieve.

Whether you choose to do it in your camera or on your computer, there are many ways to enhance your cloud images.

One final note: If you’re shooting at the beach, it’s vital to keep your horizons level. A slightly off-kilter shot of a busy forest scene may not be too noticeable, but a crooked seascape horizon really stands out.


F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.