Can You Read Clouds?

by | Feb 18, 2013 | Tips & Tricks | 0 comments

You might think that after shooting landscapes for a while, I would know all about how to read the clouds. Well, I have to admit that I’m still just learning.

The first time I began to realize the importance of reading clouds was during a visit to friends in New Hampshire last September. Being on “vacation” and in a new location, I had time to shoot the sunrises and sunsets. On one evening, I figured I’d put away my camera because it was getting too dark . . . when all of a sudden, the clouds lit up crimson red. Needless to say, I stayed out till it was completely dark. Why did I not know beforehand that there were still clouds that would catch the light?

This got me thinking a lot about clouds a lot more, so I began to observe them regularly. And not until recently have I been able to draw some conclusions. Here are some principles to keep in mind next time you see these type of clouds during the magic hours:

1. Dark Clouds

5778_Warrenton-Missouri-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 82 mm, 1-125 sec at f - 5.0, ISO 200

I don’t mean storm clouds. Just clouds that the sun is obviously not shining on. Basically, because something is between the clouds and the sun (ie. landmass or other clouds), they appears dark against the sky.

At Sunrise: get ready! The clouds will light up very soon!
At Sunset: you’re too late. They are past their peak and will not light up again.

2. Edge-of-Light clouds

5779_Warrenton-Missouri-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 85 mm, 1-250 sec at f - 6.3, ISO 200

The picture says it all. These clouds, colorful only at the edge of light, are the reason you didn’t sleep in or why you missed dinner. There are a whole lot of factors involved in why clouds will light up like this, but color usually lasts anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.

At Sunrise: you’d better shoot! The highest—cirrus—clouds light up first, then the mid-level—altocumulus—clouds, followed by the lower altitude—cumulous—clouds if the situation is in your favor.
At Sunset: you’d better shoot! Clouds light up in the exact opposite sequence as at sunrise.

3. White clouds

5808_Warrenton-Missouri-USA_Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 70 mm, 1-250 sec at f - 8.0, ISO 200

Clouds are white when they are exposed to direct sunlight that is not traveling through the earth’s atmosphere. White clouds appear lighter than the sky behind them.

At Sunrise: you’re too late. Cloud formations can still make great content for your landscapes, but they will not turn color again. 
At Sunset: get ready! They will turn colorful very soon!

These are just a few basic principles to keep in mind next time you’re out shooting at the edge of light. They are not hard rules, and it’s impossible to know exactly what the clouds might do, but they are definitely helpful for determining whether or not the clouds will catch the light. I don’t want to miss those crimson red sunsets if I can help it.

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