Cloudscapes Photographic Series

Cloudscape 2017-01-30

Cloudscapes is a photographic series that builds upon my previous Sky Panoramas series1. The photographs depict portions of the sky containing interesting clouds, colours, lighting, etc. I consider cloudscapes a sub-genre of landscape photography, but with my lens pointed towards some point in the sky instead of the ground.

Light and colour are often the main subjects, rather than just an aspect of sculpted solid surfaces as in landscapes. Clouds replace mountains. The inky blue of space replaces lakes, rivers, or seas.

One could say that photographing clouds is the same as photographing water. Clouds are a fluid medium that reflect and filter light.

Unlike the land, which is sculpted by light but remains substantially static (at least during the instant of a photograph), the sky is extremely dynamic. The shape and position of clouds changes from second to second. The position of the sun is constantly moving. Land is frozen. The sky is liquid.

When photographing the land, vantage points and compositions can be very limited (depending on what one is trying to capture). Move a few centimetres left or right, a few metres forward or back, and the composition changes or disappears. A branch fails to frame a pond. A rock no longer lines up with the mountain peak. A leading line doesn’t guide the eye into the scene.

In a wide-open space the sky is viewed as an uninterrupted hemisphere, 180 degrees across and 360 degrees in circumference. A photographer can point their camera towards the sky in any direction. They can shoot with a wide angle or telephoto lens to crop or expand the captured scene. There is no horizon that must be kept level. No trees that must remain upright. Clouds move and create an ever changing canvas of colour and light. But in all this freedom there must be constraints. Choices must be made. Balance must be found.

Some skies lend themselves to a painterly presentation. Colourful gradients, soft edges, and limited depth create an impressionistic or abstract quality. Some skies are dramatic, with raking or filtered light. Some skies seem less dramatic, but with a telephoto lens the photographer can isolate crisply detailed structures in fluffy cumulus clouds — distant sculptural castles floating in space.

Cloudscapes are ephemeral. They sometimes exist for a fraction of a second. They can be captured by the camera’s lens in that one instant and will never be seen again.

Sky Panorama #3, 2007
Sky Panorama #3, 2007

I first became aware of photographing the sky while studying photography in university. In a photography history class I became acquainted with Alfred Steiglitz’s cloud photos — the so-called Equivalent series.

“I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in forty years about photography,” wrote Stieglitz in an artist statement2.

While Stieglitz’s reasons for photographing clouds differ from my own, I immediately had an affinity for his subject matter.

Silverview 2017-01-06 08:29 Wide
Silverview 2017-01-06 08:29

I have another on-going photographic series called Silver View in which I record the ever changing view out my living room window which looks out on a natural park. In those photographs the scene is often dominated by an interesting sky or atmospheric phenomenon (e.g., fog, a rainstorm, a snowstorm, or a dramatic sunrise), but always the sky is shown in relation to the land. The Silver View series is very much rooted in place. It is about recoding the view from one particular location.

The Sky Panoramas, and by extension the Cloudscapes, question the notion of place and our identification with it. Does the sky represent the land over which it hangs? Can the sky over my house be differentiated from the sky over a Parisian suburb? Can we recognize the sky as belonging to a place or is the sky a separate space all together? Are we travelling through the sky as we are rooted to the land? Are we shaped by the sky (does it mold our identity) as we so often seem to be shaped by the land?

Cloudscape 2017-01-30
Cloudscape 2017-01-30

As with many series, there is no actual limit to how many Cloudscapes I can photograph or for how long I can continue exploring this theme. Therefore I impose limits in other ways. The primary limits appear in post-processing.

Images are not just taken out of the camera and printed or shared. While it is often difficult to capture the dynamic range of both the land and the sky in a single photograph, the dynamic range of a small portion of the sky may be extremely limited. Atmospheric perspective may reduce contrast to the point were a portion of the sky appears as a flat, featureless field. This would be a boring photograph indeed.

To add dynamic range and contrast I primarily manipulate the white and black points of the image. Delicate colours that are nearly invisible to the casual viewer begin to appear as the contrast increases. Structures with shape and modelling begin to form. While each final image can be considered dramatic it must still be a realistic representation of the scene. An image not pushed far enough will be flat and featureless. One pushed too far will be destroyed. Knowing how far to push an image is the art.

It is sometimes hard to know at the moment of capture if an image will stand up in post-processing. Some images that seem dramatic in the viewfinder are just too contrasty to tame. Some images that seem mildly intriguing become favourites when a little processing starts to reveal subtle colours or playful compositional relationships. Therefore I shoot a lot of frames and keep only a few of the very best results.

Spring Shower 1, 2006 (Sky Panoramas Series, but really also the first Cloudscape)
Spring Shower 1, 2006 (Sky Panoramas series, but really also the first Cloudscape)

To be clear, I do not look for recognizable shapes in clouds. I look for abstract compositions in the sky.

The average landscape photographer knows that there are select few hours around sunrise and sunset that are “best” for shooting. Trust me, I relish those times. I can’t always schedule my day to shoot during those “golden hours” so I have learned to make the best of any time of day. On sunny days I shoot black and white and capture the dramatic shapes and shadows of trees and rolling hills. On overcast days I focus on the colours and delicate details in close forests.

With the sky as the subject, selecting good times to photograph is more difficult. On blue-sky or overcast-sky days there is nothing to photograph. Better then to shoot traditional landscapes or macros. Sunrise and sunset are not guarantees of finding a good sky subject either. The sun might be too intense and colours too saturated. Clouds might not be in the right place in relation to the rising/setting sun to filter or reflect the light in a compelling way. In other words, opportunities to shoot images for the Cloudscapes series are not overly common.

It is hard to say what compels me to pick up my camera at any given moment and point it towards the sky. I can’t schedule a Cloudscapes photography session. In a very zen way I have to wait for the right moment. The sky dictates when it wants to be photographed.

Sky Gradient 2016-01-08 #4
Sky Gradient 2016-01-08 #4

  1. Sky Panoramas is a series of stitched multi-frame panorama photographs. The images have a very high aspect ratio (up to 5:1). Cloudscapes are a single frame photograph. It can take a minute or more to capture the 9 to 12 frames used to create the Sky Panoramas and thus they are infinitely more difficult to capture than Cloudscape images, especially if clouds are moving at any speed or the light is changing. Post-processing is also more demanding with Sky Panoramas, the files of which range in size between 500MB and 1GB. Sky Panoramas are also difficult to present on screen or on print due to there wide aspect ratio. As a compromise, I often find myself composing Cloudscapes in 16:9 aspect ratio. A third related on-going series, Sky Gradients, includes photographs of the colour gradient of the sky, usually just before sunrise or after sunset when the light is soft and the sky takes on a pastel hue. Sky Gradients are shot on cloudless days, though a slight haze in the atmosphere acts as a colour filter. The majority of a Sky Gradient frame is taken up by the sky, but a strip of horizon often appears at the bottom edge.
  2. https://sandrakontos.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/alfred-stieglitz-equivalents/

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Cloudscapes