Sunday, June 12, 2011

Composition: Making clouds work for you

Every year over 3 million people visit the Statue of Liberty in New York.  It is a safe bet that all of them have a camera and take one or more photos.  That means that over 3 million images of the Statue of Liberty are taken annually.  With odds like these you may wonder if it is still possible to obtain a unique photograph of the famous statue of the lady in the harbor.  
The photo on the left is what anyone can achieve -- and millions do -- on a nice, cloudless day.  The photo on the right was taken from a scenic boat tour at sunset.  The uniqueness of the clouds and careful timing to include the sun just peeking out from behind the statue make this shot a one-of-a-kind composition.

You will need to shift your main focus from the static subject of your scene and concentrate instead on the changing landscape around the subject if you hope to create a composition that is uniquely your own.  Keep in mind that while the subject is fixed in space two things are not: you and your position relative to the subject, and the weather.  Taking advantage of these changing elements will result in an image you can call your own.  One thing is certain: the weather as reflected in the cloud formations over your subject is constantly changing and will never be exactly the same twice.  Make a compositional design relationship between the weather and the subject and you will have something you can call uniquely your own. 
This photo is of a statue at the Gettysburg Battle Field monument.  Careful placement of the clouds create a swirling effect that emphasizes the running motion of the soldier. 
First you must train yourself to look beyond the subject to the surrounding area.  Too often photographers "see" only the main subject they are photographing and ignore the subject's environment. 

These samples show the difference that a cloud formation can make to a photo when it is incorporated into the overall composition.  In the left photo the castle is centered in the frame without much relationship to its background.  In order to incorporate a large cumulus cloud formation into the right image, it was necessary to place the castle down towards the very bottom of the frame.  Inclusion of the cloud formation dictated compositional placement and lens focal length, both of which make for a much more interesting shot.
Working with clouds can often make a bad day look good.

I arrived at Stonehenge on an overcast winter day at mid-day.  This is usually the worst time to photograph a travel scene.  There was just enough blue sky peeking through the clouds to provide some color.  I decided to create a shot that would illustrate how the monument would look in relationship to its bleak landscape. A 28mm wide angle lens allowed me to include the upper limit of the sky.  This is important because the sky is a deeper blue higher up.  The actual subject takes up very little space in the frame.  Nonetheless, it stands out dramatically against the sky and surrounding plains, and further emphasizes the important relationship Stonehenge had to the environment.  About 80% of this photo is taken up by a rather humdrum sky.  Relating it to the main subject gives it a new meaning and makes this shot unique.
Sometimes you luck out with an unusual cloud formation.  Here the clouds form a halo effect above the church cross on the Island of Mykonos.  All I had to do was change my position to align the clouds with the cross.

Two completely different cloud themes of western scenes: On the left a small, single cloud suggests a dry, remote desert area.  In the example on the right a huge cumulus cloud formation over the Grand Tetons in Wyoming emphasizes the grandeur of the mountains and the landscape.

The weather does not have to be sunny to provide an opportunity for dramatic cloud compositions.

The church was placed over the bright area of the stormy sky to help define its silhouetted shape.
I found this storm cloud formation while driving though the South Dakota plains.  Pulling off the road at the next exit, I was able to grab a shot of the immense storm over the landscape.  The plains themselves take up a very tiny area at the bottom of the frame, and further emphasizes the relationship of the landscape to the sky.
These oil tankers were anchored off the shore while I was sailing in the Aegean Sea just before dawn.  A typical shot of this scene would be to make a horizontal composition by coming in tight on the ships with a telephoto lens.  To make the photo more unique I included the tops of clouds over the scene and changed the composition to a vertical.
Forming your composition by incorporating cloud formations in relationship to your main subject is a great way to give your photos a special look, and one that is impossible to duplicate ever again.  The photo becomes a reflection of your personal experience with a scene at a particular time and place.  Isn't that what good photography is all about?

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