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The Ultimate Guide to Cloud Photography (With Ten Essential Tips)

The Ultimate Guide to Cloud Photography (With Ten Essential Tips)

From the gates of heaven to faraway fantasy lands, clouds have a way of igniting our imagination. Sadly, cloud photography is a task easier said than done.

Have you ever been stopped right in your tracks upon glimpsing a beautiful cloud, only for it to dissipate before your very eyes? While clouds seem straightforward as a photography subject, they’re quite complex in practice. All it takes are a few idle seconds for the light to suddenly shift or the cloud’s form to change with the wind. If you want to capture clouds more accurately, it helps to understand how they work. 

Clouds are one of the most dreamy and romantic subjects to capture on camera. This guide to cloud photography will provide an in-depth look at different kinds of clouds and their symbolism, then provide camera tips to help you capture it all. While I’ll mostly cover DSLR, I’ll have a few smartphone tips, too. 

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Essential Cloud and Sky Terminology You Need to Know
  3. Five Different Cloud Types and Their Symbolism
  4. The Best Camera Settings for Cloud Photography
  5. The Best Smartphone Settings for Cloud Photography
  6. The Best Lens for Cloud Photography
  7. Ten Essential Tips for Photographing Clouds
  8. Conclusion: Cloud Photography is a Subtle Art That Takes Deeper Understanding

an example of golden hour cloud photography showcasing misty clouds over a forest and mountain

Source Image: Pixabay

Essential Cloud and Sky Terminology You Need to Know

Becoming skilled at shooting certain subjects means understanding what makes them tick. Before we dive into cloud types and how to capture them, there are a few useful terms you need to know. 

The Golden Hour for Breathtaking Lighting

With a name like the golden hour, you know you’re in for something truly special. This term refers to a brief, yet breathtaking span of time right before the sun sets or rises.

These fleeting moments create spectacular lighting that is richer, warmer, and more complex than usual. Photographers often schedule their photoshoots around this time of day so they can achieve particularly subtle shots. If you’ve ever fallen in love with peachy strips of light during the sunset or want to bring out a cloud’s lavender hues, plan for the golden hour. Since you’re getting such vivid light, even older camera models can get strong results.

The golden hour’s visuals tie right into its usual moods. This time of day often inspires feelings of whimsy, delight, and serenity. Depending on the kinds of clouds you shoot, you could even hint at romance or fantasy. 

The Blue Hour for Subtle, Yet Distinctive Moods

While the golden hour is blushing and vibrant, the blue hour is on the other side of the spectrum. If you’ve ever admired the soothing curtain of smooth merle just before night falls, you’ve witnessed the blue hour. 

While the blue hour generally has hues of periwinkle and navy, it can showcase particularly subtle gradients of lavender and even pink. Since this hour is just before the sun is gone, you can sometimes capture a faint strip of warmer color on the horizon. The blue hour can be difficult to photograph due to being low on light, but that’s nothing a 2.8 f-stop or iPhone night mode can’t fix.

The blue hour is wonderful for capturing peaceful and nostalgic moods. It’s the kind of sensation that reminds you of unwinding for the day or perhaps getting lost in an introspective moment. 

The Alpenglow for Environmental Photos

Although cloud photography generally focuses on the sky, you can still incorporate other parts of the environment. The alpenglow works well to extend the time of day’s lighting to surrounding mountains or trees. 

Alpenglow earned its name for its signature blushing hue cast upon high mountains (or alps). The alpenglow appears in a delicate time similar to the golden hour, just before the sun rises or sets. During this time, it’s as if everything is bathed in a rosy glow.

a stretch of coast with rocks and wet sand beneath wispy sunset clouds

Source Image: Pixabay

Five Different Cloud Types and Their Symbolism

Before you can capture every beautiful angle of a cloud, you need to understand the physical and symbolic differences between them. This knowledge will help you capture their most striking features as well as anticipating abrupt changes in weather.

an example of light blue and gray cumulus clouds on a sunny day

Source Image: Pixabay


The most iconic cloud easily goes to cumulus. This fluffy, rounded cloud floats in individual clusters, frequently appearing during mild and sunny weather.

Cumulus clouds are wonderful for beginning photographers because they have distinctive shapes and strong shadows. They catch light easily, so you won’t have to adjust your camera much to make them pop out. 

When you want a relaxed and easygoing photo, snap a few shots of the cumulus. Since these aren’t quite as dramatic as the entries further down this list, that’s actually their appeal. They’re easy to incorporate into different photography niches without them taking over the shot’s focus. 

an example of cream, white, and blue cumulonimbus clouds

Source Image: Pixabay


When the cumulus becomes filled with more rain and heat, you get the intense cumulonimbus. Also nicknamed storm clouds, they’re instantly recognizable for their towering structure and flared, mushroom-like tops. 

The cumulonimbus has a few subcategories depending on whether the top is flared or rounded, but all of them require a little weather gear. After all, these clouds almost always signal rain or lightning and you don’t want to get your camera wet. 

These stunning creations tend to be the focal point in cloud photography for their rich shadows, rolling shapes, and high level of detail. They symbolically represent dramatic change on the horizon, perfect for temperamental or glorious moods. 

an example of cirrus cloud photography showing wispy cirrus against a bright blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay


If you’re more in the mood for soft and wispy clouds, keep an eye out for cirrus. They’re long and faint, often appearing like dragging trails of smoke.

These clouds can be tricky to shoot due to their incredibly faint and subtle edges, similar to feathers or tufts of hair. These finicky details are also their most charming feature and a big reason why they frequently pop up in cloud photography. Capturing this delicacy requires a higher f-stop to let in more light and, thus, more detail.

Since cirrus clouds are thinner and weaker, they’re also less stable and prone to changing with the turn of the wind. Try not to linger too long with each shot before they break up and fade away.

These clouds often represent good luck or hope due to their similar appearance to positive imagery like feathers and steam. 

an example of stratus clouds in a blue and pink sunset over the ocean

Source Image: Pixabay


With a flecked appearance and wispy edges, stratus appears almost like haphazard brush strokes. These quirky clouds often appear from much larger ones after rainy or hazy days, but don’t bring much new weather of their own.

On the plus side, stratus clouds are rather stable and don’t shift around as much as their cirrus cousins. On the downside, they’re hazy and don’t capture much light, so you’ll need higher f-stops or circular polarizer filters to catch their detail. 

Stratus clouds work well as a side detail to environmental photography, offering smudges of cloud to decorate the focal point. Since these clouds are low hanging and tend to appear after foggy days, they can represent gloom and isolation. However, if you get a little extra light to carve them out, they can also represent peace and relaxation. 

an example of cirrostratus photography showing subtle, thin, wispy gold and blue clouds

Source Image: Pixabay


Last but not least, there’s the rather ambiguous and faint cirrostratus. While the stratus will often be flecked and repetitive, the cirrostratus is so thin and delicate it almost disappears entirely.

What makes the cirrostratus still manage to stand out is its unique ability to capture a sun halo. Since sunlight isn’t able to attach to the ice particles in thicker clouds like the cumulus or cumulonimbus, it spreads out and scatters. The end result is a perfectly round, glowing circle like something straight out of a daytime reverie. 

Is it any wonder why cirrostratus and its associating halo represent dreams and mystery?

an example of glowing gold cumulonimbus clouds with blue gray shadows against a blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay

The Best Camera Settings for Cloud Photography 

Camera settings are a subtle art, able to completely transform the mood of your photo with a few tweaks. Although experimentation is the best way to find out what works for you, I have recommendations based on specific cloud types and times of day.

The Best Camera Settings for Storm Clouds

Since storm clouds have incredibly vivid detail, you’ll want to bring in as much light as possible to capture it all. Cranking up your ISO value will do wonders to enhance every last gorgeous bump and curve.

The best ISO for storm clouds should be between 400 to 600. Since storm clouds tend to darken the surrounding area, this higher-than-average amount should be enough to help you make out all the different shapes and shadows. However, brighter days can benefit from an ISO at 100 or 200. 

When you want to capture as much of the sky as possible, use a wide angle lens to stretch out your field of view. It’s also helpful for bringing in the rest of the environment if you feel like changing your focal point.

The Best Camera Settings for Overcast Days

Sometimes your clouds aren’t particularly distinct. When your day is overcast and not letting in much light, adjust your aperture to compensate. 

Your aperture works to let in a certain amount of light into the camera to bring out a subject’s detail or color. A wider aperture lets in more light, so try an f-stop such as f/2.8 or f/4. The highest I recommend is f/8, because anything more could wash out your photo and cause the very problem you’re trying to avoid.

The Best Camera Settings for Wispy Clouds

Wispy clouds have completely different challenges from their heavier counterparts. Since they’re more subtle and change quickly, you need to focus mostly on the right shutter speed.

A 10 second or so shutter speed is best for fast moving clouds. You’ll be able to better freeze them in place to prevent frustrating blur. 

an example of cloud photography showing wispy dark clouds against a sunset over forested mountains

Source Image: Pixabay

The Best Smartphone Settings for Cloud Photography

Today’s smartphone models are more subtle than ever before. If you left your DSLR camera at home or can’t afford one, you can still take stunning cloud photography. 

iPhone Settings for Cloud Photography

The recent iPhone models are only getting more subtle in their ability to capture the complexity of the sky. For starters, improving your iPhone 11 pro photography is easy by tapping into its new features.

This model gives you the ability to manually adjust your shutter speed, perfect for capturing fast moving clouds. The 1x and 2x camera also gives you flexibility in shooting portrait photography or nature photography. 

Samsung Settings for Cloud Photography

The iPhone isn’t the only smartphone model capable of taking gorgeous cloud photography. The Samsung series – whether you prefer the S series or the A series – has enough tools to keep you satisfied. 

Newer models such as the Galaxy S20 are capable of impressive long exposure, wonderful for darker clouds or night photography. The newer A series models – such as the A54 – also have ultra-wide cameras to capture more of the sky than ever before.

an example of cloud photography with peachy and pink sunset clouds

Source Image: Pixabay

The Best Lens for Cloud Photography 

To take stunning photos of clouds, you need to know your way around lens and lens filters. Choosing the best lens for cloud photography will make it easier to achieve the following results.

The Best Lens for Taking Clear Cloud Photos

When you want a crisp and straightforward snapshot of the sky, you can’t go wrong with a circular or linear polarizing filter. Also known as a polarized lens, these (very similar) camera filters work by reducing light and exaggerating the sky’s natural blues.

The circular polarizing filter better receives circular light, while the linear polarizing filter works for vertical or horizontal strips of light. Either one is highly useful for controlling the intensity of light, shadow, and color. They’re particularly good at exaggerating the rest of the environment, too. For example, trees will look fresher or water will look richer. 

On the other hand, polarizing filters aren’t ideal for photographing clouds at night or during the Blue Hour. Since they already exaggerate blues, they can make your photography look dark and muddy. Save it for sunny or partly cloudy days.

The Best Lens for Reducing Glare

Do you worry about sudden flickers of light bouncing off of car hoods and ruining your shot? A circular polarizer filter will significantly reduce this phenomenon to keep your photography clear.

Unlike the linear polarizer filter, the circular polarizer filters circular light – think to the balls of light on a moving river or the glare off a nearby window. This useful feature allows you to hone in on the subtle details of your focal point without irritating glare smudging up the shot. 

Use the circular filter when you want to take photos on particularly sunny days or in busy environments with a lot of surrounding noise. This is also a good resource for taking snapshots of clouds over bodies of water.

The Best Lens for Enhancing Color

Do you want to create a hazy effect or romantic glow to your cloud photography? Color correction lens are a fun way to shake up how you look at the sky – literally!

Also known as CC filters, these lens filters come in primary colors such as blue, green, and red. They function by adding a subtle, yet intriguing tint to the surrounding clouds. While you can always add color correction with photo editing, these are nonetheless useful if you’re short on time. 

an example of subtle cloud photography showing wispy cirrus and cumulus against a rosy sunset

Source Image: Pixabay

Ten Essential Tips for Photographing Clouds

Crafting stunning cloud photos isn’t as daunting as it seems when you have these tips in your back pocket. These mostly apply to DSLR, but can also apply to smartphones (which I’ll specify).

Keep a Close Eye on the Weather Forecast

This tip may seem like common sense, but your sudden bursts of inspiration can backfire if you’re not careful. Keep a close eye on the weather forecast before shooting cloud photography.

You’ll already get a good idea which clouds will appear based on the weather. Stratus, cirrostratus, and cumulus tend to appear in sunnier, milder weather. On the other hand, cumulonimbus usually means rain, snow, or lightning are on the way. The last thing you want is a sudden shower soaking your gear, which can damage it or lead to mold build up.

Keep your Camera at all Times (Since Clouds are a Little Unpredictable)

One of the most frustrating parts of photographing clouds is their unpredictability. You line up for the perfect shot, need to scratch your nose, then…bam! It’s gone.

Understanding how each cloud works will help you anticipate how they’ll move. Cirrus and cirrostratus clouds are wispy and a little unstable, prone to shifting quickly. Thicker and heavier clouds, such as cumulus or cumulonimbus, will change more slowly. The only exception to this is a moving thunderstorm, which you’ll have limited time to photograph, anyway. 

Become Comfortable with Contrast 

Clouds are one of the best ways of testing your ability to recognize and capture contrast. Without contrast, you risk taking fuzzy and indistinct photos that fail to grab the viewer’s attention.

Cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds are great for beginners since they already generate high levels of contrast with sharp light and deep shadows. As you continue to build your skill, ease your way into more subtle clouds like the stratus or the cirrostratus.

Experiment with Overexposure and Underexposure

Overexposure is a double-edged sword in cloud photography. When used on a bright day, you risk washing out interesting details. However, it can be a great way to create dreamy, hazy photos.

On the other hand, underexposure will often leave photos dark and murky. This can be highly frustrating for experienced photographers, though it can sometimes be used to interesting effect. It all depends on the mood you’re going for and why.

While both of these extremes are usually to be avoided in favor of healthy contrast, there are exceptions to every rule. Fiddle around with your shutter speeds and f-stops to see how the occasional dramatic lean can enhance your work.

Experiment with Different Lens Filters 

This point can’t be emphasized enough! Lens filters are an absolute blast when you’re feeling experimental, allowing you to achieve all sorts of results with less effort. 

UV filters, circular polarizing filters, linear polarizing filters, and color filters are standards you can start out with. All of these enable you to heighten contrast, exaggerate natural blues, or add subtle tints of color.

Experiment with Zoom and Prime Lens 

Should you use prime or zoom lenses with cloud photography? It all depends on the result you’re going for. 

If you want to focus exclusively on the clouds, zoom lens are best for letting you hone in on fine detail. However, if you want wide and simple shots, the stability of the prime lens is more suitable. 

Use the Landscape to Create New Stories or Points of Interest

Clouds are stunning enough on their own, but can add entirely new meaning when contrasted with other elements. Consider using the landscape to generate new points of interest in your photography composition.

Embrace the Golden Hour and Blue Hour

The intensity of the golden hour and the blue hour are very worth the effort of adjusting your schedule. You’ll be stunned by the photos you can take once the clock hits this specific mark.

Just don’t linger too long – sometimes these ‘hours’ can vanish in literal minutes.

Experiment with Post Processing and Post Editing

While lens filters can already tint and exaggerate your photography, post editing is still a great outlet for your creativity. Beginner Photoshop tools are more than capable of enhancing colors or fine tuning details your camera couldn’t catch.

Always Have Extra Memory Cards

Last but not least, keep extra memory cards on you! When you’re in the zone and snapping a thousand photos, your day can be ruined when you run out of space.

an example of bright and sharp cumulonimbus photography with white, gray, and blue clouds

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Cloud Photography is a Subtle Art That Requires Deeper Understanding

Cloud photography is a humbling art. Even the most experienced photographers will be thrust right back into the fundamentals when snapping shots.

Clouds are incredibly dynamic in how they change shape, size, and color. While there are dozens of different kinds of clouds, the basic categories include cumulus, cumulonimbus, stratus, cirrostratus, and cirrus – all with their own fascinating symbolism and moods. Understanding how each one functions will help you anticipate changes in the weather and take more striking shots in a limited span of time. 

After all, it only takes a stiff breeze to make your ideal shot vanish before your eyes.

Lens filters are another way to enhance your end result. You can prevent annoying glare, exaggerate blues, or add subtle tints to lend more visual interest. Certain times of day are invaluable to powerful photography, such as the golden hour or the blue hour.

Want even more tips to improve your cloud photography? Check out the following posts: