In this post I want to have a think about clouds in architectural photography. This isn’t going to be the “ultimate guide to clouds” but more of an exploration for both you and me. I’ve wanted to write this post for some time because clouds are very much the backdrop of any external architectural photo. And while it may seem that you get what you get, i prefer to think of weather as something that you study, and then plan your shoot to give you the maximum probability of getting the results you’re after. I’ll try and keep things simple and use technical words like “fluffy clouds”, but where possible i’ll pepper the post with more scientific terms that i find on the internet like Cumulonimbus.
Clouds I like and clouds I don’t like
As a general rule I like skies with zero clouds, or skies with thin wispy clouds. The clouds I don’t like are big fluffy clouds, especially those with dark shadows. I also don’t like a sky that is wall to wall clouds. So let’s unpack this a little.
Thin wispy clouds
This wispy clouds are my favourite type of clouds. They add drama to a building, but not in a dark moody way. Because they are thin they let the sun shine through them, so they don’t have shadows. Because they’re a clean white they contrast well against a blue sky both in both color and black and white photos. Their true beauty is that they have this magical way of painting lines and sponge dabs on a sky. It’s like a painter is creating a different backdrop for each frame.
These wispy clouds tend to be high level clouds like cirrus, and cirrocumulus (thanks internet).
Big fluffy clouds
I really don’t like fluffy white clouds in my shots. Here’s why. The first issue is that they’re not actually white. If you look at the shot to the left you’ll see that a lot of the clouds have grey shadows on their underside. The sun struggles to shine through and so you’re left with murky grey areas. That in itself sometimes ruins the shot, but it also makes it hard to make adjustments in post. The beautiful thing about a perfectly clear sky is that you have a clean canvas. You can shift tones and make adjustments with relative ease, and with little effect to the building itself. The blue sky effectively becomes a blue screen for post production. White fluffy clouds however add all this mess to the background. They have really strong highlights, shadows and soft edges. It’s a mush of shape and tone. Pull the exposure down and they become too dark, play with saturation and the edges of the clouds break.
There are exceptions when white fluffy clouds work. An example might be when you’re shooting a city scene and there’s billowing low level cloud rising from the horizon between two towers. Another exception would be when shooting from a skyscraper and you’re above the clouds. In both cases you’re getting rid of the shadows on the underside of the clouds.
These types of clouds tend to be cumulonimbus, and Stratocumulus, and nimbostratus
Full cloud cover
For me full cloud cover doesn’t work. The sky no longer has the contrast of a blue sky and the light from the sun becomes glary. This image below for example would always be better on a good weather day. There might be a couple exceptions if you were trying to capture a particular mood like a fisherman’s shack on a windy cliff face, or a sin city type of style, but generally full cloud isn’t helpful.
Technically not a type of cloud, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Clear skies are the absence of clouds, and while they are not as dramatic as wispy clouds, clear skies provide the best all round conditions for a shoot. You’ll get great light on the building, the sky will be clean and attention will be brought back to the key subject – the building. Logistically it’s better as well. If you only have one day to shoot a building then starting with a forecast of clear skies gives you a lot of leeway if the weather changes. You might end up with a few fluffy clouds joining the party, or you might lose a few hours when a belt of cloud passes by, but overall you should be safe. (Unless you’re in Melbourne, then you’re never safe!)