Introduction: Angry Skies and How to Photograph Them

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Rainy season in Florida - which would be most of the summer - is a really terrific time of year for members of the Cloud Appreciation Society, especially if you're a fan of massive thunderheads. (If you're wondering, there really are Cloud Appreciation Societies - I follow along with the Florida Cloud Appreciation Society on Facebook.)

I find it as much fun to photograph angry skies as it I do to watch them, and have found a few tricks that make it possible to get something *close* to the first person feel of swirling clouds and freshening wind on your face. Close - there's still nothing like seeing and feeling a big storm approach. But it's fun trying to capture the images on your camera.

So first, a few notes on safe storm watching and photography:

  • Don't invite a lightening strike by standing out in the open during approaching thunderstorms, or by standing under trees. All of these shots were taken near or in the shelter of buildings or vehicles.
  • No need to get wet - the best "angry sky" photos occur when the sky is just getting mad, not at the height of a storm. All of these shots are of approaching or departing storms, which is actually when the light is best for capturing your storm images.

Okay - now on to the Instructable.

Step 1: Find the Leading Edge

One of the most stunning ways to capture an angry sky is on the leading edge of a thunderstorm. In Florida, these massive storms come by overhead like one of those big spaceships you see on sci fi, just cruising along with a following shadow darkening everything below.

If you're in the right place at the right time - or storm following - aim your camera at that storm front line. The contrast between the light and the dark sky, right there at the edge of weather change, is your money shot!

I prefer to capture images like these in places other than parking lots, but I'll take them where I can get them! Although an ordinary parking lot with an extraordinary storm approaching can be a story worth telling, too.

I don't do much, if anything, to shots like these in the photo editor, except maybe adjust contrast to get more of what I felt I was seeing.

Step 2: For the Best Shots, Sit Back & Watch the Show

The more defined that stormy line of demarcation, the better. In the shot with the church steeple (taken in Manchester, NH), that bright bar of light between the shadowed landscape below and the big black clouds above make for a pretty striking shot. The long shot over the water, not so much, although it still creates a nice effect reflecting in the water.

Just keep watching, through the lens if you want, but also just with the camera down. It's a great show, and you'll have a better feel for what moves you in the image, if you're just watching the sky without the lens. If you're using a long lens, then the wider field of view your uninterrupted vision offers, the more alternative angles and shots you'll see, too, that you might miss while watching the storm through your camera lens.

Step 3: Using Open Spaces and Contours

Having some nice uninterrupted open sky, with something for context in the foreground, or as an accent, also makes for a great way to capture those angry sky scenes. The first two here were taken in Tarpon Springs, a touristy town on the Gulf Coast of Florida, during a slow weekday, made even slower when the streets emptied in advance of a big storm. The empty street and colorful signs made a nice context for the approaching storm. Same with the shots along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

Also, find terrestrial contours that match the contours of the storm clouds makes for some visually pleasing effects. In the "Spongerama" shot, the line of clouds seems to follow the curve of the power line. In the river shot, the clouds almost outline the buildings along the shore.

Step 4: Capturing Urban Storms

When storms come up in the city, they're both exciting, and challenging to photograph, because there can be a lot in your field of view. Finding an open area where you can balance dark sky and cityscape is best, like the water shot, but you can pull it off shooting between canyons of buildings.

Step 5: Dealing With Ground Clutter

When you're in a less than optimal shooting situation - like when a great storm comes up while you're in a parking lot, or at some other not particularly photogenic place, your best bet is to aim for the sky. Power lines can be particularly distracting. In the middle shot, I was more interested in the sky and didn't put much into the composition, so the partial shot of the pole on the right, and the power lines cutting across the top left doesn't make for a very good photo (although I still love those clouds in the back!)

But if you make power poles and power lines part of your photo, as in the first and third shots, they can add their own feel to the story - the electric nature of the approaching storm, the smallness of man made energy against natural energy. The higher you can aim, and the smaller you can make people and buildings with respect to the approaching storm, the better you can tell that angry sky story.

Step 6: Capturing Roiling Clouds

Sometimes the story is just in the clouds themselves, roiling , swirling clouds that convey power and energy. For these, I do apply photo editing tools a bit more, saturating the images to pull out the details and layers. These can be shot as full sky photos, although I usually like to leave a little bit of horizon or trees or other terrestrial detail in the bottom or corners for scale and context.

Step 7: Sunset Storms

Sunset storms are wonderful! They can be fleeting, since the light is changing more rapidly during a sunset, but they're stunning, because now you've got more colors added to your massive thunderheads, instead of the blues and grays of a daytime storm.

Again, aiming high and putting your horizon as low as possible (unless you've got some neat mirror images to work with in glass or water) will really set off your looming thunderheads and with those red and orange highlights, you've got Ares himself in portrait!

So stay safe out there, but keep the camera handy during those thunderstorms!

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