Dramatic Skies for More Compelling Landscapes

dramatic sky
Dramatic sky

Man differs from other ambulatory animals in notable ways, one being that we live on the earth but we look to the skies. I came to that conclusion because of an interesting experiment that my wife proposed. She is my muse, and I always (almost) listen to her.

We had a magnificent Great Pyrenees dog we named Zorro because of his black mask. He was highly intelligent and always alert, which is characteristic of guardian dogs raised to protect livestock. From our sun deck, he could spot coyotes in the brush 500 feet away, and would promptly issue a booming warning to keep their distance.

On occasion, he would hear a roar from overhead and would bark. But, he never thought to look up at the sky, the source of the irritating sound. At those times, his bark was uncertain because he didn’t know what caused the sound. My wife decided that it was time Zorro got educated, and she announced that we were going to Sedona Airport.

As a plane revved its engines and proceeded to take off, she said “Look, Zorro! That’s an airplane.”. He already knew the sound. But, this time there was an image to go with it, and he watched it as it climbed above the ground. After watching another takeoff, we returned home. Though planes continued to fly by, Zorro never barked at them again. He would give a quick glance at the sky, and then resume his watch for critters. What was important to him is what took place on the ground.

Some landscape photographers are like that. Their tendency is to reduce skies to junior partner status, particularly because the weather is not a sure thing, and skies seem to be window dressing for the real show on the ground. In a sense, I can’t blame them, because when you’re at the scene, what’s immediately around you is a striking landscape that commands your attention to the exclusion of everything else. And they are called landscapes after all.

The problem is that when you capture that exhilarating land on a small two-dimensional surface your perspective immediately changes. Often, there is a feeling that something is missing. The land occupies only part of the rectangle, and often cannot carry the composition by itself. Sky will usually be part of that composition. But, unless the sky is dynamic, and contributes meaningful compositional elements to the scene, the resulting image will lack impact. Skies also affect lighting which is all-important to establishing mood. The shapes, tones, and colors of clouds influence mood as well. It is a mood that stirs emotions and draws viewers into an image. That goes for most photographs, not just landscapes.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to define and illustrate types of skies and their compositional impacts on landscape images and to influence outdoor photographers to actively plan their photography outings and their compositions to take advantage of the drama that often unfolds in the sky when conditions are ripe. As it is productive to research and maintain a log of photogenic locations for future planned trips, it is equally productive to make note of the best times of year to visit those sites when active weather changes and patterns help produce the most exciting scenes.

To illustrate this article, I selected 31 images that I think to demonstrate what I mean by “dramatic skies”, and then placed them in eight categories that should be helpful in determining what to look for. There is nothing sacred about these categories, and often a visually appealing sky may fit into more than one category. But, this is a simple system designed to sharpen an outdoor photographer’s vision.

Unusual Cloud Formations

Unusual in this context either means uncommon shapes and/or scale. The next two images fall into the first category, while the third captures a single massive monsoon cloud in the process of dumping rain.

Ragged vertical cloud stack over Carrousel Rock
Ragged vertical cloud stack over Carrousel Rock

Aside from being the only clouds in the sky at the time, this cloud formation was unusual for its deep vertical expanse centered directly over a well-known red rock “monument”. The impression was that somehow, the formations of rock and cloud were mysteriously linked. Most likely, this cloud configuration was the result of one or two large clouds that were rapidly evaporating in the ultra-dry air current that was moving them toward the east.

Procession of four identical cumulous clouds over Mogollon Rim
Procession of four identical cumulous clouds over Mogollon Rim

As the northern Arizona monsoon season winds down in September, cumulous clouds steadily diminish in size. The dramatic nature of this sky results from four clouds of the same size and shape in an evenly spaced procession moving along the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The characteristics of the cloud formations in the above two images are not predictable. But it was important to look for cloud sizes and shapes that would work best in those scenes and to keep a camera ready for likely opportunities during the Spring and Fall months.

Huge cumulonimbus cloud dumps torrential rain over the North RimHuge cumulonimbus cloud dumps torrential rain over the North Rim
Huge cumulonimbus cloud dumps torrential rain over the North Rim

This image was taken in August in the mid-monsoon season looking across Grand Canyon toward the North Rim. Typically, Grand Canyon shots are aimed down into the canyon as skies are rarely as interesting as the canyon itself. Looking for the exception, I drove two hours to the Canyon specifically to catch this type of image, took a few minutes to make six exposures, and then drove home. I was lucky, but the odds were in my favor based on the weather forecast. 

 High Wind-Shear Cloud Shapes

If strong enough, high altitude winds break up and distort clouds into wild-looking shapes, and often create long nebulous streaks called mares’ tails. This frequently occurs over mountain ranges and deserts, and particularly during periods of strong seasonal change like in early Spring and late Summer, as illustrated in the following two images. In the case of the second image, the wild streaks complement the tangles of foliage in the Palo Verde tree.

Wind-driven clouds move across the Canadian Rockies
Wind-driven clouds move across the Canadian Rockies
Wild Spring sky over the Sonoran Desert
Wild Spring sky over the Sonoran Desert

The effects of wind shear can also be observed along the sea coast, particularly in Spring. The following image captures a notably chaotic sky which beautifully complements the wild ocean pounding against the sea stacks in Cannon Beach, OR.

A chaotic sky matches the energy of the Oregon seaside
A chaotic sky matches the energy of the Oregon seaside

On rare occasion, high winds above the mountains blow steadily and stretch the clouds into elliptical shapes rather than tear them apart. These are called lenticular clouds and are beautifully illustrated in the following film image that I took in Owens Valley, CA adjacent to the Eastern Sierras in 1995. This is possibly the most dramatic sky that I’ve ever been able to photograph.

Trailing edge of a major storm system leaving the Sierras
Trailing edge of a major storm system leaving the Sierras

It is worth noting that in all four of these images, the landscapes and the skies are equally strong. The drama would be missing from all of these scenes if either the skies or landscapes had been ordinary.

Storm Clouds

Storm clouds are usually dark and threatening, which almost always evokes interest, particularly when part of the scene is still bathed in sunlight. Though very different, the next four scenes share that same set of conditions. It is axiomatic among landscape photographers that the best times to shoot are immediately before a storm and immediately afterward. This only requires a photographer to pre-select the place and to stay tuned to the weather reports before planning an outing.

Rain storm passes over Maligne Lake in Jasper NP
Rain storm passes over Maligne Lake in Jasper NP
Coastal clouds gather over Bandon Beach, OR
Coastal clouds gather over Bandon Beach, OR
Storm clouds leave Skaftafell Icefields near Jokulsarlon, Iceland
Storm clouds leave Skaftafell Icefields near Jokulsarlon, Iceland
Sunsets on Sedona red rocks as storm clouds gather
Sunsets on Sedona red rocks as storm clouds gather

Low-lying Clouds

Almost always during the first ten minutes of a clearing storm, there will be low lying clouds draped across mesas, hills and low mountains. This creates incredibly moody scenes that document the interaction between Earth and Sky. Once again it requires anticipation and preparation to be in the right spots to capture these scenes. But, it gets easy after a few efforts.

Sunlight breaks through scattering low clouds near Soldier’s Pass
Sunlight breaks through scattering low clouds near Soldier’s Pass
Snow and low clouds blanket red rocks in West Sedona
Snow and low clouds blanket red rocks in West Sedona
Morning sun illuminates Coffeepot Rock as fog lifts
Morning sun illuminates Coffeepot Rock as fog lifts
Bright mist swirls above Coffeepot formation
Bright mist swirls above Coffeepot formation

Clouds as Compositional Elements

Clouds do not have to be unusual to complete a dramatic landscape image. They are often helpful in filling areas of negative space around landforms that would otherwise seem unbalanced. The next three images demonstrate this. Without clouds the first two would show negative space in the sky where the top of the landform follows a diagonal. In the first case the diagonal was created by angular perspective. In the second image, the actual shape of Mt Rushmore resembles a lop-sided pyramid. Fortunately there was a large cloud in the right part of the sky to fill each of those spaces allowing for balanced composition. Had those clouds not been in place, I would have waited until those or similar ones moved into position.

Courthouse Rock and Bell Rock after a brief shower
Courthouse Rock and Bell Rock after a brief shower
Mount Rushmore and huge cumulus cloud on opposing diagonals
Mount Rushmore and huge cumulus cloud on opposing diagonals

To make the third image I did have to wait half an hour for an appropriately-shaped cloud to move into position to the right of Agathla Peak, an ancient volcanic plug near Monument Valley. This is a minimalist landscape in which the white fleecy October clouds and robin’s egg blue sky was just as central to the image as the peak itself. Each had their own beauty, but without each other the image would be lacking. To achieve a balanced composition the two larger clouds had to be in precisely the right spots. It wasn’t guaranteed, but after 30 minutes the clouds moved into perfect position.

Agathla Peak, Navajo Reservation
Agathla Peak, Navajo Reservation

 Sunsets and Sunrises

Colorful sunsets and sunrises are most likely photographed more frequently than any other scene showing large amounts of sky. Many times, most of the picture is occupied by sky with only a hint of terrain left in the image. There are two major reasons for this. First, a strong colorful sunset is dramatic and is the motivation for making that exposure. Second, the most dramatic sunsets occur when the sun, at or near the horizon, lights up the clouds immediately above. So, the scene is shot directly into the light leaving terrestrial detail severely under-exposed, and ultimately in silhouette. Only a little of this black zone is necessary, so the sky often occupies 80% to 90% of the photo. With truly dramatic sunsets and sunrises there is nothing wrong with such images. The following sunrise typifies this simple capture.

Brilliant sunrise over the Mogollon Rim
Brilliant sunrise over the Mogollon Rim

An alternative to showing more detail in the foreground and midground while shooting contra-jour is to take sunsets and sunrises with lakes or ocean in the foreground. The water than reflects the cloud colors and usually displays texture created by ripples and waves as illustrated by the next two images.

“Red Sky at Night….”, Kauai, HI
“Red Sky at Night….”, Kauai, HI

The next two sunsets, taken in Laguna Beach, CA, show broad expanses of water with little or no land in the foreground. However, the rare sunset colors and dynamic cloud layers make it clear that the sky is the whole show. Both images capture unusual occurrences. The first image shows normal red and yellow sunset colors in the middle third of the image. But, a second low altitude cloud layer is in deep shadow and therefore reflects blue light.

Opposing blue & red colored clouds as the sun sets over Catalina
Opposing blue & red colored clouds as the sun sets over Catalina

The second sunset image (below) is technically not really a sunset. There is almost no red because the sun hasn’t yet dipped below the horizon. But it is hidden by the dense storm clouds and paints the thinner cloud cover with yellow and orange, again creating a warm/cool contrast in the scene.

Brilliantly lit cirrus clouds appear between dense cumulus layers
Brilliantly lit cirrus clouds appear between dense cumulus layers

However, shooting into the light is only one way of catching sunset color. In an urban setting, land details can be lit by artificial light while shooting toward the sunset.

Orange County Performing Arts Center during Intermission
Orange County Performing Arts Center during Intermission

And, shooting at right angles to the sunset reduces the contrast ratio between sky and land.

Brilliant sunset over Lookout Studio at Grand Canyon
Brilliant sunset over Lookout Studio at Grand Canyon

There are times when the setting or rising sun will brilliantly illuminate clouds with reddish light at the other end of the sky. Usually that lighting is more subtle and doesn’t last long. But, the exceptions enable the pairing of brilliant skies with exciting landscapes, as seen in the following three images.

Late day view toward Secret Mountain Wilderness, Sedona, AZ
Late day view toward Secret Mountain Wilderness, Sedona, AZ
Wild red clouds and moonrise over the Mogollon Rim
Wild red clouds and moonrise over the Mogollon Rim
Grand Teton Sunrise at Schwabacher Landing
Grand Teton Sunrise at Schwabacher Landing

Rainbows

And of course, no list of dramatic skies could be complete without rainbows. In order to capture them you must always have the sun directly behind you and be looking at a scene that has substantial moisture in the air. Usually, the rainbows appear in front of retreating storm clouds, as shown in the following two images.

Brilliant rainbow marks the end of a storm, Sedona, AZ
Brilliant rainbow marks the end of a storm, Sedona, AZ
Violent storm gives way to a wide double rainbow
Violent storm gives way to a wide double rainbow

But on occasion, just clear moist air is sufficient to produce a spectacular rainbow.

Raven & unusual rainbow above a cloudless Mogollon Rim
Raven & unusual rainbow above a cloudless Mogollon Rim

Night Skies

Photographing night skies over some earthly projection has become extremely popular during the past five or six years. Some of these images include a brilliant Milky Way over an artificially illuminated tent, tree, person or rock feature as a way of relating our modest existence to the unimaginable vastness of the Universe. I think such images are striking and awe inspiring. Since I’m primarily a landscape photographer, and prefer to photograph the night sky in conjunction with Sedona’s most inspiring red rock formations. 

After much research and follow-up, I chose a night in late April  when the Milky Way’s central core would be low over the horizon and when the waning crescent moon wouldn’t rise until 2:38 AM giving me almost two hours of shooting in a moonless sky. The specific date also took advantage of the Aquariid meteor shower, and a very bright Jupiter caused by its historically close distance from Earth. The image that I chose for this article is very different. It shows light pollution from Phoenix over 100 miles away, a brilliant Jupiter, the Milky Way largely against a black starlit sky, three short meteor streaks (two of which are faintly seen through the lower thin cloud cover creeping in), and the moonrise still in progress at 2:45 AM. The Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Courthouse Rock formations are clearly defined.

dramatic sky
Milky Way, Meteors, and Moonrise over Sedona

Postscript

“Dramatic Skies” was written to call attention to the importance of sky content in landscape photographs, and to provide examples of the types of weather events that might most effectively complement different landscape environments. This article only scratches the surface. It will be fun for me to see how others will expand on this theme. Happy Shooting!


Harvey Stearn
October 2019
Harvey Stearn
Sedona, AZ

Harvey Stearn has photographed landscapes and wildlife for over sixty years. Though he was a top executive for two large scale land development and home building corporations, he always found time for his fine art photography which won many awards. His work was exhibited in art museums in California and Arizona, and was also featured in billboard advertisements and published in magazines. Mr. Stearn served on the California Arts Council for nine years, including two years as Chairman and another two as Vice Chairman. In addition, he was the founding Chairman of the John Wayne Airport Arts Commission in Orange County, California. Mr. Stearn’s work was sold through Arizona galleries for 15 years. In recent years he wrote 14 illustrated articles for Luminous-Landscape.com, and published a book entitled “In Search of the Old West”. He was a guest lecturer on photography on a cruise ship visiting Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands. In 2019, his landscape image "Clearing Snowstorm at West Fork of Oak Creek" was selected as one of the top 100 images out of 3800 submissions for NANPA's (North American Nature Photographers Association) Showcase exhibit and publication.

Article Type: Columns, MISC

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