Tag Archives: clouds

Working With Backlit Clouds

Broken Prarie Fence, Near Fort Collins, Colorado

Editing the image in this post, “Broken Prairie Fence,” was kind of like what I imagine it must be like to wake up the next day after a bender and not remember what you did the night before:  I know I did stuff, I just can’t remember quite what it was or in what order it went.

The real challenge with this image was the backlit clouds.  Some photographers do backlighting quite well; I find it to be difficult to work with.  For me, the problem mostly is that backlit clouds tend to present very high contrast.  For example, the centers of the clouds, where the sunlight doesn’t pass through, tend to be very dark, while the edges of the clouds, where the sunlight amplifies the white, tend to be very bright.  To keep the sky from being a busy, cacophonous conglomeration of wildly differing shapes and tones, my approach is to reduce the contrast to more manageable levels.

How to do this?  Well, therein lies the editing of this image.  I threw pretty much everything I know how to do to try and bring the contrast in the sky under control:  dragging top-down gradients over the clouds in various blending modes (I generally use normal, overlay, or soft light), dodging and burning with the brush tool, dodging and burning with the dodge and burn tools, making adjustments with levels and curves and painting them in using layer masks.  It was a pretty seat-of-the-pants operation, and after awhile my layers-based workflow (which I generally prefer but am not committed to) went out the window as I built up version after version of the image.

In the end, I think I achieved my goal.  My main vision for the image was a silhouette of the fence and tree against the dramatic backlit sky.  I dodged up the foreground grasses to bring out some of the detail and highlights there, but I think the image probably would have worked even if the foreground largely stayed in shadow.  Sometimes you just have to go along with the process and see where it takes you.

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Recent Work

What makes you want to get out and photograph?  Interesting skies do it for me, every time.  I’m extremely fortunate that where I live in northern Colorado, we have clear thin air, low humidity, and monsoonal storms in the summer, all of which help to create consistently wonderful displays of clouds in the sky.  I’m constantly gazing at the sky, trying to anticipate how the conditions will come together, judging the opportunities for a good photograph.  More than once, I’ve been doing something completely unrelated to photography and have had to stop and get my camera on account of a dazzling display coming together in the sky.

The image in this post, “Black Trees No. 7,” began during the mid-afternoon, when I was completely preoccupied with something else entirely and had no particular plans to photograph that day.  I happened to notice these interesting cloud shapes developing, where large swaths of clear blue sky were being punctuated with patches of billowy, drifting clouds.  The combination of such open spaces ringed by the natural frames of the clouds immediately had me imagining all kinds of compositional possibilities, and I felt the restless, irresistible urge to get out with my camera and see what I could make of it.

Is there something that calls to you action, that you can’t ignore when it comes?  It doesn’t have to be for photography, it can be for anything.  I think some of your best work gets done that way, when you have a strong connection with what you’re doing.  It gives you purpose and insight when you’re called to do something, that’s different from doing things in the ordinary course of things.  Don’t ignore it when it comes calling for you.  If you have it, you may be a skygazer, too.

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The Story Behind “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky” Part 1 – Always Stop

Touch the Sky

This is the story, in three parts, of how I created the image “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky,” currently appearing on my Home page.


It begins with the image in this blog post called, naturally enough, “Touch the Sky.”  In general, I try not to have preconceived ideas about what I’m going to shoot.  This image was an exception.  For a long time, I had a mental picture of a bare, skeletal tree against a background of full, billowy clouds.  I would keep an eye out for the right kinds of trees and the right kinds of clouds.  Sometimes I would see great trees but no clouds, sometimes I would see great clouds but no trees.


Then one day, I was driving down the highway on my way to accomplish an errand, when I saw a thin line of clouds on the horizon, full and billowy, just like I had imagined.  As luck would have it, I also happened to be driving by a location where I knew there was a tree, bare and skeletal, that I thought might make the composition I wanted.


I almost didn’t stop.  When I have my mind set on something, I like to see it through.  And I wanted to complete the errand I was on my way to do.


But of course I did stop.  I did capture this image.  I no longer have any idea what the errand was or why it seemed so important.  But I do remember capturing this image.  I remember thinking how I would use my long telephoto lens to compress the perspective, placing the tree right up against those clouds.  I remember pacing the scene back and forth to get just the right perspective of the tree against the clouds.  I remember how that line of clouds was so thin that I could fill the frame with them only so much, and no more, or else I would get the bright blue sky creeping in from above or below.


Photography has been a great teacher of many things for me.  One of them is the synchronicity between opportunity and action.  When the right opportunity comes along, you have to act on it.  Moments are fleeting, and when they are gone, they are gone.  When you see a moment coming together for you, an opportunity that demands your action, always stop for it.


Next time, Part 2 of the story behind my image, “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky.”


P.S.  I learned the “Always Stop” lesson from one of my favorite photographers, Cole Thompson, who wrote a great blog about it here.  Please check it out if you have the chance, with my apologies to Cole for appropriating the phrase he coined for my blog!


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