Cloudscapes

How a quarantine activity evolved into a newfound love for the tiny genre of photography and art.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Cloudscapes make up a tiny genre of photography that is nowhere near as popular as landscapes, street, nature, wildlife or documentary works. In some ways that makes sense: unlike with other genres of photography, with cloudscapes you are almost entirely at the mercy of clouds; and unless you plan to drive around vast distances at incredible speeds, composing is not a luxury. With cloudscapes you play with what you have, which is why it quickly loses its appeal. I had myself thought of cloudscapes as the last resort of a photographer; an activity for someone who is facing a creative block.

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, quarantined at home one day, I found myself beneath orange evening skies and noticed that every cloud evoked a certain feeling. Every cloud moved with its own rhythm and weight, a dance across the skies. Every cloud had a character, but only fleetingly. As the wind swept it out of shape—or rather into another shape—that cloud no longer was; in moments it was unrecognisable, but it was still a cloud of a different kind. Before me, high up in the sky, was playing out a dynamic painting between the sun, water and wind, a painting that was constantly changing while at no moment losing its beauty. Its beauty was a Shepherd tone, rising every moment, never peaking.

As I saw the myriad of colours and noticed how no two minutes, let alone days, were the same, it slowly dawned on me that cloudscapes may not be ideal from a control standpoint but they were undoubtedly a series a missed opportunities by design. They were also, equivalently, a never-ending series of opportunities. They had the advantage that no two photographers would ever make the same picture. You could photograph the Eiffel Tower like a million others and still keep things fresh—such is the beauty of photography—but this was on an entirely new level: with cloudscapes, no two photographers would likely ever even have the same subjects.

Painters have been enjoying a certain freedom photographers have not been afforded; a cloud can be whatever the painter wishes. He commands the cloud and it obeys. (For more on cloudscapes in painting see the excellent paper ‘Cloudscapes in theory and practice’ by Ank C. Esmeijer.) Photographers on the other hand cannot command. Indeed we may need to run around to protect our cameras from the storm as I learnt a couple of days ago. But we can freeze beauty, and reality, for eternity; and we get to choose what we freeze based on our thoughts and our connections with the clouds.

And so it was that for the past fortnight I have been making one picture a day of a cloud that drew me in. Some were in bright blue skies while others were around sunset, and still others were made just as a storm set in. Everything, without and within, added to the beauty of these clouds teaching me the age old lesson that everything around us can beautify us—if we let it.

On a technical level, I switched between my wide and telephoto lenses, stuck at f/8 and ISO 640 for most shots. I also used a polariser for some pictures because I was often shooting upwards, perpendicular to the setting sun. Nailing the exposure was quite easy—this is one good reason to recommend cloudscapes to new photographers—and with that nearly everything came out of camera beautifully. Things were spot-healed in post because my D600 is infamous for its sensor oil spray issue, but that was the limit of my editing besides minor highlight corrections.

Besides the handful published above in this article, you can find a digital zine of all my recent cloudscape works on my Instagram or, better yet, in high resolution on my portfolio. If you find that you have time to spare these coming weeks, do give the clouds some—you will not regret it.

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