Spring on the Great Plains means thunderstorms and thunderstorms for a photographer means great clouds. You never know when you’ll need a sample of clouds for an image so it’s good to have a database of candidate images. Yes, those great clouds you see in the sky of an outstanding photography may or may not have been there at the time the photographer hit the shutter release. And no, it’s not a new feature with digital photography. Film photographers were merging images in the darkroom for decades before the first digital sensor came out. Photographs are a photographer’s interpretation of a scene.
We’ve been spared the horrendous severe weather other parts of the Plains have endured but have seen our share of turbulent skies. I like it best when the clouds are roiling around with lots of shapes, tones and contrasts. A solid overcast sky is pretty uninteresting and fortunately somewhat rare around eastern Nebraska this time of year.
The image above is pretty indicative of what we’ve been seeing. I composed this from the dam of a local lake, a perspective I knew would give me a distant viewpoint and a somewhat bland foreground, leaving the clouds as the primary element in the image. I wanted that broad look of a panoramic, a grand vista appearance, and this one turned out the way I wanted.
When the weather is blowing through at a pretty good clip the challenge to creating panoramas is to set up your gear and exposure knowing you’ll be making images quickly. Why? Because the clouds are moving and the software that stitches together the multiple images really prefers little or no movement between the images it uses. Otherwise it will try to blend elements that are moving and the result can be either blurred or have a double exposure appearance. Granted, the software is pretty good at dealing with moving objects, but I prefer to not stress it that much because fixing a poor result can be a pain.
I set my camera on a tripod, swing through the angle I’ll be shooting while looking through the viewfinder to make sure each image will contain the image I want (I usually have to re-level once or twice to get the swing straight), find “landmarks” in each image to focus on while assuring there’s about 30% overlap and then set my camera on aperture priority exposure so I’ll get the same depth of field for each image. Then I attach my remote shutter release so I can swing and shoot without pressing down on the camera. This minimizes blur due to the motion of me pushing the shutter on the camera. Then I start shooting. Shoot, swing, shoot, swing,… These four images took about 8-10 seconds to make. Accounting for the wind speed that day this was plenty of time to minimize cloud movement between images.
I photograph in RAW so some processing of all my images is necessary. For this one, after stitching together in Photoshop CS5, I enhanced the contrast in the clouds, lightened up the tree tops and darkened the shoreline. A little sharpening and I’m done. Now I’ve got a nice stormy lake photo and some clouds that might show up in other images later!