My Cloudy Clouds

I have been studying clouds quite a bit lately.  Not only am I obsessed with getting a landscape shot with sharply focused clouds from front to back, but I am also learning how clouds help predict changes in weather, which is helpful in hang gliding.  Apparently hang gliding pilots are the best weather (wo)men–at least the ones who survive.

Plus, I just like clouds.  Who doesn’t really?  There’s something fascinating about the way they swirl and swoosh and dissolve in front of our eyes.

When it comes to my photographic goals with clouds, I’ve come to several conclusions.

  1. A fast shutter speed freezes the movement caused by wind.
  2. A small aperture is essential for expansive clouds that range from front to back in the frame.
  3. Lower ISO settings prevent graininess that can make clouds look less sharp.
  4. All of the above makes it very difficult to get sharp looking clouds in low light.
  5. Finding a focus point about 1/3 of the depth keeps things sharp front to back.
  6. Even if you do everything perfectly, the clouds may not be sharp in real life.

Number 6 is my latest discovery in my endeavor to capture sharply focused clouds.  Given that “cloudy” is used to mean “1. lacking definite form or limits” and blurred is considered a synonym for “cloudy,” this might have occurred to me sooner.

I find myself relieved to realize that my images are, in some cases, every bit as sharp as the clouds themselves were.  I have been walking Tisen through the park gazing upwards, smiling at the blurry looking clouds.  I try to pretend I’m bird watching so bystanders don’t think I’m crazy.  I’m not sure it helps.

For today’s experiment, I tested this theory.  I went up on the roof and got some shots of the sunset.  I found an angle that had parts of a roof top in the very near foreground that angles away from the camera towards a ridge line in the mid-depth of the photo and then a second ridge further back.  I figured this gives me landmarks so I can tell if I have depth of field even if the clouds appear blurry.

I also looked carefully at the clouds and determined that they hurt my eyes when I try to bring them into focus just with my eyes–especially the dark, large, foreground mist.

In post processing, I lifted the shadows beyond my personal preference in the first shot just to be able to see the sharpness of the focus better:

I look at the landmarks at each distance through the loupe in Aperture at 200%.  They are acceptably sharp.  Perhaps they could be sharper if I were shooting more towards the middle of the aperture range for my lens, but there is no discernible difference in the level of sharpness between the foreground and the background.  This makes me happy.

I can now stop calling myself names for having cloudy looking clouds.

Could’ve Been Great

There are times when everything just falls into place beautifully and you exceed your own expectations.  Then there are times like tonight.

At 8:15, I start gathering my gear.  Wireless remote shutter release attached to camera, check; 100-400mm lens with 1.4x extender on camera, check; lens foot secured in tripod, check; CF card in camera, check; reading glasses on head, check; warm layer of clothes added, check; beer in hand, check.  Time to head up to the roof.

By the time I get set up and in position, it’s 8:30.  Five minutes to moonrise.  I start looking for signs.  There is nothing.  The moon is always late here in the valley.

I start trying to focus on something in the vicinity of where the moon should rise since I have to focus manually and there is very little time to catch the moon as it rises.  Unfortunately, the maximum aperture at 560mm is f/8.0.  There’s not enough light to focus using the LCD and it’s impossible to tell if I’m in focus looking through the viewfinder.  I shoot, check my shot, try adjusting the lens in one direction or another and then shoot again.  I do not recommend this method of focusing.

When some light starts appearing above the ridge in what must be the only clouds in the sky, I get excited.  I go through the shoot and focus exercise several more times, hoping to get something sharp by accident.

The moon starts to appear and I go into a slight panic.  Now there is enough light to use the 10x magnification view in the LCD to focus, but I can’t seem to get the sharpness I want.  The moon looks sharp in 10x magnification before shooting, but when I review my shot, the focus is soft.  It’s not good.

Part of the problem is that I’m overexposing the moon.  I want to allow enough light to capture the great clouds around the moon with all the color–it looks like an amazing sunrise.

About the time I think I’ve got an exposure and focus that will look good, the camera suddenly stops working.  Now I am really panicked.  The moon moves so fast that when you are focusing on it at 10x magnification, you can watch it move in the LCD.  I am about to miss the rest of the moon rise.  Once the moon is above the horizon, the show is over–it just looks like a big hunk of moldy cheese.

Just when I decide I’m going to go order that new camera after all, I try removing the remote shutter release.  Sure enough, the camera start shooting again.  I get just a couple of quick shots of the last trees in front of the moon before it turns into floating cheese.  Then, I head back downstairs.

So close to that great shot I’ve been chasing!  Maybe next month.

Today’s Tisen shot is also not a sharp shot, but his stuck lip cracks me up too much not to share it anyway.