Cloud Types and What They Do for Photography

As funny as it sounds, I love clouds. In my opinion, clouds completely change your landscape photography for the better whether it's helping your composition or enhancing colors in the sky. It may surprise you to know that there are around 10 different types of clouds and each one changes or enhances your photographs differently. Let's take a look at the different types of clouds you may come across and I'll do my best to explain what that particular cloud type does for your photography.

Quick FYI: When I say a cloud type can't help your composition, I'm saying that I wouldn't recommend putting too much of the sky in your shot if that's the only cloud type available. Certain clouds just don't add enough to your shot because they are too thin or boring looking.


Cirrus

Description: Cirrus clouds are thin, delicate looking and white. These clouds look like hair blowing in the wind and are commonly referred to as "mare's tails."

In photography: Cirrus clouds are made up of ice crystals which help enhance the colors in the sky. These clouds will also rarely diminish the brightness of the sun, and tend to stay lit up long before the sun rises and after the sun sets.

Composition Notes: Cirrus clouds are a bit too thin to help your composition on their own. I'd recommend not using too much of the sky in your shot if these are the only clouds around.

Cirrostratus

Description: Cirrostratus clouds are similar to cirrus clouds, but come in thin sheets that usually cover up the sky.

In photography: Due to their thinness, Cirrostratus clouds produce a halo effect when the sun or moon passes behind them. These clouds are often around 12 to 24 hours before it rains or snows. Cirrostratus clouds are great if you can use the halo effect to your advantage otherwise they can be a bit boring on their own.

Composition Notes: Cirrostratus clouds are a bit too boring to help your composition unless you are shooting for a halo effect around the sun. I'd recommend not using too much of the sky in your shot if these are the only clouds around.

Cirrocumulus

Description: Cirrocumulus clouds typically form from Cirrus or Cirrostratus clouds and share many of the same features. These clouds appears are small puff-like ripples in the sky and are usually white or gray.

In photography: Typically occurring in winter, these clouds give off a cold, fish scale like appearance. These clouds let a lot of light bleed through them and also enhance the colors in the sky.

Composition Notes: Cirrocumulus clouds are thick enough to work in your composition unlike Cirrus which are too thin. You can include more of these clouds in your shot without making it too dull.

Altostratus

Description: Altostratus clouds have a bluish-gray color to them and typically cover the entire sky. 

In photography: Even though altostratus clouds look thick, they are actually thin and let the sun shine through in certain spots. These clouds are a bit boring since they come off completely flat, but can look menacing in high contrast black and white or HDR shots.

Composition Notes: These clouds aren't going to help your composition unless you enhance them by kicking up the contrast or by composing an HDR shots.

Altocumulus

Description: Altocumulus clouds look white or gray and are composed of water droplets. These clouds can appear as rolling lines or waves in the sky and often form at night.

In photography: These clouds give your photographs a very unique look. I wouldn't recommend taking too long of an exposure as they could possibly blend into each other.

Composition Notes: These clouds are nice enough to enhance your composition. They help bring the sky to life in your shot. You can include more of these clouds in your shot without making it too dull.

Nimbostratus

Description: The famous rain cloud. Dark, thick, widespread, and gray cloud thick enough to block out the sun. Usually comes with snow or rain.

In photography: Nimbostratus clouds can be a bit boring if the sky is just a widespread gray, but these clouds frequently come with lower rough clouds that can look menacing in high contrast black and white or HDR shots. 

Composition Notes: Great if you are going for a menacing and dark look, but otherwise this sky is rather boring to include too much of it in your shot.

Cumulus

Description: Cumulus clouds (My favorite clouds) are puffy, white to gray clouds that look like fluffy cotton balls. These clouds are usually detached from each other, have sharp edges, and grow in size throughout the day until they dissolve in the evening.

Cumulus clouds in photography: Cumulus are the best clouds for photography. They can add to your composition, make shots taken any time during the day even better by filling the sky, and have a beautiful range of bright vivid whites to dark menacing blacks throughout them.

Composition Notes: Incredible looking clouds for your composition. You can include more of these clouds in your shot without making it too dull.

Stratus

Description: Stratus clouds are low, thin, gray blankets in the sky that usually bring a light mist or drizzle. If these clouds are low enough we call them fog. 

In photography: These clouds can be a bit boring, but if they are low enough you can use the fog to add a great effect to your photographs. During the day, you can usually see a perfect outline of the sun behind these clouds.

Composition Notes: Too boring to enhance your composition unless you are shooting for a fog effect. I'd recommend not using too much of the sky in your shot if these are the only clouds around.

Cumulonimbus

Description: Cumulonimbus clouds are thick, heavy clouds that can be as large as a mountain. These clouds bring thunderstorms, and are around during hail or tornadoes. 

In photography: Cumulonimbus clouds can completely change your composition due to their size. If these clouds are further away, they make the sky look fantasy-like and can almost be photographed by themselves. These clouds can also bring lightning along for the ride so try long exposures if you see any.

Composition Notes: Incredible looking clouds for your composition. You can include more of these clouds in your shot without making it too dull.

Stratocumulus

Description: Stratocumulus clouds are low-flying, gray, and lumpy clouds usually showing up in waves or roll-like pattern. These clouds have shades from bright, vivid whites to flat grays.

In photography: Stratocumulus clouds are my absolute favorite clouds to see hanging around during a sunrise or sunset. These clouds enhance every color in the sky and hold colors for a lot longer.

Composition Notes: These clouds can greatly help your composition during a sunrise or sunset. You can include more of these clouds in your shot without making it too dull.


So how does knowing this help you when you can't control the clouds? Well if you look out your window and see a certain type of cloud, you can get a better idea of what to expect out of your shot. If you are already out and ready to shoot, seeing what cloud types are in the sky may help you compose your shot differently since you have a better understanding of how light interacts with them.

Hope that helps! Any questions or comments, please let me know below!