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Landscape Photography: Techniques for Photographing an Oncoming Storm

What settings should we use in order to capture the dark foreboding clouds of an oncoming rainstorm without losing detail? In this article, let’s learn how a professional photographer managed to obtain this shot of a storm approaching a town. (Reported by: Rika Takemoto)

Panorama of storm over town

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 70mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/80 sec., EV+0.7)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight
For this photo, I aimed to draw attention to the dynamic shifts and changes in the clouds and the column of rain. To show how localised the storm was, I shot using a horizontal orientation and captured the surroundings. I also paid attention to the exposure to ensure that the details of the clouds were not lost.


The background story: A localised rainstorm caused by the urban heat island effect

Not all rainstorms are equal. You might think this was a normal passing rainstorm if you were experiencing it, but it is actually a rare, localised rainstorm caused by the urban heat island effect. This effect occurs in cities when human activity and energy use such as exhaust heat from outdoor air-conditioning units and vehicles as well as heat from asphalt, rises to form cumulonimbus clouds, and results in abnormal rainfall patterns such as localised torrential rain. Because this phenomenon is unique to urban areas, it is rather difficult to shoot such clouds unless you have a high vantage point such as an observation deck.


How I got the shot

Where the shot was taken:
An observation deck from which I was able to get a bird’s eye view of the town.

Weather conditions:
Cloudy but good weather. There were many clouds in the immediate area, but blue skies in the distant background.

What I wanted to show:
The dynamic conditions of the storm. This could be achieved by showing that the rain was falling within a localised area, so as to juxtapose the storm with the surrounding calm.

I decided to use the horizontal orientation to show the areas not affected by the storm.
Using the rule of thirds composition, I placed the town in the bottom third of the screen, and the large, expansive sky in the top two-thirds of the screen.
To emphasise the intensity of the torrential rain and the presence of the cumulonimbus clouds, I placed the cumulonimbus clouds that brought the rain, along with the column of rain, in the centre of the image using the centre composition technique, and adjusted the focus.

Extra equipment: PL filter
Because light from within the observation deck would be reflected against the glass, I went up close to the window glass and used a polarising filter (also known as a PL filter) to remove any reflected glare, and to more vividly capture the greenery in the town and the blueness of the sky.

Shooting diagram


Tip 1: Use an aperture setting that achieves both a deep depth-of-field and a fast shutter speed – f/8

For this scene, I needed an f-number with a deep depth-of-field because I wanted to emphasise the detail and three-dimensional feel of the clouds as much as possible. And because I was unable to use my tripod on the observation deck, the f-number I used would also have to allow me to shoot by hand at fast shutter speeds without any camera shake. f/8 struck a balance between both requirements.


Tip 2: Point of focus that makes the main subject stand out – Clouds

I focused on my main subject – the cumulonimbus clouds that brought with them torrential rain. It can get challenging to achieve autofocus on subjects like these due to the low light-dark contrast difference. Hence, I focused on the boundary of the grey clouds instead.

Bonus tip: Make sure that the edges of the clouds are in focus. This will make it easier to get a good shot even with the constantly-changing cloud shapes and lighting conditions.


Tip 3: Avoid underexposure by using exposure compensation – EV+0.7

The whiteness of the clouds can trick the camera into underexposing the shot. In fact, when I used the proper exposure decided by the camera, the image ended up being slightly darker and rather eerie. Using positive exposure compensation made the image brighter.

Caution: If you make the image too bright, you will lose the texture and three-dimensionality of the heavy clouds. For this shot I settled on EV+0.7.


For more tips on photographing storms outdoors, check out the article:
Landscape Photography: Shooting Storms


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A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
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Rika Takemoto

Rika Takemoto

A landscape photographer, Takemoto started photography as a hobby since 2004. In 2007, she became involved with managing a photo-sharing website. She studied under the natural landscape photographer Yoshiteru Takahashi, and later became a freelance photographer. Since then, she has been shooting landscapes all over Japan (occasionally overseas), covering a wide range of themes.