Experimenting With Cloud Stacking in Photography

Experimenting with focus stacking and clouds to create exciting and vibrant images.  Follow my cloud stacking in photography guide below and see if it can help inspire you to also experiment.

 Cloud Stacking in Photography - A colorful sunset image of the Marshall Point Lighthouse in Rockland, Maine
Marshall Point Lighthouse – Rockland, Maine. Paring the stack down from 60 images to 27 images in the stack removed those images with less color.

There are times when a photographer just has to do a bit of experimenting. I had been waiting for the perfect conditions and composition to play with a photo idea. While using the program StarStaX to create star trail images, I knew there had to be other ways to make use of its focus stacking capabilities.

The thought occurred to me that I could incorporate somewhat fast moving clouds with a nice foreground to see how the program would handle this subject.

The opportunity finally arose while on the Maine coast at the Marshall Point Lighthouse south of Rockland. A slight bit of color was just starting in the fast moving clouds, so I knew it was time to work quickly.

When knowing the steps ahead of time for creating an image, they can be set up rather quickly. Here, I wanted to accentuate the colorful clouds in the sky and get photos at a set interval to capture their movement and changing hues.

A colorful sunset image of the Marshall Point Lighthouse in Rockland, Maine created by stacking 57 images by Andy Long.

A nearly full stack of 57 images have been merged together.

Tips For Cloud Stacking in Photography

1.) If an intervalometer is available (a device that one plugs into the camera which controls how often, how long and how many photos are made), this is the best way to create the series of images needed for the stack.

If possible, have some pre-sets done with it so it will be set to take an image every ‘X’ amount of seconds. If this is not the desired rate, a quick change will get it ready for the optimal time, based on how fast the clouds are moving. I set mine at 15 seconds – seemed like an appropriate amount of time to allow for some space and movement in the clouds between each image.

Make sure the Drive on your camera is set to continuous, so when the intervalometer is activated the camera will take one photo after another until the sequence is completed.

NOTE: If an intervalometer is not available, a regular cable release and Single frame Drive can be used. Just count off the desired time between photos before clicking the shutter release button.

2.) It’s important to get the desired composition right at the very start and then hope the clouds cooperate with where they move in correlation to the foreground subject. I looked at how the clouds were forming, and knowing I didn’t want the lighthouse in the middle of the composition, I moved to find the right spot to set up with the lighthouse and clouds in the right position.

3.) Then, quickly set the proper exposure on the camera prior to making that first image, as you will not have the time to reset during the series of images.

Red, orange, pink and yellow sunset image of the Marshall Point Lighthouse in Rockland, Maine created by stacking 16 images by Andy Long.

Using every other image from the middle section pared it down to 16 images for this stack.

Make sure the exposure captures everything from foreground to background. Based on the composition, use either Evaluative Metering or Center-Weighted Average. The latter averages the exposure for the entire metering area, but with greater emphasis on the center metering zones.

Unlike Evaluative metering, it does not compare brightness readings from different parts of the scene; it simply reads overall brightness.

Because there was a bit of darkness near the center of my composition with the lighthouse, I did not want this affecting the reading so I opted for Evaluative. If the lighthouse was a little more off to the side, Center-Weighted could have been used. To help the colors in the sky, the White Balance was set to Cloudy, which enhances any warmth in the sunset colors.

4.) For the best quality, use the lowest ISO possible, such as 100. ISO for images such as this are subjective and if more succinct individual cloud images are desired then a higher ISO can be set.

The ISO my stack was set at 200. It could have been set down to 100 to get even better quality, but I wanted enough shutter speed to reduce the movement in the clouds for each image. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/25th of a second to 1/80th for the images used in the stack.

A sunset photo with many colors surrounds the Marshall Point Lighthouse in Rockland, Maine created by stacking 29 images by Andy Long.

  With your cloud stacking in photography, Just keep playing with the various images in the stack and watch your image come to life.

5.) With everything set in place, make a test photo and look at it without moving the camera to make sure the composition and initial exposure looks good. You may need to make quick adjustments and use exposure compensation.

6.) Now it’s time to stand by and watch a beautiful sunset develop before your eyes. For this series, a total of 60 images were made from the time I started until the color in the clouds started fading.

Take the time to enjoy…. This is something we need to do on occasion. Too often we photographers get caught up in thinking we just have to “get the shot” and we don’t take time to watch and enjoy what is playing out in front of us. Once I had everything set up and going, the beauty of the sunset was a wonderful sight to watch and experience.

Only after the sequence is complete can you take the time to look at some of the individual images on the LCD screen. But until they are merged together and come to life on the computer, you won’t know if the series of images worked with your desired results.

A 14 image stack of the clouds shortly after sunrise at White Sands National Monument, NM by Andy Long.

Here I played with a 14 image stack of the clouds shortly after sunrise at White Sands National Monument, NM.

NOTE: If you don’t have the StarStaX program, work with your available software. Photoshop also has the capability to stack and merge your images and of course you can then fine-tune the final photo.

7.) Load and Stack the Files: In order to use the StarStaX program, the images have to be converted from RAW to JPEG files. After doing the conversion, try out different combinations of images to create a stack.

First, use every image taken in the stack to see if that looks good and then take a look at other combinations, taking some from the beginning where there might not be a lot of color, and then some at the end when the color started fading. Another combination could include every other shot to give a little more space between the clouds.

In the StarStaX program, there are several options to use for how the stack is created – Lighten, Gap Filling and Darken. Trying out each of these for stacking clouds, Lighten was by far the best option as the lightest part of each image needs to be combined together for the final composite.

After creating the file, reopen it in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to do the final adjustments. For these images, I increased the Blacks, Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation sliders on the Details panel.

This process can also be done with fast moving cloud images during the day, but the clouds need some good color contrast within them against a blue sky to allow for some definition. Sunrise and sunset images provide those changing cloud color contrasts.

Just because a software program is designed for one purpose it doesn’t mean it can’t be used for other things as well. Use your imagination and creativity to come up with new and unique images.

Hope you enjoyed my Cloud Stacking in Photography article. Try to step out of the box and try new things. If your photography seems to stay within the bounds of what’s comfortable, then there’s no growth. Try new techniques, ideas and ways of doing things with a camera and you’re going to WOW the viewer of your images.

by Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text & photos: © 2015 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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