“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”
Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with photographing endlessly different and unique cloud formations. As photographers, we seek out dramatic light, but what else is a catalyst for transforming light like a cloud? Although I love shooting all types, there are certain clouds that I would consider my favorites.
Commonly known as a “mackerel sky” because of its similar appearance to fish scales, rolling waves of cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds create a painterly, rippling pattern across the sky. These clouds form high in the sky, by atmospheric waves mixing with cool air, and can indicate changing weather. During sunrise or sunset, a mackerel sky can appear to shimmer like iridescent fish scales. In French, Spanish, German, and Italian, these clouds are called “fleece” or “little sheep.”
Lenticular clouds get their name from Latin, for “lens shaped.” In fact, their shape is considered a possible explanation for some “flying saucer” UFO sightings. Lenticular clouds are often seen delicately draped across mountaintops, due to the fact that they are usually formed when stable moist air flows over a mountain or another obstruction. When air blows across a mountain range, it can set up a train of large standing waves in the air downstream, like ripples forming in a stream when water flows over a rock. If there is enough moisture in the air, the rising motion of the wave will cause water vapor to condense, forming the graceful, eerie lenticular clouds.
Mammatus clouds are so unusual and dramatic, they’re some of my favorites. The name Mammatus derives from Latin for mammary, or breast! Mammatus clouds result from the sinking of moist air into dry air, creating the distinctively bizarre lump shapes.
Turbulance within a cumulonimbus cloud will cause mammatus clouds to form.
Cumulonimbus clouds, also known as thunderstorm clouds, are large and usually very unstable. Hail, rain and lightning can all be the result of such unsettled conditions.
Clouds have the ability to indicate changing weather conditions, enhance an image, and capture our imaginations. The shapes, lines, colors, and textures provide endless possibilities. We all recall daydreaming shapes in clouds when we were children; now as landscape photographers, we use those same clouds to create dynamic, eye-catching images.
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