Fishermans Bridge, Istanbul
A strong graduated filter was applied to this photo to emphasize the eeriness of this bridge as light faded form the sky.

A Simple Guide to Making Clouds More Dramatic and Darker with Adobe LightRoom

I’m a big fan of clouds and the way they add extra interest in the sky, and especially when they catch the light of a great sunset or sunrise.

But sometimes they can be a bit gray and bland, and leave you with a very flat image. I want to go over in this post just some simple tips to making the sky more interesting, and adding drama to dark clouds in your post processing. These are tips that anyone with a photo editing program can put into practice and will help draw attention to the important elements in your photo.

I’ll be using Lightroom, but you can use other photo-editing programs like Photoshop, or even GIMP.

First of all, this will be easier to do if you’re shooting RAW files, as you have more control over how the photo turns out. But even if you’re using jpeg, you can still follow these tips.

Tip #1 – Use a graduated ND filter, or just add one in post-processing.

A graduated ND filter is usually a piece of glass you put over the lens that is darker at the top, and clear at the bottom. This makes the clouds darker and more dramatic while leaving the foreground unaffected. It is best to get your photo as close to what you want in the camera, but good ND filters can be expensive, and adding a graduated filter in LightRoom is a breeze. Simply use the filter tool and pull down from the top of the screen, and adjust the exposure to your liking.

Below you can see the original version of the photo from above.

original raw photo of fishermans bridge
The original, un-processed version of Fisherman’s Bridge in Istanbul. Notice that the photo doesn’t hold your attention quite as well, and the your eyes are attracted to the black clouds.

Tip #2 – Increase contrast and clarity on the clouds.

While adding your filter in LightRoom, you can also increase the contrast and clarity to add additional interest and drama in the clouds. Experiment with different amounts until you find what suits the photo best. Some photos require very little adjustment, while others need more attention.

As always, you get to determine what you want your photo to be, so have fun with it and don’t worry about making mistakes along the way.

Tip #3 – Adjust the color balance as needed for the sky.

Sometimes when adding contrast and reducing the exposure, the colors can be affected. So quickly check that your sky still maintains the correct colors you were aiming for. In some situations you might want to reduce the saturation in the sky to make it more black and white, but never lose sight of the overall feel of the image. I find it best to leave an image for a few minutes after making changes to it, to see if I like the changes when I come back to it.

Tip #4 – Make the clouds Move.

This is a tip you have to use when you are actually taking the picture. You can make your photo much more unique by capturing movement in the clouds. This can be tricky, however, because it generally requires you to take a long exposure of 30 seconds or more. Most cameras can only shoot for 30 seconds without a special tool called a cable release. This tool connects to the camera and controls when the shutter opens and closes, allowing you to take much longer photos.

To capture movement in clouds, you will probably need to use a 2 Minute shutter speed, but it depends on how quickly the clouds are moving.

Obviously you will need to set up a few other things on your camera before this is possible. You will need to make the aperture close to f16 or 22 to reduce the light coming into the lens, and you will want to change your ISO to 100, or whatever is the lowest setting. Lastly, you may need a Neutral Density (ND) filter of 3-10 stops. These filters limit the light coming into the lens, and range in how much light they reduce. If you’re shooting in daylight, you will need the 10 stop filter. I sometimes like to shoot right after the sunset, in which case a 3 stop filter works fine. These filters can range in price and quality quite a bit.

That covers my basic tips for adding more drama and interest to clouds. I hope you were able to gain a few ideas, tips or inspiration. Thanks for visiting!

Below is a recent photo a took in Hawaii which uses the techniques shared above to bring the interest down to the waves and make the sky full of foreboding drama.

Wave rushing up the rocks in Hawaii
Wave rushing up the rocks in Hawaii
How to Make Gray Clouds More Interesting with Lightroom
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2 thoughts on “How to Make Gray Clouds More Interesting with Lightroom

    • December 24, 2016 at 2:42 am

      Thanks Matt!


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