Here in Nebraska weather is an integral part of our landscape, whether you're a farmer or a photographer. In a mostly horizontal world it's nice to have something interesting above the horizon at times.
One day the weather report indicated a front moving slowing across the area so I drove away from the city to find a place where I could see the "big picture" away from the close proximity of houses, trees, etc. There was this small country road running by cornfields that gave the best perspective so I set up and waited. Watching the clouds moving and the sun setting I believed there would be a time when the light and shapes would be very interesting. A great dance slowly happening above me as i waited for the players to assume just the right positions.
There's something grand about weather formations. It's a scale we just about can't grasp as county-wide clouds stretch to the horizon and light plays around in areas bigger than sports stadiums. From airplanes you get a sense of endless architecture; seeing it in the context of more earthbound structures you realize immense can often trump endless!
A great photographer once told me to wait until the scene "clicks" into place, where the elements reach positions that seem right for the composition. I fear sometimes waiting too long, delaying my shutter action until the moment passes. It means I end up taking a lot of images but in the end he's right - looking back over them all only one or two truly seem right for the moment. With experience hopefully I can anticipate those moments and reduce the number of images I have to cull through!
As it turned out, the image below is what "clicked" for me. It has dimensionality as the light draws the eye along the stream of clouds to the back of the image only to return through the cornfield to the fence and near grass. It has detail throughout - from clouds to grass to distant trees. The arrangements of elements looks natural and the lighting portrays objects as I saw them. I look at this one and can immediately recall the moment.
One thing I've learned with digital photography is to shoot in RAW, capturing the information that comes right off the sensor without any processing in camera. The second thing I've learned is that RAW images will look flat when properly exposed so judging the image at first glance is not a good idea. You have to "develop" the image to get the look you intend. When the above image first came up on my computer it was pretty flat with little contrast in the clouds and not much drama in the lighting. But with a little work you see what came out.
I started developing the image by separating the part above the horizon from the part below. Different software handles this in different ways - in Photoshop I selected all the image above the horizon and created a mask. A mask is a device that lets you selectively process parts of the image rather than the whole image. For my mask I blocked off all the image below the horizon so I could work on the upper part.
By increasing the contrast I brought out details in the clouds and also increased the difference in appearance between the lightest and darkest areas. This immediately gave me more drama, especially in the part of the image near the horizon where the clouds are trailing off into the light. I also decreased the brightness of the sun in the upper right to bring out some detail in that area.
I reversed the mask so I could work only on the part of the image below the horizon. Here I increased the brightness just a little, to bring it more in line with the brightest part of the sky. I also increased the contrast some to bring out the texture in the grass and cornfield.
Light and dark - those are the hallmarks of dramatic weather and usually what our eye notices immediately in such a scene. My goal was an image that looked very realistic, just like what I was seeing when I made the image. This one is pretty close.
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