Tag Archive for: Sky

Happy Anniversary: the first Skyboy Photo!

Struck by Fire
I was in the garden, I remember,  pulling weeds and looking for aphids, when I happened to look up from my work to see this — apparition — hanging over the treetops like an impromptu party decoration, curly clouds lit up in a vibrant crimson.  I’d never seen a cloud like this, seemingly on fire in the bright sunset, and I ran inside the house to grab my camera.

I’d been bitten.

I’m celebrating Skyboy Photos’ Anniversary this August 23, twenty-five years after that first photograph, and after becoming hooked on the magical and unpredictable beauty of the sky,  the two hundred miles of atmosphere that we live beneath, and the weather that it produces.

In the ensuing years I’ve seen many wondrous sights and glorious vistas that I certainly would have missed if I hadn’t started paying attention. And I don’t even have to travel! I’ve found that if you just stay put and pay attention, eventually something interesting, beautiful, strange, or all three, will happen overhead.
That first photo was taken with what was called, in the olden days, film.  We’ve had digital cameras for so long now, that I almost don’t remember what it was like having to take a picture and then wait three days to see if it came out. And not being able to do much about it, if it didn’t. I also remember spending money, lots of money.

Lens Kwik Photo of  Kansas City did all of my processing work. As I walked in the door with yet another three rolls of 36-exposure film, all used up on skies, skies, skies, Jean the owner looked up from her photo printing machine and said dryly, “Well, hello there, Sky Boy!”
The name has stuck.

Blue Skies and Black

My love affair with the sky actually goes back even further than that. Somewhat more than twenty-five years ago, when I was a lad of about eight years, I remember lying on my back on the brick patio outside our house. I was going for an Astronomy merit badge in Boy Scouts, and one of the assignments placed me there on the ground, looking up at the nighttime sky, I don’t remember exactly why.

I could see the Milky Way, and planets, and millions and billions upon zillions of stars, twinkling confetti floating in the nighttime sky . Lying there on the bricks, seeing nothing but the sky in my view, I had a sudden exhilarating sensation of near-vertigo,  as if I were lying on a mere six-foot pebble of rock, an asteroid floating and  spinning through space, travelling dizzyingly past all those stars and worlds and nebulae and galaxies that I could see from our suburban Pittsburgh home.

I got a telescope soon after, and begin to watch the night sky with it. Then I grew up, and other things happened, and some long time later, I was reminded by a friend about my boyhood fascination. I thought it might be fun to get a telescope again and try watching the night sky. My deep-sky photography has been one of the outcomes of this renewed interest, and it feels like this completes some kind of circle, I don’t know what. Perhaps in the way that I see that nature presenting herself to us in her infinite different ways, beautiful in every manifestation, and more interesting and gratifying the more you look, in every realm and scale.

Looking Up

You can visit my website at Skyboy Photos to see photographs, film and digital, of some of the memorable moments I have witnessed over the last twenty-five years. available as handmade Greeting Cards and Photographic Prints.

But more importantly, I hope you remember the next time you may happen to go outdoors, or if you are already outdoors, and focused (as indeed you should be) on the task at hand and the next thing you need to be doing in your day, or whomever you’re talking with or whatever you may be reading — well, I hope you happen, like I did, to glance up for just a moment. And when you do, I hope you are surprised by the unexpected, and delighted by the sheer wonder of the sky.

By day,

Weather rules us

By night we glimpse neighbors

The sky is our window and our


             — David Bayard


Clouds are great fun to watch.

Sitting under a tree, high on a hill, you gaze up to the sky for a few moments and you daydream. The rest of your life falls away as you watch the clouds slowly, imperceptibly roll across the heavens . Then you sigh again, take a sip of lemonade, and  pick up your book  to read for a while.

When you look up again, barely ten minutes later, the sky is totally different. Some clouds are gone and new ones have taken their place.  A whole new cloud deck is rolling in. How did the sky manage that sleight-of-hand? You look again and watch, and yes, just as before, the clouds are barely moving. Almost motionless. How did they do that so fast?


But when you play the sky’s endless movie at fast-forward,  a whole different story emerges!

The cumulus clouds which had seemed to be simply floating by like cotton balls are seen to be forming and dissolving at the same time, continually flowing through forms, coming and going in random disorder, appearing and disappearing throughout their short lives.
And you can see how the clouds pull themselves up by their own bootstraps: once an area of cloud starts condensing, the condensing moisture releases heat, which warms the air. The air rises. That pulls in more moist air to replace it. That air condenses, warms, rises, pulls in more moisture…the cloud feeds on its own growth in a positive feedback loop, like a microphone held too close to a speaker.

Clouds is Water

Sunlight and Rain

There is a classification system for clouds, but it’s only moderately helpful in deciphering cloud mysteries. There are too many types of clouds. There are clouds that fit in more than one category, or fit in between categories. Some defy categorization.

But what all clouds have in common is water.  Think of what your cool lemonade glass did once the waiter laid it on your table. The outside of the glass condenses water just like cold air condenses water out of warm, moist air. Then it’s just a matter of how many infinite ways warm moist air can be introduced to colder air, and in what shapes and fashions and situations.

To Make a Cloud

Of all the planets, only Earth (that we know of) has abundant water in all three of its possible phases: solid ice, liquid water, and gas vapor. Mars is too cold, Venus is too hot, but on our world, temperatures are just right. And the sun’s heat makes sure water is changing from one phase to another all the time.
Vapor in the air condenses into droplets that float and we call it a cloud. Droplets bump together and collect to form bigger droplets that sink to earth. We call it anything from a gentle filmy mist to a thundering downpour. Droplets freeze and fall as snow, sleet or hail.

Midwestern Ice Storm

Midwestern Ice Storm

Or vapor directly freezes to frost or rime ice on everything it touches. Or it falls as liquid  rain and freezes instantly when it lands,  pulling down mighty oaks by sheer weight.
Finally, water which has collected in lakes, oceans, soil, and living things (like us), evaporates back into gas, and we have sweltering humidity, dew and fog, and clouds. Moisture has come full circle, and is reunited with the deep blue sky.

Glaciation (Freezing Raindrops)

Glaciation (Freezing Raindrops)

Some of the most dramatic and fascinating displays of weather in the sky are the result of water changing from one phase to another. Nature seems to delight in creating different ways for things to mix and interact. Even a single type of event, like a snowflake or a cloud, is never repeated in exactly the same way twice.

Boundaries, borders and edges

The most interesting things in the sky occur at the boundaries between other things. The point of contact between two continent-sized air masses is where weather occurs. The boundary between earth and sky is the scene for fog, frost and dew, when we get to literally live in the clouds for a while. The boundaries between cold air, warm air, wet air, dry air, dirty, clean, moving or still, high or low, neutral or electrically charged air — all these boundaries produce their own special spectacles.


The border between day and night produces spectacular displays only possible with the low, red light from the sun on the horizon. The low light of dawn and twilight also punches up the contrast of clouds, outlines and defines their shapes more sharply than during the day. Sometimes two, three, four or even more cloud decks are all doing different things at the same time.

Three Cloud Decks at once

Three Cloud Decks at once

But the best way to learn about clouds is to live with them. Watch them. Go back up on the hill and spend some time watching. It’s really great fun!

Shooting Heaven and Nature

Photographing the sky is probably the laziest type of nature  photography there is. You don’t need to travel to far-off places, book an expensive safari, have adventures or even leave the house. And locating the subject  is pretty easy: the sky is usually right overhead.
The catch? Waiting for something to happen that might be photo worthy can take a long time.

Most of the time the sky is just, well, the sky. We think of it as featureless and uniform because it so often is. Every cloud looks like every other cloud, or so we think. We take it for granted, and pretty soon stop looking up altogether.
That’s why it pays to pay attention every so often.That’s where the surprises come in.
With the possible exception of sunrise and sunsets, photo-worthy moments of cloud and weather don’t always announce themselves ahead of time. They can happen at any time, and can last for hours or perhaps only a minute or two.  And when they do happen, I have found, it is usually at the most inconvenient times!
Shooting the Heavens
Of course, having a spectacular weather event and a camera does no good if you can’t see the sky. Finding a spot with a view can be hard, especially in cities. I have discovered a few open lots and high spots within a couple  blocks of my Kansas City home that afford a view of sky, at least in one direction or another, and another dozen spots around town, just in case I am out driving. Perhaps there are some spots near where you live that encourage sky gazing.

However, you don’t need a spectacular view to get a spectacular picture.  And the presence of trees or houses in the photo can actually give a sense of scale to the image, making the majesty of the sky more evident against the smaller details of the landscape. If you can’t find a better view than right where you’re standing, shoot first and ask questions later!
There are no rules, as far as I know, but the first one would have to be: always carry a camera. These days, if you have a phone, you have a camera, and today’s cellphone cameras can take fairly good picturesBut a camera that gives you a little bit more control over the settings can be helpful. Here are some of the fancy things you can do.
Focus is usually the easiest part: the whole sky is focused at infinity, by definition, so you could just focus your camera manually to infinity.  But using the auto-focus can be easier and more accurate. Be careful, though: uniform, featureless areas of sky or cloud will drive the auto-focus mechanism bonkers.  (Sorry for the techno-speak.) In that case, focus on areas of sharp contrast or detail in the clouds, or toward a distant landscape,  then keep the focus set as you move to shoot the actual subject. Shooting at the highest f/stop (with the smallest aperture) that you can get away with will also increase the sharpness of the image.
Metering photos
On most bright sunny or cloudy days,  you’ll need to “fool” the light meter by intentionally taking a picture that is darker that the camera thinks is correct, by as much as two or even three f/stops (or smaller shutter speed). I don’t know why this is, but most cameras bleach out sky and cloud at the regular settings. Darker tones seem to bring out the fine contrast in very bright subjects.

At night, of course, the opposite problem presents itself: not enough light. Use a tripod if you need to,  or just hold the camera steady for long exposures one. Digital cameras are much more forgiving of low light conditions, and you can always increase sensitivity on the camera without the photo becoming overly grainy. Exposures more than about a half-second will show cloud movement, depending how fast clouds are moving, so it is sometimes worth it.
Telephoto or zoom lenses are helpful in getting small or faraway events, but look for a telephoto that has a wide view when open, as well.  Even then, it may take four or five pictures to encompass a spectacular sunset or a storm front as wide as Wyoming. So, take the pictures! Hold the camera relatively level as you sweep side-to-side snapping a shot every second. Then go home and download a free software program (or your camera’s software) to “stitch” the photos into a panorama.
Crazy Weather

Sun dogs, arcs, iridescence and halos can be challenging to capture because they usually occur close to the sun. You can used a tree or signpost or just your fingers to block the sun’s disc, but try photographing without them, too, because most digital cameras can capture the detail without the sun washing out the entire picture. Aim the camera directly at the sun if you can, to minimize lens flare and reflections.
Photos of the land and the sky together, of course, give you two natures for the price of one. When the land is present, you get a true sense of the scale and majesty of the sky.  But usually, when you take a picture of the sky, the land appears black in the image. When you “shoot” for the landscape, the sky is to bright to see any detail.
The trick to capturing both, is to “bracket”, or take a series of photos at different exposures, from too dark to too bright. In the darkest, the sky will be perfectly exposed, and in the lightest, the land. You can then combine the two halves to display the best features of both, using digital imaging programs on the computer or that came with your digital camera.
There is no lazier, simpler and more accessible way to explore nature than to just lie back and gaze in wonder at the vast ocean of sky.  To be able to capture images from the gazing, well, that’s stealing fire from heaven!