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Introduction

One of the most important aspects of photography is to compose your frame properly. Weather photography is not different, although with some phenomena finding the right composition in the field can be quite challenging. But if you want eye-catching photos that stand out from everyone else's photos of e.g. lightning and sunsets, composition is essential.

De-centering the main subject of your photo often makes it more interesting to look at, but keep it balanced. The main subject here is the large congestus cloud, and it is balanced by the smaller cloud to the left.

Learning to compose photographs

You can learn to compose photos properly by looking at photos from other people, scrutinizing their work. As composition is somewhat subjective, there are no clear rules as to what photo is properly composed and which is not. Therefore, bear with me if you don't agree fully with what I'm writing below - these are just guidelines.

Most importantly, a thing to remember when you take a picture is that the viewfinder of any camera (SLR cameras in particular) shows less than the full frame. Usually the viewfinder shows only 90% to 95% of the frame. It is important to keep this in mind when composing the frame, especially when you are trying to keep objects out of your frame.

Composing the frame - a few guidelines

On weather photos the foreground scale should match the background scale. What I mean is that when you take a picture of a cloud near the horizon, the foreground should preferably also be far away. You do not want a close tree-top as foreground, for example, unless for some reason you need it (e.g. to block the sun when photographing halos and such). Having something very close in the foreground usually distracts from the main subject of your picture, which is the cloud. As another example, having a small thunderstorm cloud next to a big tree doesn't usually look right.

You don't always have to include a foreground. If you don't have a foreground, the photo can look more artistic.

Avoid flat horizons if possible. Unless you are at sea, you can usually position yourself such that the foreground is not too boring, yet not too distracting. Hills and distant mountains work great, as do trees in the distance.

Keep the horizon low, from about 1/5 to 1/4 of the height of the frame, since it usually has nothing to do with the main subject of your photo (something in the sky). Do not have the horizon too low, and certainly not too high.

Keep the horizon level. Photos with tilted horizons always look very bad, unless it is obvious that the horizon is naturally inclined such as a mountain ridge.

There is no real need to have detail in the foreground. The less detail there is in the foreground, the more the sky attracts attention, which is desireable. In fact, using the foreground merely as a silhouette works best in most cases.

Balance your photo. If the sky is not completely empty next to the phenomenon (say a cloud) that you want to photograph, you may want to de-center the cloud somewhat. Again, there's no general rule for this. It all depends on how the sky looks. Sometimes you will want to center the main subject, at other times not. If you de-center the subject in the frame, the foreground should compensate for it; this is called balancing the frame. A cloud to the left of the frame should be balanced by something else, maybe another cloud to the right, a distant tree in the foreground, or a sloping hill.

If the foreground is bad, try to use it as a black silhouette. The many tree tops and roofs in this picture didn't distract from the stormy sky.

Is a foreground necessary anyway? Sometimes, you will want to abandon the foreground altogether, and zoom in to something in the sky. Many times when using a telephoto lens to photograph something high in the sky, you don't even have a choice, unless there is some tall object that you can walk near to. In these cases it may be best not to have any foreground at all, to focus on the main subject. It is then very important to balance the photo well, since there is no foreground to help with this.

As always, there's exceptions to the 'rules'. Photos with unusual composition can turn out to be really interesting. Any unusual composition will draw attention, and if you do it right, it can look really good. The possibilities are endless!

Some tips

Especially with digital photography, where a picture costs virtually nothing, it is good practice to take several photos of some subject rather than just one or two, every picture having slightly different exposure settings and/or composition. (It is not uncommon for me to shoot a whole roll of film on a sunset and only find 2 or 3 photos that are really worthwhile.)

Proper composition also depends on depth of field and perspective, which depends on the focal length of the lens on your camera. Anyone who owns a super-wide angle lens such as a 14mm lens (on 35mm film camera) can relate to this. With such lenses, even objects that are just about a meter (a few feet) away may look as distant as clouds in the background.

It is good to be somewhat critical of your own work, rather than being satisfied too quickly. But you should never be discouraged. This way you always keep improving your skills and end up with better pictures and techniques.