Overcoming Bad Weather When Shooting the Stars

There comes a time in every astrophotographer’s life when a bit of disappointment can enter the picture both literally and figuratively. That bit of frustration is commonly known as clouds. Most astrophotographers tend to hate clouds, but we have learned to embrace the misery. When clouds come out, Alison and I keep shooting on our stargazing trips.

In this article, I’m going to share with you why you should shoot astrophotography with clouds out. You’ll see it’s written more from the perspective of a couple of landscape astrophotographers than deep space astrophotographers, since that’s our current passion while enjoying astrotourism adventures.

Let’s get into it.  

Natural fog filter

Cloudy Night with the Milky Way and a Jayco RV
Clouds as a Natural Fog Filter | © Jason Takacs

Here’s a situation that has happened to us countless times. We are sitting outside relaxing by the fire and shooting the stars for a couple of hours when we notice some clouds off in the distance near the horizon. After about 30 minutes or so looking in the same direction, something seems different with the sky. The stars don’t pop as much. They are no longer sharp points, but fuzzy balls of light.

Instead of giving up on your astrophotography for the night, just keep shooting. You now have a natural fog filter without needing to attach one to your camera like I explain in this article on astrophotography with a fog filter. With a thin layer of clouds, the brighter stars are still visible. If you are shooting landscape astrophotography, this can be a good thing. It will allow you to emphasize certain constellations in a sometimes crowded sea of stars, especially if you are shooting the stars under a Bortle 1 sky.

Interesting Abstract Images

Are you interested in abstract photography? Clouds and stars together can create some pretty fascinating combinations. If you have never tried abstract photography, you might just find it can be a great creative outlet allowing you to see the world just a little bit differently.

Google Pixel black and white algae abstract
Google Pixel Algae Abstract | © Jason Takacs
Google Pixel black and white sanitizer bottle abstract
Google Pixel Hand Sanitizer Bottle Abstract | © Jason Takacs
Google Pixel black and white bacon grease abstract
Google Pixel Bacon Grease Abstract | © Jason Takacs

Ever since I purchased my first Pixel phone, I’ve enjoyed shooting abstract photography. Taking pictures of everything from freshwater algae, hand sanitizer, and bacon grease has always been up my alley.

Google Pixel Cloudy Abstract Astrophotography
Abstract Astrophotography on a Cloudy Night | © Jason Takacs

So, one night when we were camping in Colorado and it was partially cloudy, I decided to try someone different than normal landscape astrophotography. I picked an area in the sky and waited…

and waited…

and waited until the clouds moved into positions I liked. After a couple of hours, I got a couple of images I liked. 

Now, whenever it is partially cloudy out, I don’t even think about giving up on shooting the stars, I have fun with a little abstract astrophotography.

Dealing with Adversity

When you really think about it, there is kind of an obvious life lesson when shooting astrophotography with clouds. Just hear me out. It has to do with adversity.

Most people shooting the stars want clear nights. They want perfect nights with minimal moisture in the air and not a cloud in the sky. It makes it sense, but it won’t teach you a lesson about dealing with a lousy situation. Having to put up with clouds can actually make you thankful for those clear nights, and it can also make you want to never skip a cloud-free night whenever camping.

Alison and I always joke about this. 

After those long days camping where we get up early to hike before the sunrise, cook in the morning, play games outside with the kids, do different activities in the area, hike in the evening, and have fun by the campfire, we usually have a discussion about shooting at night. This always happens when it is partly cloudy, and we are exhausted from a busy but fun day.  Do we pick “astro time” or bedtime? 

Then, we remember to just suck it up and deal with the exhaustion. Sleep can wait. It almost always turns out to be a good decision when we push through the adversity and shoot regardless of a few clouds.

So, how did I do? Did I sell this section?

Adds Movement

Jayco on a Cloudy Moonlit Night with a Fisheye Lens
Astro Fisheye Fun with Movement | © Alison Takacs

If you have ever taken a star trail photo, you understand how star movement can really add to your pictures. Lines stretching across the sky making your eyes move can make the image feel more alive and full of energy, and these pinpoints elongated seem more exciting. In my opinion, most landscape astrophotography images feel pretty static with a few exceptions such as a long exposure shot of cars driving on a road or a photo with the Aurora Borealis spanning the sky. 

Clouds can easily help to overcome this stationary feeling. When shooting landscape astrophotography, many types of clouds can add the feeling of movement and provide extra energy to a picture. With the right types of cloud formations, images can gain a certain flow where it feels like the whole sky is moving in a particular direction. The action in the image can be coming or going, or it can be moving from side-to-side. This movement is all subjective of course.

This is also true when talking about a timelapse. Not only do you have stars appearing to move because of the Earth’s rotation, but you also have clouds darting across the sky. The video completely comes alive!

Adds Another Layer to the Image

When we are talking about landscape astrophotography, there are only so many clear sky images that can be taken. After a while, many pictures of the same place can feel a bit redundant (at least to me). With some clouds in the shot, they can make an image from the same location as countless others images seem refreshing and original.

If you are also shooting a timelapse, clouds can add SO much to your landscape astrophotography images! When Alison and I first started shooting landscape timelapses at night, we almost dreaded those pesky clouds rolling in to ruin our evening. Now, we fully embrace it. Sure, it’s nice to see a clear star timelapse where the motion of the earth is observed and all the stars are unobstructed, but clouds can add an entirely new dimension.

What’s really amazing is when you can get two layers of clouds moving through your timelapse in different directions. That’s an absolute treat to see.

Gives a Different Mood

Since this is a photography article, and I’m a big lover of mood in images, I just couldn’t leave a section like this out.

Perseids Meteor Shower Over RV
A Little Moody Astro | © Alison Takacs

When we take campground shots, hiking shots, and other outdoor shots, we have a general way we want to shoot. There’s a certain “feel” or mood you might see when looking at our images. 

The same goes for our landscape astrophotography pictures. There is a mood we try to present in the image when shooting at night on cloudless nights. So, when clouds enter the frame, that mood can change sometimes dramatically. It can make a camping trip go from a light and happy feel to a more mysterious vibe. Which fits perfectly with our final section of this article…

Deeper Storytelling

As I just stated, clouds in an astrophotography image can really add a particular mood. This can directly lead to interesting storytelling. Instead of the simple stories about how you went to a campsite and just took a picture of the stars with your tent or camper, you might get a more interesting tale from your night of astro. 

Comet Leonard Under Pink Clouds
Comet Leonard Finally! | © Alison Takacs

For instance, maybe you stayed out for hours ready to shoot a particular rare celestial event like Comet Leonard when the clouds started to roll in from behind you. As the minutes passed, you got more and more nervous because your months of planning were about to go out the window. You might miss your last chance to capture this comet. The clouds creeped lower and lower, getting ever so close to the still too faint Comet Leonard. The sun was also getting ready to rise, threatening to wash out the comet making it impossible to see. With only minutes to spare, Leonard became visible with the clouds right on the edge of it. 

Click. Click. Click.

You snap off a few shots, and the rising sun eliminates Comet Leonard from view. All is not lost, and you have an interesting story to tell.

This is something Alison and I enjoyed one night, and I feel it makes for an interesting story. The clouds also give the image a feel or particular mood that goes with the story. Also, did you catch that part about dealing with adversity? Yeah, I had to tie that in as well. 

If you found this article somewhat interesting or informative, please check out our other articles on this blog.

Happy shooting!