Photographing a "Head in the Clouds"

Head in the Clouds

This self portrait was created for a "single focal point" photography challenge over at For this I wanted to explore cloud depth and creating a notion of lying in the clouds. The image above was the one I chose  to submit for the challenge because I felt it met the single focal point aspect  of the challenge most effectively. I also found the expression and peculiar hair position (quite accidental) invoked curiosity and piqued  interest. This singular image, however, doesn't illustrate other results that can be achieved using this same basic technique, so I am going to give you a look behind the scenes and share a few of the other outcomes I created from this experimental shooting session.

VISION: Create a "Head in the Clouds" Portrait



• A Camera with a fairly wide lens (I used 24mm)

• A white sheet or blanket

• A pile of "batting" – the stuffing used inside pillows and cushions

• A rubber-band – that fits around the lens.


• A large tripod or boom arm to mount the camera from above.

• A remote trigger 

• A remote Camera-control system like a Camranger, for reviewing work in progress  on a mobile device without having to arise from your comfy cloud-bed between takes.


The premise behind creating this shot in this way is that a sense of cloud depth is created. The aim is to build cloud structure along the edge of the field of view leading from  the lens and the subject. Determined by your depth of field, these glimpses of cloud around the perimeter of the frame  may be at various of sharpness or softness depending on how close or far they are from the focal point. 

In the finished portrait shown above, a shallow depth of field was used and the result you see looks like most of batting is so out of focus as to appear completely blurred and soft. However, the image was photoshopped to reiterate the 'single focal point' theme. Further down this page you'll be able to see a 'before' shot that demonstrates more evidence of depth differentiation.

Behind the Scenes : Timelapse of the Shoot:



1. Find a suitable well-lit location to set up, where the subject can lay down on a spread out white sheet or blanket and the camera can be positioned to shoot from above.  A sofa, bed or the floor will work. The next stage will be easier if you are able to mount your camera on a boom arm so you have two hands available to work on the next step.

2. Tease out  several small clumps of batting into long tendrils and mount them  around  the camera lens using a rubber band. Build the tendrils to be longer by weaving and squooshing tufts of the batting to each other. It's a delicate structure, but they do stick to each other without much effort. Make sure the batting pieces drop down mostly around the outside perimeter of the lens. You'll need a clear line of site in the middle of the lens in order to capture the subject's head. 

3. Make a  cloud-like "pillow" out of larger random clumps of batting.

4. Have your subject (or yourself) lie with their head positioned so they can see the majority  of the lens above. If any batting is blocking the line of sight, work gently to shift any overlapping pieces of batting off to the side. Take some shots.

5. Experiment with poking holes and gaps in the tendrils of cloud-like batting  hanging off the lens to create shapes and nuances that are pleasing to your eye in how the portrait reveals itself when captured.

My settings for this project:

Lens: 24-70mm at 24mm

1/125 sec

at f2.8

ISO 100

No Flash


  • Head in the Clouds Before Edit
  • Head in the Clouds

Before I painted them out using Photoshop, you can see from the before/after, that the original capture had more of a sense of different levels of depth in the cloud.

Some people who viewed it even thought it looked like someone buried under the snow.

So, in addition to clouds, perhaps you can experiment with this method for capturing snow-themed portraits without getting cold! Mmmm. No frostbite!

The results come down to that delicate arrangement of batting-tendrils and the holes and gaps you poke in them balanced with your choice of field depth. See below for two more examples of how rearranging the batting can result in different outcomes...

More 24 mm Lens Examples

  • Head in the Clouds v3
  • Imagination Rests in the Clouds

50mm Lens Example

Head in the Clouds v2

Switching out Lenses

Another thing to play with when you are experimenting with techniques is switching out lenses. Be warned that when shooting with a longer lens you are going to need greater distance between camera and subject which might present logistical challenges when shooting from above.  Did you notice how using a 50mm lens with the cloud techniques creates a more ethereal portrait that naturally feels like it has more depth? The face is bigger in frame, but maybe this is something you might want to achieve. This is a flattering dreamy look that might appeal to portrait clients. Keep it in mind!


Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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