Should You "Expose for the Sky" on a Bright Sunny Day? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Should You "Expose for the Sky" on a Bright Sunny Day?

by David Peterson 7 comments

There are a lot of myths and rumors spreading around the photography community, and none is more popular than the myth that you should expose for the sky on a bright sunny day. Doing so can lead to some pretty disastrous consequences. In this short article, I’ll show you why.

What does it mean to “expose for the sky”?

When you expose for the sky, you are adjusting your camera’s shutter speed and aperture settings to make the sky’s color as accurate as possible. This can be done in many ways, but most professionals use only one method. They do the following:

  1. Point the camera at the patch of the sky you want perfectly colored.
  2. Switch your camera over to manual mode.
  3. Pick an aperture that’s suitable for a sunny day (that’s usually F16).
  4. Adjust your shutter speed until your camera’s light meter tells you that you’ve got an even and balanced shot.
  5. Re-frame the image on the subject you want to shoot.
  6. Take the picture.

Side Note: Unfortunately this is quite hard to do if you don't have a manual mode. A cheaper camera will adjust the exposure when you half-depress the shutter (which is what we are doing with the above steps) but it will also adjust the focus. We don't want the camera to set the focus to the sky because then when we reframe the shot, our subjects will be out of focus.

Generally speaking, when you take your picture this way, your sky should be a nice blue. At least, that’s how everything would work in an ideal world. Unfortunately, many photographers forget that there are only a few circumstances in which they should “expose for the sky.”

When should you expose for the sky?

It’s important to get the color of the sky absolutely perfect whenever the sky is the main subject of your photograph. When might that be? Sunsets and sunrises are a good example. If there are interesting clouds, you’ll want to get all of the pinks and purples, so that’s a good time to expose for the sky.

In any case, here’s the general rule. You should usually expose for the colors in your main subject. If your subject is the sky, expose for that. If the subject is a dense thicket of trees shedding their leaves in the fall, expose for the fall colors.

What happens when you expose for the sky on a sunny day

On a sunny day, the sky is usually much brighter than everything else in the scene. In order to cool it down, your camera tells you that you need to increase your shutter speed dramatically. Try it out. Point your camera at the sky on a bright day, and see what the light meter tells you. I’ve seen mine tell me that I need to use shutter speeds as fast as 1/1000s. Crazy talk!

When you use shutter speeds this fast, everything in your scene starts to get very dark. Yes, your sky will be a perfect blue, but your subject will also be a perfect black.

And here’s the sad part. It gets even worse when you point your camera at the sun. Nothing is brighter than the sun (except bigger stars that are much further away), so your camera will start giving you some extremely crazy shutter speed suggestions. If you expose for the sky when you’re pointing your camera at the sun, the sun will appear orange, and everything else will be pitch black.

What should you do on a sunny day?

Expose for your subject! What colors do you want to bring out in your photograph? If your subject is a person, try to get the colors in his or her face. Just follow the same steps as above but apply them to your actual subject (not the background, silly!).

  1. Point the camera at the most important patch of color on your subject.
  2. Switch your camera over to manual mode.
  3. Pick an aperture that’s suitable for a sunny day (that’s usually F16).
  4. Adjust your shutter speed until your camera’s light meter tells you that you’ve got an even and balanced shot.
  5. Re-frame the image so it’s visually pleasing (consider the rule of thirds).
  6. Take the picture.

If you can't use manual mode, pre-expose your photo using my previous tip on focussing.

And if the sun is in front of you, don’t forget to use a flash. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the sun casts a shadow on your subject, and the flash fills it in with light.

Exposing for the sky is awesome when the sky is the center of interest. But that’s not usually so on a bright sunny day. Keep your focus on your subject, and you’ll get the right exposure.

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  1. RIchard says:

    A good way to meter on bright sunny days is to set your camera on manual and point it at a patch of sunny grass. Set your exposure so the grass is exposed correctly and you'll be all set to shoot. I learned this trick from the other Peterson, Bryan, and his book "Understanding Exposure." If you want both sky and ground exposed correctly you need to use what's called a graduated neutral density filter. They're between $25 and $150 but worth every penny in my opinion.

  2. Barry Atkinson says:

    Just read your article on shooting in to the sun. I've been taking photographs for 40 yrs + and so you would think that I should know what I'm doing by now.However when I'm out with my cameras, and I want to shoot a landscape, but the sun isn't in the correct place, I get black patches of sky, with lighter patches, as you readjust your shutter speed/aperture you either increase the dark patches,or decrease them, but I never seem to get the correct balance, this is also a problem when the sky is grey and you get similar results. What am I doing wrong.


    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Barry,

      Do you happen to have a polarizing filter on your lens? That can sometimes cause the sky to 'band' with different brightness.

      If that's not the case, can you please email me an example photo? It's hard to give a suggestion without an example photo.


  3. Anil says:

    Hi David, If I expose for the subject, wouldnt the sky colors be blown out. Would it be a better idea to expose for the subject and dial in some negative exposure compensation so that the sky retains its color.
    Please suggest.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Anil,

      Yes, the sky's colors will be blown out. And it's perfectly acceptable to do as you say.

      However, if you expose for the subject and underexpose a couple of stops, it's the same as 'exposing for the sky' and your subject will be darker. You'll need to load it into an editor to fix it.


  4. anthony richardson says:

    thanks for the advice, using manual seems very possible now,

  5. Brian says:

    An excellent write up!! This is the first time I've ever commented on a post but just felt this one deserved it! Even though this is all probably common knowledge to a lot of people, to some of us, it's not!
    You've written this in a way that's so easy to follow, no confusing terminology!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.