There are very few ultimate truths in photography, but here is one of them: when you include the sky in a photograph, it has to be good.
Now, that does not mean that every outdoor photograph needs a sky. It does mean that when you shoot a photo that includes the sky, you can't let it be boring. But if you've been taking outdoor photos for long enough, you've probably noticed that there are certain times of day when you just can't seem to help but capture boring skies. So what can you do to fix this?
Why skies can be boring
When you look up at the bright blue sky and really take in all that color, you probably can’t help but be just a little bit awed by what you see. Even a clear sky with nothing in it but blue is inspiring—partly because of that beautiful color and partly because of what it might represent to you: freedom, fair weather and outdoor recreation. Even a cloudy sky has something to love—those beautiful, textured clouds and all those shades of gray can make you think of rainy days and autumn colors.
Sometimes, though (you may have noticed) it can be tough to actually capture that sky in a photograph, especially when you’re also trying to capture detail in a landscape or in other foreground elements. The sky may come out as stark white, even though you remember it as a gorgeous blue. And stark white skies are boring. There’s no way around it, they just are. So why does this happen?
This is actually a dynamic range problem, and it’s really just based on what modern cameras are and are not capable of. “Dynamic range” refers to the difference between the darkest parts of a scene (the shadows) and the lightest parts of a scene (the highlights). Dynamic range is measured in stops—if there is three stops of difference between the shadows and highlights, for example, then the image is said to have low dynamic range. If, however, there are say nine stops or more in an image, then the image is said to have high dynamic range. Most modern cameras (especially compact or point-and-shoot cameras) aren’t capable of capturing a complete range of tones between black and white in those very high dynamic range scenes. Instead, you’ll get clipping—either areas of very black shadows that are otherwise obscuring important details, or areas of very bright (blown out) highlights, where there is also no detail. If the dynamic range is very broad and your camera has limited ability to cope with it, you may get clipping at both ends of the spectrum.
Because the sky is often the brightest part of a scene—even on an overcast day—the place where you’re most likely to get those blown out highlights is, you guessed it, the sky. That’s why there are certain lighting situations where you’ll get a nicely exposed landscape, but nothing in the sky at all—because when you expose for the landscape, you can’t also get detail in the sky.
Now, this is changing as camera technology improves, and if you own a newer DSLR you may notice this problem less and less. Even so, you can dramatically improve your skies with just a few simple techniques and some relatively inexpensive additions to your camera bag.
Neutral density (ND) filters
You’re probably familiar with the neutral density filter, which is basically like a pair of sunglasses for your lens. The neutral density filter’s primary job is to cut back on the amount of light that reaches your sensor, which makes it possible to shoot at slower shutter speeds even during the day.
You’ve probably mostly seen this used for shooting photos of waterfalls—that misty quality you see in some waterfall images comes from using a slow shutter speed. But you can also do this with the sky, and that’s where an ND filter can help you even when there isn’t any water in a scene.
Nautical Club of Kastoria - Greece by Flickr user Nick-K (Nikos Koutoulas)
If you use a very slow shutter speed and you’re shooting on a breezy day, you’ll be able to capture the movement of the clouds. Depending on how long your shutter speed is and how much movement there is in those clouds, you may get some minor blur in the sky or you may get long, surreal streaks. This is definitely a trick that will result in a less-than-realistic looking photo, so only use it if you’re sure that’s the effect you want.
Neutral density filters are rated according to the amount of light they block—a 1 stop filter blocks 1 stop of light, a 3 stop filter blocks three stops of light and so on. You can buy ND filters in sets or you can get a single variable ND filter, which lets you adjust the number of stops of light reduction.
For every-day shooting you can also purchase graduated neutral density filters (GNDs), which are tinted on one end and untinted on the other. GNDs are great for coping with that dynamic range problem we discussed earlier, because you can simply place the dark part over the sky and the light part over the foreground, with the division between the two right on the horizon. Because the GND will cut back on the amount of light coming from the sky alone, you’ll get a scene with less dynamic range overall, and a good exposure in both the sky and the landscape.
Dawn over Turimetta 3/8/12 by Flickr user Crouchy69
Graduated NDs are available with different edges—a filter with hard edges has a more rapid transition from dark to light than a filter with soft edges does. And you can also get “reverse” graduated neutral density filters, which transition from dark gray to a lighter gray rather than from dark to clear.
Unlike GND filters, a polarizing filter is uniform in shade from top to bottom, so it doesn’t really cope with the dynamic range problem. What it does do is help separate the clouds from the sky, which can make a big difference on those partly-cloudy days when you really want to emphasize the cloud formations. It can also make blues appear darker, which can add further drama to the scene.
Polarizing filters are typically circular, which means they are constructed of two pieces of glass and need to be rotated to get the best effect. For the greatest impact, keep the sun at about 90 degrees to your position—either on your left or on your right, rather than in front of you or behind you. Look through your viewfinder and watch what happens as you twist the filter—when the sky darkens and the clouds start to “pop,” stop twisting and take the photo.
Polarizing filters are less effective on overcast days, and low light situations (such as early in the morning or late in the afternoon) are not the best times to use them, either, since they cut back on the amount of available light.
aurora bridge in fremont by Flickr user wildpianist
If you’re like most hobbyists, you probably shoot mostly with your white balance setting fixed on “auto.” Most of the time, your auto white balance setting does a great job, but you may occasionally find you want a little more color in the sky that you’re just not getting with the auto white balance setting. That’s because as good as it is, that auto setting really can only make a guess about what the colors are really like in the scene, and it can’t make a guess at all about how you, the photographer, would prefer those colors to look in real life.
Sunsets, for example, are full of beautiful oranges and reds, which our eyes interpret as pretty spectacular in appearance. But if you shoot that same scene with your auto white balance setting, you may get a much more dull looking image with mostly yellows and a few faint oranges. If you want the sunset to more closely resemble what you saw with your own eyes, you’ll need to fake your white balance out a little bit. One way to do this is by selecting the “cloudy” white balance setting. On a cloudy day, the light is actually a little blue, so your camera will compensate for the blue by adding reds and oranges. But if it’s a sunset rather than a cloudy day, adding reds and oranges to the scene will deepen the reds and oranges that are already there, resulting in a much more brilliant image.
You can use this technique during “blue hour” as well—that’s the time right after the sun disappears behind the horizon, when the light has more blue tones in it. Add blues to the scene by selecting the “incandescent” white balance setting.
Time of day
Another really simple way that you can improve the skies in your photographs is by simply shooting them at sunrise and sunset. When the sun is low in the sky, the clouds look more brilliant and more well-defined, and the details in the landscape are softer. But be aware that you’ll need that GND for these scenes as well, especially if you plan to include the sun in the photo. At this time of day there’s actually a lot of dynamic range between the sky and the foreground, so a GND will make it possible for you to capture detail in both places.
Finally, you can use HDR to capture those brilliant skies in high-dynamic range situations. HDR is simply a way to cope with the differences between highlight and shadow after the fact, in post processing. To shoot HDR, you will need a tripod, because you’ll be shooting a series of identical images at different exposures, and you need to make sure that the framing doesn’t shift between one shot and another. To achieve a good HDR image you’ll need at least three exposures—one about a stop below where your meter thinks your settings should be, another at the exposure your meter thinks is correct, and a third exposure at one stop above that reading. Ideally you want to be shooting in Raw, but you can also do this successfully in JPG.
Carnac et ses mystères. On explore !!! by Flickr user ghislaine_m
Now you need to combine all three exposures into a single image, which is a lot simpler than it sounds. Depending on your post-processing software the technique varies a little, but in Photoshop you just go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro and then you select all three exposures. The software will merge the images, but first it will give you a selection of presets so you can choose how much processing you’d like to apply (this is where you can choose that weird, over-processed look you’ve seen in other HDR images, or you can choose a more natural look).
You don’t have to settle for boring skies, nor should you. Even a blue sky needs to render as blue—what you have to avoid is those plain white skies with nothing in them. Viewers know that the skies on planet Earth never look like that, so your images shouldn’t look like that, either. If you don’t have the tools necessary to make the sky look beautiful, then there’s nothing wrong with simply zooming in on your subject and excluding the sky altogether. Often, this is a far preferable choice than simply settling for a boring sky. Whatever your shooting conditions might be, just remember that humans love to look up at the sky, so make it worth their while.
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