Photographing The Sky

Article on how to photograph the sky well

Photographing the sky isn’t as easy as it looks.  More often than not, the sky appears washed out and dull in photographs.  The first key to any shot that includes the sky is to make sure there are clouds in the  image.  Without clouds, the sky will be dull no matter what.

Take a look at this first, un-processed picture from Cuzco, Peru.  It was a beautiful sunny day and the orange brick, bright blue sky and expansive clouds were perfect:

photographing the sky

RAW image

Prior to post-processing, the image was flat and dull.  Now, reducing the Highlights slider, and increasing the saturation and vibrance gave me this picture:

photographing the sky


I have found that post-processing images with an application like Adobe Lightroom can really help enhance how the sky appears.  Using Lightroom 4, I find that toning down the “Highlights” slider really brings contrast to the sky, eliminating the washed out look.  Increasing “Clarity” draws attention to clouds in the sky as well.  Of course using the “Vibrance” and “Saturation” sliders can make any blue really stand out, just make sure it doesn’t do it too much because then the image looks over processed and fake.

But post-processing isn’t the only way to enhance the sky.  Often, the sky is washed out because in the image, the sky is the area from which the most light originates.  This makes the sky the first to become over exposed as the camera seeks to provide appropriate exposure to the entire image including, generally, the darker foreground.  To combat this, you can use a graduated neutral density filter.

A graduated neutral density filter is a neutral density filter with a twist.  While a neutral density filter has an even distribution, a graduated neutral density filter at one end is completely clear, with a graduation of the filter intensity towards the other end.  With the filter portion pointed “north” and the clear portion “south” a graduated neutral density filter will prevent the sky from becoming over exposed at the expense of foreground exposure.  Certain graduated neutral density filters are colored, to further accentuate the sky itself.  Orange or yellow filters will help bring out the colors of sunset.

Graduated neutral density filters are classified as either having a soft or hard edge.  With a soft edge, the neutral density portion of the filter gradually fades into nothing.  With a hard edge, there is an abrupt line between the filter portion and non-filter portion.  Use a soft edge when the horizon line is uneven and a hard edge for a dead straight and even skyline.

Lastly, another trick to consider when photographing the sky is to use a very long exposure.  You’ll almost certainly need a 10-stop neutral density filter if shooting during the day, but by lengthening the exposure time, you’ll capture clouds as they move across the sky.

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