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6 Tips for Capturing Dramatic Skies in your Landscape Photography

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Don’t let the land in landscape photography fool you–a great landscape photo relies just as much on the sky. Boring gray skies make for boring landscape photos. But capturing a dramatic sky in camera is trickier than it seems. With the sky lighter than the land, the camera will typically overexpose the sky, turning a brilliant blue into a vague and unexciting gray.

But, with a little fine tuning, it is possible to capture a sky that is the cherry-on-top of a great scene on land. Here are six tips for capturing more dramatic skies in your landscape photography.

Desolation Wildernes Sunset Jkatzphoto

Photo Courtesy Justin Katz Photography.

1 – Time it right

Landscape photography may not require the split second timing that’s necessary for capturing a toddler’s smile, or a wide receiver’s catch, but timing is still a big part of the picture. The sky that’s gray one day, could be bright blue the next. When planning out a landscape photo, consider how the timing will impact the sky.

Watch for weather patterns that add could add interest to a shot, like a storm brewing just on the horizon. Weather plays a big role in the overall mood of the image–if you’re hoping to capture a dark and gloomy shot, head out when the sky is stormy. On the opposite end, if you’re hoping to capture a more relaxed or happy feeling, look for blue skies dotted with clouds.

Yosemite Tunnel View Jkatzphoto

Photo Courtesy Justin Katz Photography.

The time of day matters too. While the middle of the day will produce the most shadows on the land, the sky tends to be the bluest then. Just after sunset and just before sunrise is often a good time to capture wispy clouds and a warmer tint of light. Of course, sunrise and sunset makes for a dramatic sky as well.

2 – Try the wrong white balance

Photography rules are sometimes meant to be broken–sometimes, using the wrong white balance setting creates a more dramatic sky. This is especially true when shooting towards the beginning or end of the day–using a different preset will adjust the color in the sky. Auto, cloudy and shade presets will get you an orange-ish sunset with a light blue sky, with a slight variation between the settings. A florescent setting, on the other hand, will typically turn an orange sunset purple, with a brilliant blue sky. Tungsten offers a similar effect, but with even deeper colors.

Whitebalancepresets

Using Kelvin temperatures to adjust your white balance results in an even greater control over the colors in the sky. Around 5500K will usually capture a sunny sky with an accurate white balance–that is, where things that are white are still white in the picture, or neutral tones. A higher temperature, for example 6500K, will give the land an orange glow but also enhance the colors in a sunset. A cooler temperature, on the other hand (say 3000), will play up the blues and purples. By using the Kelvin scale, you have more options for picking a white balance setting that best captures those colors.

White Balance 16,000 K

Photo © Hillary Grigonis – White Balance edited to 160,000 K in post-processing to add orange

While it’s always best to get the shot right in camera, shooting in RAW allows you even more flexibility when it comes to adjusting the colors in the sky (and the rest of the image, for that matter). If you perhaps overdid it by making the shot too warm or too cool, you can easily adjust it to find the color temperature that fits the image the best. If you have a landscape photo that you already shot in RAW, open it and try different white balance presets, or the temperature slider, to see first hand how shooting with a different white balance would have impacted the shot.

3 – Compose for the sky

When the sky is more dramatic than the land, why not use that when determining your composition? Pay attention to where you place the horizon when you are composing your shot. Using the rule of thirds to imagine the image is dived into threes, place the horizon on one of those horizontal lines. If you are shooting a photo with an average looking sky, try placing the horizon on the upper third of the image, so more of the land is included in the photo. But if the sky is really dramatic, take advantage of that and include more of it in the frame by placing the horizon on the lower third.

Darlene Hildebrandt

By Darlene Hildebrandt – The sky is dramatic so the image was composed to show less ground and more sky by placing the horizon toward the bottom.

Ádám Tomkó

By Ádám Tomkó – as the sky is less dramatic, the horizon placed higher helps minimize the sky.

4 – Use a filter

There are two filters every landscape photographer should have in their camera bag in order to capture more dramatic skies. The first is a graduated neutral density filter. A regular neutral density filter is like putting sunglasses over your lens–it limits the light coming in for bright scenes or long exposures. But a graduated neutral density filter places that darkening effect only on a portion of the image. By placing the dark portion of the filter over the sky, you can properly expose the entire scene. Without the filter, the sky will either be overexposed and bland, or the land will be underexposed and dark. With the filter, you can achieve an exposure that works for both in one shot. The only downside is that graduated neutral density filters don’t work as well with an uneven horizon, like shooting a cityscape. Graduated neutral density filters come in both circular and square formats, but the square is often preferred because you can then place the horizon anywhere in the frame.

A graduated neutral density filter doesn’t work in every scenario–like a very uneven horizon, for example. A polarizing filter doesn’t have as much of an effect on the sky, but it can still be used with uneven horizons. Polarizing filters work by adjusting the reflected light rays coming through your camera lens. Since the sky is blue because of these reflecting rays, turning the front of the polarizing filter will adjust the intensity of the blues in the sky. Since it just affects reflected light rays, it can still be used when mountains or buildings make the horizon uneven. Polarizing filters are also great for enhancing reflections off water or other shiny surfaces too.

Lake Tahoe Sunset Nevada Jkatzphoto

Photo Courtesy Justin Katz Photography.

Experiment with motion blur and long exposures

Long exposures aren’t just for photographing waterfalls. If you use a long enough shutter speed, the clouds will blur too, creating a sky of wispy clouds and a slight feeling of motion. To capture motion blur in the clouds, you’ll need to use a long shutter speed. The best settings will depend a bit on the weather and how much motion blur you’d like, but you can try starting with a two minute exposure and adjust up or down from there.

Kris Williams

By Kris Williams (Exposure info: ISO 200, f/22 for 75 seconds)

If you are shooting during the day, you may not be able to balance out a two minute exposure with a narrow enough aperture or low enough ISO, ending up with a photo that’s way too bright. So how do photographers capture motion blur in the clouds when the photo obviously wasn’t taken at dusk or dawn? A neutral density filter helps block out some of that light so you can use a long exposure during the day (that’s the same thing as the graduated neutral density filter from the last tip, only the entire filter is dark instead of just half).

Image used with permission of Matt Kloskowski

Image used with permission of Matt Kloskowski (10 second exposure)

Use the Camera RAW graduated filter tool

While it’s always best to get the shot right in-camera, there are a few editing tools that can improve the sky in your landscape photos. One of those tools is the graduated filter inside Adobe Camera RAW (works the same in Photoshop and Lightroom). Using the tool, you can click over the sky on the image. Like an actual graduated filter, the effect will only cover that portion of the image and gradually fade away, making it possible to create natural looking edits.

The graduated filter tool can be used to adjust the exposure, creating an effect much like using the actual filter. But, the Camera RAW tool can also adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, clarity, sharpness and color. That opens up a lot of possibilities for applying edits just to the sky for more drama that sometimes can’t be done in-camera.

Original imag

Original image

Graduated filter added in post-processing stage

Graduated filter added in post-processing stage

The sky can make or break a landscape photo. From timing and composition to filters, when you consider the sky as you shoot, you’ll end up with more dramatic, frame-worthy shots.

Do you have any other tips for creating dramatic skies in landscape photography?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Hillary Grigonis enjoys sharing her love of photography by writing how-to posts for CreativeLive, a resource for free online photography classes from world class instructors. When she's not writing (or writing about photography), she's snapping photos for her lifestyle photography business.

  • Do you recommend any natural density filters? They sound like the answer to all my problems.

    Sally ~ DiagonSally

  • I love the views of the pics and great ways you quote here to capture a very nice sopt.

  • The wrong white balance grid of images is totally genius. Thank you for sharing!

  • Tim Lowe

    Two points:

    Amen on the use of filters. I’m a large format photographer, mostly b/w, and I couldn’t live without a graduated filter and a set of yellow, orange and red for contrast.

    And about composition… Most really great landscapes have a fore, middle and background element. Spend some time walking around and find something interesting to place in the foreground. Gives scale and depth to an image. It is a PITA to get it all shape, and I notice one of the examples here has a really out-of-focus foreground. You small format photographers have it easy. You only need to stop down and get it all sharp. I have to contort the heck out my camera. 😉

  • Hillary Grigonis

    Sally, graduated neutral density filters are great tools, especially for landscapes. Make sure you look for a square filter that sits in a holder. With the round screw-in type, you can’t adjust where the effect stops and starts, so you have to place the horizon in the middle. Conkin is a good affordable brand. Lee is also great but pretty expensive.

  • Hillary Grigonis

    Thanks!

  • Hillary Grigonis

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed the post!

  • GoatGuy

    The “seventh idea” … which might sound a bit trite, but it seems as important as the rest of the advice: if your camera has “HDR” (high dynamic range) then use it If not, then take an exposure-bracketed set of photos and let Photoshop do the HDR. It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed! But it can often be the difference between a “pretty good” and an “awesome” shot of exactly the same thing.

    The “eighth idea” … which is kind of similar, but unappreciated by folk, is to use LOW ISO settings and to consistently underexpose the shots. If you are capturing to RAW, doing both of these things delivers way more information to the range-of-data captured. Result? Pulled into Photoshop, you will find you have a lot more range of contrast / color-punch-up / resolution-and-cropping options before underlying (and unfortunately, irreducible) noise rears its ugly head. How much? Using low ISO, using a D750, I shoot 3 stops under for most every landscape. Its very similar after processing to HDR, without HDR’s tradeoffs and hassles.

    The “ninth idea” is always shoot wider than the sweet spot of the scene demands. You can always crop later. And change your mind a bit. Modern cameras have so much resolution, it is like having a “post shoot zoom”, without too much zoom range!

    And that’s about that. Steady-as-she-goes!

  • JvW

    About underexposing: no, unless you enjoy noise. Some sensors introduce a little less noise than others in low light (or underexposure), but the darkest areas are always noisier. Processing one raw file like HDR (two or more ‘exposures’) introduces noise that you don’t get with two or more raw files with different exposures.

    Let me quote https://luminous-landscape.com/optimizing-exposure/

    •Data in the raw file is linear. There has been no tone curve applied. This is done later in the raw processor.
    •Film has a characteristic tone curve. The human eye sees logarithmically. But digital sensors are inherently linear. Double the light and twice the voltage is generated. This then ends up producing more or less twice the data.

    •A typical consumer DSLR recording 12 bits per sensel is able to record up to 4,098 separate tonal values. •If we assume a 10 stop dynamic range this is how this data is distributed…
    •The brightest stop = 2048 tonal values
    •The next brightest stop = 1024 tonal values
    •The next brightest stop = 512 tonal values
    •The next brightest stop = 256 tonal values
    •The next brightest stop = 128 tonal values
    •The next brightest stop = 64 tonal values
    •The darkest stop = 32 tonal values

    •As can be seen, each stop from the brightest to the darkest contains half of the data of the one preceding it.

    •This helps explain why noise is seen most in the darkest areas of a file. In the brightest areas there is a lot of data and so the noise floor (which is always present) only represents a small percentage of the total signal (or data). In the darker areas, where data is sparse, ever-present noise becomes easily visible.

  • GoatGuy

    You are “absolutely sort-of right”, there. Absolutely in the sense that digital sensing cells are more-or-less linear. (They’re really not that linear, but the underlying electronics – amplifiers and curve-interpolators at the hardware level linearize the output, so for all intents, “linear”) And you’re right that the number of values between EVs halves, each time one goes “down a stop”. Yep, no controversy there at all.

    Thing is, what also isn’t as widely appreciated is that the chroma signal of the captured images can very often get washed out and turned a different hue when the ratio of values runs into a channel’s clipping region.

    For instance, a nice bright field of happy spring roses. The camera’s nominal exposure-setting will sample the scene, making decisions about the combination of shutter speed, aperture, ISO (in some cases) and so on, per whatever designed-in criteria are measured by the algorithm. Problem is, in this case, the red channel is very close to saturation – for some pixels – whereas the green and blue likely are not. We’ve all seen the result: the leaves are pretty good (tho’ glossy surfaces render as near-white), the flowers are way less than an ideal red, and have color looking more like a bleached out, untextured magenta. Not at all like the flowers “in person”.

    Same happens for powerful, high range landscapes. Some parts of the image can be very close to one channel’s saturation (or over it), yet its not “called out” by the camera’s exposure → shutter / aperture / ISO algorithm. Well lit things again often lose their chroma and look washed out.

    Yet, if one simply sets the exposure to –2 EV before taking either of the two scenes, the same objects and surfaces that suffered from chroma wash-out, now don’t. Oh, they might be SO bright that they still do! But way less. Either by taking a pair of shots (or trio), to get the darker and noisier ‘other values’ to step up, or if the RAW range has captured enough primary information, just fiddling with the contrast … and the whole scene will look much more like you remembered seeing it in person.

    Indeed … this issue is so pervasive that I think its never going to go away. Or at least, it won’t “go away” until sensor-makers acknowledge the issue, and begin to give their sensel-sensitivity curves something other than exact linearization. As you noted … wouldn’t it be much preferred that the “range of values” was softly logarithmic, like our eyes?

    In hugely simplified terms:

    EV 10 = 3800 to 4000EV 9 = 3600 to 3800…EV 1 = 2000 to 2200EV 0 = 1800 to 2000EV –1 = 1600 to 1800EV –2 = 1400 to 1600…EV –9 = 0 to 200

    20 bits of linear-sensitivity resolution in a 12 bit value-space. Might not even need to be that wide, maybe 16 bits of value-resolution in a 12 bit data space. 65,000 values per color, and precisely logarithmic in spacing.

    Oddly enough, if this were done, the resolution of that data to “color-hues” wouldn’t be compromised, as once a smooth log-antilog curve is in place, the hue-math works out quite well for all exposure values.

    It would deliver a constant digitization noise of 0.4% (¹/₂₅₆) between every adjacent value from 1 to 65,536 for a 12 bit (4096 value) representation. The only real ‘weird convention’ that everyone would need to agree upon, is how to warp the bottom octave (less than 1.0000 heading toward zero). It would probably be best to revert it to linear.

    GoatGuy

  • Hinta

    What about a wide angle lens

  • Steve Willoughby

    WONDERFUL ARTICLE, THANKS FOR SHARING !!!

  • Steve Willoughby

    THANKS FOR SHARING, GREAT ARTICLE.

  • Alexey Sobolev

    You can decrease the amount of blue in lightroom.
    That adds some contrast to the sky. It looks very nice in bw also.

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