6 Tips for Capturing Dramatic Skies in your Landscape Photography

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?

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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.