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10 Tips for Capturing Dramatic Skies in Your Landscape Photography

Tips for dramatic skies in your landscape photos

The best landscape photos tend to feature stunning skies full of texture, color, and mood. However, finding and recording that elusive drama can be a tricky endeavor, and that’s why we wrote this article: to share tried-and-true methods for capturing dramatic skies in your landscape shots.

From stormy clouds and fiery sunsets to reflections and long exposures, there are endless possibilities when it comes to capturing jaw-dropping skies. We’ll dive deep into the techniques that will help you seek out those majestic cloud formations and infuse your photos with intensity, depth, and a touch of the extraordinary.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting your photography journey, we’ll equip you with everything you need to elevate your compositions to sky-high heights. Let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:

1. Time it right

If you want to capture skies filled with drama, timing plays a crucial role. While you may not need the split-second precision required to capture a toddler’s smile or a wide receiver’s catch, being mindful of timing can give you an edge. Some skies can appear dull and flat, while others exude incredible drama, and by aligning your shooting with these dramatic moments, you can elevate your photography game.

So what kind of skies offer the most captivating drama? Stormy skies, as we’ll explore in the next section, are undoubtedly great. But partially cloudy skies during sunrise and sunset also hold immense potential. They can transform into a breathtaking palette of colors and give the landscape a magical glow.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography
Clouds plus the setting sun make for an amazing combination!

Partially cloudy skies often offer fiery hues during sunset, but don’t be too quick to pack up after the sun dips below the horizon – drama can still unfold during the blue hour.

On the flip side, flat, overcast skies tend to be uninspiring and lackluster, so it’s best to steer clear of them. Similarly, clear blue skies, while pleasant, don’t typically offer much drama. It’s wise to avoid them too.

To ensure you have the ideal conditions for your landscape photography outing, consider using a reliable weather app. Check it a few days and a few hours in advance to stay on top of the forecast.

However, keep in mind that forecasts aren’t infallible. Get in the habit of looking up at the sky – you never know when unexpected and awe-inspiring opportunities might present themselves.

2. Head out during stormy weather

When storms are on the way, the skies truly come alive with color, texture, and mood. So if the weather forecast predicts rain, don’t succumb to the temptation of staying indoors. Embrace the challenge and seize the opportunity to capture nature’s raw power.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

Of course, safety should always be paramount during these outings. If you see lightning or if the driving conditions become treacherous, turn back – no photo is worth risking your life!

Protecting your gear from the elements is also important. Use a raincover to shield your cameras and lenses from moisture, and ensure your backpack is also protected by waterproof materials. Also, carry a soft towel to delicately wipe away any droplets that fall on your equipment.

A professional trick to minimize exposure of your lens to the elements is to keep it covered until the last moment. By maintaining your lens cap in place until you’re ready to press the shutter, you can shield it from raindrops and minimize the need for constant wiping. This small but effective technique ensures that your lens remains clear and ready to capture the scene at the perfect moment!

Pro tip: There’s something especially captivating about the dramatic interplay between dark, stormy clouds and the ethereal light that breaks through their seams. Stormy clouds with sunlight shining through is a recipe for success, but it can be infrequent and fleeting – so if you’re after that beautiful combination of storm and sunlight, you’ll need to exercise real patience.

3. Shoot in RAW

When it comes to creating stunning landscape photos with dramatic skies, one essential aspect often overlooked by beginners is the choice of file format. Many budding photographers default to shooting in JPEG, unaware of the significant limitations this compressed format imposes on their shots.

Instead, I highly encourage you to shoot your landscape files in RAW, which will preserve every nuance of color and tonal detail your camera captures. By retaining all the data from the moment of capture, RAW empowers you to breathe life into your photographs in post-processing. You can make dramatic adjustments to the colors and tones in a RAW photo – and you can even bring back details that initially appear lost to over- and underexposure.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

Granted, working with RAW files demands a bit more effort. These files are larger in size and require processing before they can be shared or printed. Yet if you’re serious about landscape photography, the extra steps are a small price to pay!

4. Try the wrong white balance

Photography rules are sometimes meant to be broken, including rules about always using the correct white balance.

You see, the wrong white balance setting can create a more dramatic sky. This is especially true when shooting toward the beginning or end of the day – using a different white balance preset will adjust the color of the sky.

Auto, Cloudy, and Shade white balance presets will get you an orangish sunset with a light blue sky (with slight variations in warmth depending on the setting you choose). A fluorescent 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.

white balance examples

Using Kelvin temperatures to adjust your white balance results in even greater control over the colors in the sky. At around 5500K, you’ll usually capture a sunny sky with an accurate white balance – that is, where things that are white are still white in the picture, and where things that are gray are still gray in the picture.

A higher temperature – 6500K, for example – will give the land an orange glow but also enhance the colors in a sunset. A cooler temperature, on the other hand (e.g., 3000K), 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 the colors in your photos.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

If you overdo things by making the shot too warm or too cool, you can easily adjust a RAW photo in post-processing until you find the color temperature that best fits the image. Therefore, if you have a landscape photo that you already shot in RAW, open it and try different white balance presets. You can see firsthand how shooting with a different white balance would have impacted the shot!

5. Compose for the sky

When the sky is more dramatic than the land, why not use that to determine your composition?

Pay attention to where you place the horizon when you are composing your shot. Use the rule of thirds to imagine the image is divided into threes, then 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, like this:

horizon high up with a boring sky
As the sky here isn’t very dramatic, the higher placement of the horizon improves the composition.

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:

horizon low in the frame with a dramatic sky
The sky here is dramatic, so the image was composed to show less ground and more sky.

By including more of the sky in the shot, you’ll emphasize its colors and texture while forcing the viewer to spend more time looking it over.

And if you want to really display that sky, consider using a minimalist compositional technique, where you fill the entire frame with the sky but for a small spot of land at the bottom.

6. 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. Now, 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. And by positioning the dark portion of the filter over a bright sky, you can properly expose the entire scene.

Without a graduated neutral density filter, the sky will often be overexposed and bland, or the land will be underexposed and dark. With the filter, you can achieve an exposure that works for both portions of the scene. The only downside is that graduated neutral density filters don’t work as well with an uneven horizon, like when shooting a cityscape. Graduated neutral density filters come in both circular and square formats, but the square is often preferred because you can place the horizon anywhere in the frame.

The second filter landscape photographers should use to capture more dramatic skies is a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters work by adjusting the reflected light coming through your camera lens. Since the sky is blue because of this reflected light, turning the front of the polarizing filter will adjust the intensity of the blues in the sky. Since polarizing filters only affect reflected light, they can still be used when mountains or buildings make the horizon uneven. Polarizing filters are also great for enhancing or removing reflections on water or other shiny surfaces.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

7. 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 streaks 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 adjusting up or down from there.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

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 a low-enough ISO; instead, you’ll end 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? They use a neutral density filter – which helps block out some of the light so that you can set a long exposure during the day.

(Note that a neutral density filter is similar to a graduated neutral density filter, but the entire filter is dark instead of just half of the filter).

motion in the water and sky due to a long exposure blur

8. Use a graduated filter tool when editing

While it’s always best to get shots right in camera, there are a few editing tools that can improve the sky in your landscape photos. One of those tools is a graduated filter, which you can find inside Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, Adobe Camera Raw, and more.

With the graduated filter, you can apply an adjustment that targets the sky in your photo. Like a physical graduated filter, the effect will only cover the top portion of the image and gradually fade away, making it possible to create natural-looking edits.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography
By applying a graduated filter effect to the sky, you can lower its exposure and bring out lots of texture!

This tool can be used to adjust the exposure, creating an effect much like an actual graduated neutral density filter. But the tool can also adjust contrast, saturation, clarity, sharpness, and color. It opens up a lot of possibilities for applying edits just to the sky for more drama – creating effects that sometimes can’t be done in the field.

9. Test out black and white

Dramatic sky photos tend to be in color, simply because much of the drama comes from colors – but it’s sometimes a good idea to deviate from this approach and instead try a black-and-white conversion.

Why choose black and white? Well, a monochromatic palette can work wonders in enhancing the texture and intricacy of the sky, thereby intensifying the overall drama of your composition. By stripping away the distraction of color, you’ll be left with the raw essence of the clouds and will allow them to command attention with their rich tonal range and contrasting forms.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

One note: Before diving into the world of B&W, it is crucial to ensure that your sky offers enough detail and texture. A featureless expanse of clouds may end up looking rather lackluster in monochrome. Apply the conversion to photos of skies with well-defined shapes, layers, and intricate patterns.

If you don’t have much editing experience, don’t worry; adding a B&W effect generally takes a single click of a button. And for more serious editors, advanced tools often let you fine-tune your conversions by individually adjusting various color channels.

Plus, if you don’t like the results, you can always revert back to the original shot, assuming you’re using a non-destructive editing program.

10. Look for reflections

Reflections can’t directly enhance the drama in the sky – but they can create a captivating visual experience that allows the sky to be expanded within the frame.

To start, seek out reflective elements that harmonize with your composition. Tranquil lakes, shimmering ponds, and even small pools or puddles of water can all work great, though I certainly encourage you to be creative.

Dramatic skies in landscape photography

Once you’ve identified a reflective surface, take the time to adjust your shooting angle. Explore different perspectives to find the most compelling composition that showcases the interplay between the captivating sky and its mirrored counterpart. Be patient and persistent, as minor adjustments can make a significant difference in the final result.

If you’re struggling to get a nice shot, try experimenting with your camera’s distance to the reflective element. By getting in close, you can create a more immersive composition that draws viewers into the frame. On the other hand, ensuring the reflection occupies a smaller portion of the frame while letting the primary subject dominate can instill a sense of grandeur and vastness.

Capturing dramatic skies in your landscape photos: final words

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

Remember, the key to capturing dramatic skies lies in being prepared, patient, and open to experimentation. Nature is unpredictable and will reward those who are willing to wait for the perfect light, brave the stormy weather, and embrace the unexpected. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try new perspectives, angles, and post-processing techniques!

Now it’s time to pick up your camera and embark on your own personal quest to capture the most dramatic skies the world has to offer. Hit the road, explore new horizons, and chase those epic moments that will leave your viewers breathless.

Now over to you:

Do you have any other tips for capturing dramatic skies in your landscape photography? Share them in the comments below!

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Hillary Grigonis
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.

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