The sky is the single most abstract and dynamic canvas that a photographer has at his disposal. It is an endless source of inspiration that can change a boring photo into one of tremendous interest.
The sky is a key element in almost all landscape photos and if you can’t get it just right the entire photo will suffer. The problem is that it is often very difficult to properly expose the sky and the ground at the same time.
By turning to tools such as graduated neutral density filters or bracketing photographers have been able to perfectly expose photos right on the camera, however, this isn’t always possible given circumstance.
furthermore, the sky itself doesn’t always behave. Sometimes you show up for that shoot and the sky is boring and uninteresting. Other times the sky simply does not convey the right mood. Sometimes an image needs a new sky.
Shoot the sky when it is interesting
Carry your camera everywhere with you and always make a point to look up to the sky as you go about your daily routine. If the clouds are doing something interesting. Take a picture of them.
Begin to create a collection of cloud photos that you save for later use. The clouds don’t have to always be wickedly cool or on a vibrant sky but it is important to build a diverse collection.
These photos, while often are interesting enough to become stand alone images they truly shine when used to augment something else.
Tricks to shooting great clouds
- Make sure that you shoot more of the sky than you need. It is easy to crop in later if necessary.
- Slightly underexpose the image. The sky is notoriously bright during the day. Overexposed clouds tend to look goofy. You can always fix up the exposure later in post processing.
- Get creative, clouds are very abstract try interesting things with them. Long exposure times. Wild Filters. Go Nuts!
- Watch out for things in the sky. While they can always be removed later it is annoying when a bird or plane is in the middle of your frame.
How to make certain skies more interesting
Even though the sky is almost always interesting to a degree, sometimes you want to make it that much more compelling. This can easily be done in Photoshop.
Everyone likes bouncy soft clouds. They can make a scene feel more fun and energetic. Cheery clouds are characterized by smooth white tones in the clouds set upon a vivid blue backdrop.
Clouds can also look very interesting when given tension.
This can easily be achieved by framing the clouds at a unique and compelling angle.
They have nearly become a cliche but they are also very effective.
Antique clouds can perfectly help frame all sorts of interesting photos. Antique clouds tend to be moody and work best in a more overcast sky.
You could also consider them boring clouds. However they are also very useful when you simply want to add texture.
Muted clouds are characterized by less bold lines and lower contrast.
You can also add powerful emotion to a piece with more rugged and defined clouds.
These clouds tend to feel foreboding and can really add tension to a composition. Ominous clouds looks best when the clouds themselves have high contrast and often are very dark. Such as before a storm
Did I mentioned that you should take your camera everywhere?
This includes on an airplane. Clouds look really cool from above.
Once in Photoshop you can either let your clouds remain realistic or you can easily change them dramatically to add another dimension to their abstraction.
This will usually depend on the style of image you are aiming for in the final piece but given how abstract clouds are it is very easy to vastly change them without ruining their effect.
Don’t be afraid to really experiment, the worst possible outcome would be starting over but the rewards can be infinite.
Things you can do to clouds to make them more abstract
- Add extreme color of any type. We are used to seeing clouds with sky blue as a back drop. They also look good with most other colors of the spectrum.
- Give them movement. Add motion or radial blurs to simulate movement.
- Warp them. Given that clouds have no predefined shape you can use tools such as liquefy to mold them to your desired shape.
- Add things to them. Birds, rainbows, and lightning can all add an interesting twist.
You have shot your clouds… Now what?
Take advantage of them. As mentioned above you can’t always count on the sky to deliver it’s best performance when you are taking your pictures.
Next time you have a photo that you think could have been amazing but just isn’t quite right consider how it would look with a new sky.
Look through your collection of clouds and find the perfect sky to match your photo. Just make sure the sky you have chosen fits with the image you are giving it to.
Things to watch out for when adding a new sky
Make sure to cut out the original photo well. A halo of the old sky can look really weird.
Instead of completely replacing the old sky, consider blending it with the new sky to make things look more natural.
Make sure the lighting matches. It would look really weird if you add a sky behind a mountain with the sun in it but the shadows on the mountain imply the sun is behind the photographer.
Match the tones so that the entire image has similar saturation, brightness, and contrast. It needs to look natural.
Other cool tricks
- You can vastly increase the size of the sky. For example, in the image above the original sky looked fairly good but it was cut off by the end of the frame. By adding a new sky I was able to use one that was much taller and thus make the picture more interesting with a taller aspect ratio.
- You don’t always have to replace a sky. Perhaps you photo doesn’t have any sky in it. But it does have some water or other reflective surfaces. Create an interesting reflection.
- Layer skies. If done well, and carefully, you can layer several skies together by blending them and create a compelling effect.
- Transform them. Flip and rotate them. A sky doesn’t always look it’s best right off the camera. Find the angle that best benefits the final image.
Clouds are a great and fun canvas to work with. They inspire creativity and help expand your ability as a photographer. The greatest strength of the sky is it is endless in it’s abstraction and thus is only limited by your imagination.
Ryan Cooper is the founder and president of jitZul.
jitZul is an online resource and company dedicated to helping aspiring artists market and monetize their creative talent so that they can turn their passion into a career.