I spend a lot of my time outdoors, with my camera on my tripod and my neck craned upwards, watching for interesting skies. For I am a dedicated sky watcher.
The sky is always a significant consideration in my landscape photography – no matter how small it is in the frame it is never of secondary importance. I believe that the sky shouldn’t be coincidental to a shot – it should be there as a deliberate and conscious choice, made with acute awareness of its contribution to the final image.
The relationship between land and sky is at the very least a partnership between equals. But I’ve learnt from experience that a sky can make or break a landscape photograph – a poor sky can destroy a good landscape. In fact, sometimes the sky can be the subject with the land playing a supporting role – merely an anchor to the drama going on overhead.
Skies are one of the joys and frustrations of landscape photography– in my part of the world particularly, no two days are the same. Personally, I wouldn’t want a predictably blue sky everyday – it’s the variety and capriciousness of the weather that makes landscape photography so interesting and challenging to me.
When confronted by a photogenic landscape we should imagine what our perfect sky would be if we could paint it ourselves. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of the artist who can recreate their imaginings on paper. We must learn to be patient & wait for that sky to appear. Experience has taught me that if I want something to happen in my photograph, and I want it badly enough to be prepared to wait & wait & wait ………. then usually I get what I’m after. I’ve lost count of the number of times that my patience has been rewarded by an elusive ray of light shining on a chosen part of the landscape or the clouds have moved into the right place to fill in a blank sky.
So, what does a perfect sky look like? If only that were an easy question to answer, for it is not possible to give hard and fast rules; a sky that suits one situation may not be the best in another.
Ideally, I look for a sky that is sympathetic to the landscape below – either because it mirrors the landscape in some way or it provides a contrast and creates a deliberate tension in the shot. The ‘right’ sky is one that draws attention to the key features in the landscape. If we are lucky enough then the sky can turn an average shot into a fantastic one. It can also help to separate our shots from the crowd – important when faced with a much-photographed subject.
In the search for a sky to complement the landscape we must consider shapes & tones, patterns & design and colour. For example, an intense blue sky will dominate a shot – sometimes to its detriment; in other situations, a blue sky will provide a welcome colour contrast. I particularly enjoy finding a sky that reflects a shape or pattern in the landscape – it’s as if Mother Nature is playing a game to test my powers of observation.
Being an avid watcher of the weather forecasts increases our chances of success. Non-photographers usually assume that a sunlit landscape under a fine/bright sky offers perfect landscape photography conditions. But I find that showery, unsettled weather can deliver some truly spectacular skies as weather fronts pass over or move in. My preference is for threatening, ominous, grey cloud filled skies because in my view there are few better sights than a gathering storm.
It’s also useful to develop some understanding of atmospheric conditions and their impact on cloud formation because some cloud types are more photogenic than others e.g. cumulus clouds (those that look like ‘cotton wool puffs’) are formed as a result of convection as the sun heats up the ground below or my favourites, the altocumulus (the small rippled clouds commonly known as a ‘mackerel sky’) can produce fiery red skies when they appear at sunrise and sunset.
The beginning and the end of the day are often the best times for interesting skies meaning that early starts and late finishes are required. Unfortunately, a good sky is not always easy to predict and consequently unproductive early rises and long waits for dramatic cloud formations go with the territory. It almost goes without saying therefore that when a picturesque sky appears it is important to make the most of it.
Use a wide-angle lens and tilt the camera skywards to make it the dominant feature in the photograph. Carefully consider the placement of the horizon in the frame to maximise the impact of the sky and remember, whilst the rule of thirds is a helpful starting point, it is only a guideline. Sometimes limiting the land to a narrow strip at the bottom of the frame can be the most effective compositional choice.
Photographing large, expansive, cloud filled skies with a wide-angle lens can create a sense of movement in the shot, with the clouds appearing to rush in from the corners of the frame. The sense of dynamism can be accentuated by fitting a neutral density filter (I use 6 stop, 10 stop and 15 stop filters regularly) to result in shutter speeds of several seconds to record the movement of windblown clouds.
Most importantly, be ready and waiting – try to anticipate and not react – for skies can change very quickly. A burst of sunlight through a stormy sky may only last for a few seconds so it’s best to be set up and ready to shoot. This is not to deny the value of grab shots however. One of my favourite sunset shots involved me jumping out of the car to capture the light show above my head – with no time to set up a tripod I used the roof of the stationary car as a support and fired off 6 frames before the light died completely. On this occasion I didn’t have the opportunity to find a complementary landscape, so I made the heavens the subject of the shot and excluded the land entirely.
When taking a more considered and planned approach to photographing skies I look for water (the sea, a lake or river, even wet rocks & stones) because if I can capture a good reflection I get two skies for the price of one!! And sometimes images of the clouds reflected in water can be more rewarding than photographing the sky itself.
Lens flare can be a problem when photographing the sky with the sun in the frame (or even out of shot when using a wide-angle lens) so fit a lens hood or shield the front of the lens from the direct rays of the sun with a suitable object e.g. a piece of black card, a hat.
Another frequently encountered technical problem is that the sky is often much brighter than the land below; without remedy one or the other will be under or over exposed. There are three possible solutions – one, make a choice about which is the most important element in the shot and expose for that; or take two exposures (one for the land and the other for the sky) and blend them in post processing; or three (and my preferred option) take an exposure reading from a mid-tone in both areas and then use an ND grad over the sky to bring the two into balance. So, for example, if the reading from the sky is 1/250 at f11 and the reading from the land 1/60 at f11 a two stop (0.6) ND grad will be required.
ND grads can also be employed when the sky is weak, to darken it and add a sense of drama. A polarising filter may also rescue the situation by deepening the blue of the sky and increasing the contrast with the clouds. A strong word of warning though – don’t be tempted to try and make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Filters can only improve a sky, not manufacture something out of nothing – the over use of a graduated filter never rescues a shot.
If the sky is a featureless plain grey or blue, there is nothing that can be done to improve it. In these circumstances I cut the sky out of the shot completely, either at the taking stage or later, because in my view no sky is better than a weak sky. Removing the sky can also help to focus the viewers’ attention on something in the landscape e.g. a lone tree, barn or church.
Excluding the sky is not a choice to be made lightly though because doing so creates a more closed & contained feel to an image and this may not be appropriate to the scene or the mood we are trying to create. Sometimes it’s best to wait until the ‘right’ sky appears or to return another day.
For when the elements combine in our favour the sky can provide us with great beauty and present us with a constant succession of wonderful photographic opportunities. The sky is endlessly varied – a constantly changing kaleidoscope of shapes, colours & textures adding atmosphere to our landscape photographs.
So, the sky should not be ignored. As landscape photographers we underestimate the value & contribution of the sky at our peril. Just remember to look out for those cliff edges as you’re peering skywards!!