I have always been a sucker for a dramatic sky! I love calm morning sunrises, vibrant sunsets, mid-day blue skies, and stormy clouds all the same. Anytime I catch a glimpse of a pretty sky, I’m quick to grab my camera and capture it. I’ll never get tired of capturing dramatic sky photos.
Beautiful skies feed my soul. They add life to my photographs. They add a sense of space to an otherwise ordinary shot, pulling the viewer into the frame and through the photo.
Because I never want to miss out on incorporating a gorgeous sky into my photos, I’ve learned a few tricks along my photography journey that help capture their full glory without sacrificing image quality. Today, I’m sharing my top three tips for photographing dramatic skies, including how to get the exposure right in-camera.
1. Choose the right lens for capturing dramatic sky photos.
Wide angle lenses are perfect for capturing skies because they capture the scene with less compression than you would get with a longer lens. When using the same aperture, a photo shot with a longer lens will have a sky that is blurred, whereas a wide angle lens will show more cloud details and accentuate the sky by adding a sense of depth to the photograph.
Also, because a wide angle lens is just that – wide, it captures more of the scene. This means more space in the photo to incorporate the sky. Get creative and fill your frame with two-thirds of the sky!
My personal favorite focal lengths for capturing dramatic skies are 24mm and 15mm fisheye.
2. Expose the sky properly in-camera:
We all know it’s best to get it right in-camera when possible. This applies to most photography techniques, but is especially important for exposure when photographing skies. The right exposure can mean a clear, crisp photo or one with tons of noise and grain. Overexposing can blow out the sky, while underexposing leaves your subject muddy. Here are four things you should know how to do in-camera to capture dramatic sky photos:
Choose the right camera position to photograph the sky.
Where you position the sun in relation to your subject will make a huge difference in the look of your sky photo. Often times, as photographers, we are drawn to the golden rays of the sun. However, if we take the time to turn around, sometimes the sky opposite the sun is just as impressive.
My general rule of thumb for capturing a properly exposed sky AND subject in the same shot is to keep the sun 90 to 180 degrees from my camera lens. This means shooting the sky to the side or opposite of the sun. Photographing the sky in the opposite direction of the sun (so, your back is to the sun as you shoot) will produce vibrant, high-contrast colors, and your subject will be well lit and properly exposed.
Slightly underexpose your sky to preserve detail and color.
For those times when I want a backlit dramatic sky photo, I slightly underexpose my subject so that the sky can be retained and brought back during post processing. The key to this technique is to SLIGHTLY underexpose and shoot in a RAW file format.
To accomplish this, I spot meter on my subject and decrease my exposure typically around ⅓ stop. Underexposing more than this introduces noise in the final image and can result in muddy skin tones. Shooting in a RAW file format will allow you to recover the highlights of the sky during post processing, so that you end up with a good-quality image and a dramatic sky.
Here’s an example of an image that I slightly underexposed to preserve the sky. As you can see, the slight underexposure didn’t produce a ton of noise in the final edited image.
Here’s an example of an image that I dramatically underexposed. As you can see, there is a lot of noise in the final edited image.
Capture the sky in all its glory by creating silhouettes.
A great option for capturing a backlit sky is to shoot a silhouette image. To create this type of image, I’ll spot meter on the sky, so that the sky is properly exposed and my subject is a dark outline. This allows me to really highlight the amazingness of the sky, while capturing the profile or shape of my subject.
Use your camera’s automatic exposure bracketing function.
Most DSLR cameras have a function called automatic exposure bracketing that allows you to take three different exposures of the same photo with one click of the shutter. Think of it like Goldilocks for photography — one image too dark, one too bright, and one juuuuust right. Isn’t technology amazing?
Using this technique will require some work in post processing to combine the images, but it works well when photographing a moving subject (ahem, my kids).
Manually bracket the exposure of your sky photos for more control.
If I have a subject that is not moving, I’ll often manually bracket my exposure by adjusting my shutter speed between shots. I’ll first take one photo with proper subject exposure. I’ll then increase my shutter speed to take a second photo with proper sky exposure. Then, I later combine the two images in post processing. This is a sure way to get pretty skin tones and a vibrant sky.
3. Use post processing to perfect your sky images.
Post processing is the icing on the cake for making sky photos pop. Here’s where you can combine your bracketed images, fix exposure issues and really bring out the beauty of the sky in your photos. Here’s how I use post processing tools and techniques to get my dramatic sky photos just right:
Use color adjustments and filters to edit dramatic sky photos:
I love using the radial tool in Adobe Lightroom to enhance the saturation or color to local areas of the sky. This allows me to adjust the sky without affecting my subject.
For times when I have a slightly overexposed sky, the gradient tool or adjustment brush in Adobe Lightroom is perfect for lowering the exposure on the sky portion of the image only. You can create and save your own set of adjustment brushes to achieve this effect. If you don’t want to create your own, I like the Click & Co. Elements Collection presets, which contains some sky exposure presets.
Learn how to swap a sky in Photoshop.
For times when you get caught up in the moment and don’t get the exposure correct on your dramatic sky photos, you can perform a sky swap. This means swapping out the sky in your original photo for a better-looking sky using Photoshop.
When I’m out shooting, I always take a photo of the sky alone in all its glory. If I have an image with a completely blown out sky that isn’t recoverable, I’ll use this sky image to replace the sky in Photoshop. You can also buy sky overlays, like these.
There are a million and one ways to perform a sky swap, so that’s a topic for another post. However, if you are interested in learning Adobe Photoshop more, I recommend Mickie DeVries’ Click Photo School workshop, Unlocking the Magic of Photoshop, where she will teach you how to replace a sky in Photoshop.
Lenses: Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye, Lensbaby Twist 60, Lensbaby Sol 45
Photos by Libby Grohmann.