Create Dramatic Images by Shooting for the Sky

When shooting outdoors, the sky is often part of the picture. Most of the time, though, it’s a secondary (or tertiary) subject within the frame. What a shame.

Sunset Flames

The sky can be the extraordinary centerpiece of a photo — sometimes you just have to make it happen. Deep blues, white clouds, orange and red sunsets, stormy weather… and no two skies are the same. It’s an ever changing landscape waiting to be captured in all it’s glory. Here are a few tips for making the most of those skies.

The Barn and The Sky

MAKE IT THE MAIN SUBJECT

Sometimes the stuff in the sky is more interesting than the stuff on the ground. If this is the case, make the sky the main subject. Use the ground or overhanging trees to frame it and place it at the center of attention. Set your exposure for the sky and allow everything else to be darker — this will help to de-emphasize the other elements of the photo. Typically the sky gets blown out when shooting other subjects, so this method is a nice way to shake things up.

FILL THE FRAME WITH IT

There’s no easier way to make the sky your main subject than to fill the frame with it. You’ll want to leave something else in the photo to help ground it, so don’t fill the entire frame with sky — more on this topic in a moment.

Painted Desert Sun Rays

USE A WIDE ANGLE TO CAPTURE IT

One good way to fill the frame with sky is to use a wide angle lens. The wide angles help to add a large-scale feeling to things. With some wide angle lenses (such as my 10-20mm), you can actually capture well over 90 degrees of view. That means that you can grab a slice of ground while shooting directly overhead. The other thing I’ve noticed about wide angle shots of the sky is that the colors tend to be much more saturated and darker than at longer focal lengths. When I shoot at 10mm, the sky almost has the appearance you’d expect from a polarizing filter

USE A FILTER TO PUNCH IT UP

A polarizer is a great way to add some drama to the sky. They add contrast and can really richen the colors. I’m guilty of not having one, but it’s on the top of my “to-buy” list. I’ve seen some really amazing “with and without” shots that show the true advantage to using a polarizer. For more information on polarizers, read Andrew Ferguson’s guest article at the Photocritic titled “How a Polarizer Filter Works.”

Manhattan

USE THOSE ANCHORS

I alluded to this earlier, but when taking photos of the sky you have to remember to anchor your shot. Nothing but sky isn’t very attractive because it’s hard to tell exactly what we’re looking at. An anchor can be anything other than sky that gives a sense of orientation and scale — it grounds the photo. Pay attention to what you use as an anchor, though, because it will often become the secondary subject in the frame.

HAVE FUN WITH IT

Shooting for the sky can be a fun photo shooting experiment, but don’t forget to mix it up a bit. I only offer these tips as things to think about when you’re out shooting something else. Because sometimes, we just forget to look up.

What other tips do you have for shooting the sky?