Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

Prairie Sunrise

Prairie Sunrise
Prairie Sunrise

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Shoot the Sky

A few years ago I discovered a place that afforded a wonderful view of a large stately tree silhouetted against the sky.  I passed by it numerous times each time thinking that I needed to return someday and give it try.  The day came one cold February evening when I finally did give it a try.  As luck would have it, a crescent moon hovered above the tree and some light wispy clouds drifted across the sky and were gently illuminated by the glow from the moon.  I stood in the cold air for close to an hour making several shots as the conditions changed.  Once I finally downloaded the images it became evident that it was the sky that made this moment special.

Kentucky often gives birth to some of the most wonderful sky and cloud formations I've ever seen.  I am continually amazed at the quality and diversity of what is presented through the elements found here.  Oddly enough, I have never fully taken advantage of the opportunity.

It is easy to overlook the sky as a photographic opportunity.  Most photographers I venture to guess tend to migrate toward shooting those blazing sunsets or glorious morning sky shots.  It is natural to do so...I certainly do my share of it...but the sky can often make or break a landscape photograph.  Photographing the sky can be a challenge, but doing so opens up a whole new avenue of potential.  I'm far from being an expert on the subject, but there are a few things I have learned about how to accomplish this...Let's take a look.

What to Avoid:  As in almost everything there are very few examples of things to always avoid.  That holds true in photography as well.  But, if there was a consistent error that I see many photographers make, one of the most common is photographing against a white sky.  White skies are generated on those days when a thin layer of clouds obscures the color, but not the brightness in the sky...there's no's well, White.  A camera will capture this as a bland, flat, and uninteresting sky.  The thing to avoid is including too much of the sky in your image.  It doesn't mean to not include any of it because a clever composition can effectively use a white sky.  White skies are not always so bad because even though the sky itself may be bland, the soft white light it generates creates a wonderful lighting condition without all the harsh contrasts and shadows...that makes it a good time to photograph people and in areas where a bright sun would generate too much contrasts between light and dark areas.

Bad usually means good:  When it comes to photographing the sky, bad weather opens up all kinds of great photo possibilities.  The sky can be full of texture and drama...and that is what we want.  Rolling dark clouds are wonderful for landscapes as they generate that sense of place, moment, and mystery.  The dramatic effect of dark skies can produce wonderful results.  So...when the weather turns bad...don't always hide indoors...head out and take advantage of the great cloud textures...but do be careful and use a bit of common sense and discretion.

Place something in the Sky:  Even a bright blue sky can look rather bland if there is nothing there to break up the view.  A sky with something in it makes for a much more interesting composition.  Clouds are the most obvious...but, its how you use the clouds that are most important to the composition.  The clouds must be a meaningful element within the composition.  What you place in the sky...or maybe I should say place against the really up to you.  A building or tree or another structure taken from an angle that creates a sense of height can be very effective.  The idea is to use the sky to highlight the boldness of your subject.

Use the Sky as your main subject:   Often times it is the bigness or uniqueness of the sky that captures your attention.  Using the sky as your main subject can be very effective.  Again, it's all a matter of composition.  the angle of the light is important...time of day...and of course the textures and colors.  When using the sky as your main subject it begins to blend your composition into the realm of graphic design.  Think of it as less a photograph of the sky and more as a photograph of the shape, forms, and color you see there.  Use a wide angle lens and include less of the ground to impart that sense of openness.

Use a filter to darken the sky:  Two of the most useful tools to use are a polarizer and a neutral density graduated filter.  Both contribute their own unique characteristics to the sky.  For instance, both will darken the sky and bring out textures that might otherwise be lost in the exposure.  The sky is generally brighter than the landscape under it and so will often skew the exposure one way or the other.  If you expose for the sky, the landscape portion may be too dark...expose for the landscape and the sky will be washed out.  A neutral density  (ND does not affect the overall color) graduated filter is designed to eliminate or reduce this problem.  The top half of the filter is darker and gradually becomes lighter toward the center portion until the bottom half is clear.  This allows you position the filter to cover the sky with the darker part and allow the landscape portion to remain unaffected.  

I use this kind of filter more than any can add a great deal of drama to your sky especially during stormy weather. 

 A polarizer on the other hand is great for those bright blue sky days...or really on just about any kind of day as they remove the glare and will darken the sky and bring out a lot of detail in cloud formations.  Polarizers also reduce your effective exposure by about 2 full stops so be aware of how your exposure settings are falling when using one.  Another useful filter is what is called a tobacco filter...or more specifically a graduated tobacco filter.  Where the ND filter does not affect the overall color, the tobacco filter will impart a reddish or orange hue to the scene.  This can often be used to enhance those sunset shots, but use one with discretion as it adds a powerful and dramatic look to your shots.  Also, take note that any graduated filter can be used right side up, upside down, sideways, or stacked with other filters to give you the effect you want. 

Shoot the Moon:  Try something really fun and challenging...include the moon in your sky shots.  There are three things to consider when including the moon in your composition: Time of Day, Position of the Moon, and Capturing the Detail.  Timing is essential.  Too early and the moon looks pale and indistinct.  Too late and you lose detail in everything else and the moon becomes a bright blob.  The best time I've discovered to shoot the moon is right at twilight...both morning and evening...when the moon is hovering above the horizon and there is still some lightness in the sky.  If you must tilt your head to see the moon, it's too high in the sky...if the sky if totally black or if the sky is filled with's too late.  Exposure can be tricky and may require some experimenting.  One technique that I've used is to make two for the landscape and one for the moon...then use a bit of Photoshop magic to blend the properly exposed moon onto the properly exposed landscape shot where the moon sits.  It's not easy...but it's a lot of fun to do and you can get some amazing results..

Don't forget Black and White:  Many times when I am out photographing the sky, I often try to visualize what it will look like in black and white.  Black and White even in today's digital world is still a powerful and amazing form of photography...What is so cool is that with can easily convert any color image into black and white.  Use a polarizer and the ND filter to darken the sky...a dark sky in black and white can be very dramatic. 

Shooting the sky can add a whole new level of complexity to your photographic endeavors.  It's challenging...but the opportunity is just to tempting to pass up.


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