Making the Most of Skies
Article and Images by Brien SzaboThe use of sky in a landscape image can be a very important factor. Skies can play a dominant role or a supportive role. Regardless of its use, if skies are not composed or metered properly it is likely to doom your shot. I can’t count the number of times I’ve either ditched a shot or had to rethink it because the sky wasn’t working for me.
When I’m looking for a captivating or expressive landscape, I usually want a sky that has some character to it —nice puffy clouds, storm clouds, or clouds that capture a lot of color. Unfortunately those days are less frequent that the duller days of no sky, or overcast bland skies. So what does one do?
For days where there is little to no cloud cover, I often try to minimize its use in the scene. A good way of doing this is by raising the horizon line of your image in the frame. When you do this you make the sky a supporting player. The image of the tidal pools along the ocean is a good example of minimizing the sky’s impact on the scene. I took the horizon line and put it high in the frame, utilizing the little color there was with the thinnest amount of clouds available. If I tilted up more, the viewer would see a clear sky with no color. By composing the image this way, I give the viewer the illusion that there is more character to the sky than there actually was. The tidal pools and the line they make along the shoreline are the main subject, rendering the sky to a supportive role. Had I revealed more sky, the shot would loose its impact.
I am not a fan of centerline horizons but sometimes they are the best option. When those types of images occur, I look for skies that have clouds in them. Nice puffy white cumulous clouds dotting the sky will go a long way into giving your shot some character. When I’m faced with a good selection of clouds, I will almost always utilize a polarizing filter. As many know, the polarizer can add a lot of pop to an image, and skies are no exception. The image of a bog on a late summer day makes use of the wonderful sky I had before me. I tried a number of ways to compose this image, but optimum use of this particular sky in relation to the landscape was to place the horizon in the center. I felt it gave this picture the best balance. The sky supports the image while not overwhelming the character of the bog.
When confronted with overcast skies, there are often several ways to look at the situation. The first assessment I make is to determine if there is any character to the sky. If I’m presented with high overcast skies that have no character, then I head for the woods and shoot creek scenes or to a garden and shoot flower images. Storm skies, on the other hand, can often add drama to a scene. Some storm clouds have swirls, edges, bulges, and all sorts of shape that can give a scene come lively character.
Sometimes, overcast days with low hanging clouds can have ripples with the illusion of breaks in them, giving them character which can bring needed support to a scene. Depending on the detail given, I will only include as much as I believe will aid the shot. When working with various kinds of skies, a great tool to have in your bag is a split neutral density filter. I would recommend the landscape shooter have at least one hard edge and one soft split neutral density filter. This will allow more flexibility and put yourself in a better position to succeed in getting the shot you want. Depending on the light you are working in, split neutral density filters will often save an image from losing detail and creating unwanted blown out highlights.
For landscape shooters, knowing the various skies you may have to work with, and how to compose and meter them is paramount in making successful images. Putting yourself in a position to succeed is just as important. Before I head out to the field, I always try to get an idea of what the cloud cover is going to be like. There are several sources to find hourly specific conditions. The one I use is found on the Weather Channel website. I prefer mornings and evenings that predict partly cloudy conditions. Conditions like this put me in a better situation to capture dramatic light in the skies. Dramatic light and color opens up more opportunities to capture stunning pictures.
If you have the opportunity to use a good sky, put it in your image. Whether in a supporting or primary role, skies are an important element in a landscape image. It doesn’t take a lot to determine if you have an interesting sky or a dull one. It takes creativity to see what opportunities you can craft from your given circumstance.