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The Skies Have It

We here in the Pacific Northwest have been having some pretty weird weather lately. Snow storms and wind storms have created their fair of havoc and then some. But all this has gotten me thinking. Interesting weather can make for interesting skies which in turn can make for interesting pictures.

If you want to take photographs with interesting skies, the first thing you need to consider is that sky tends to be bright compared to the foreground land. Often this is enough to exceed the subject brightness range that both film and digital are capable of capturing. This means that in many cases you will need to use graduated neutral density filters, merge multiple exposures, or both. The sky can easily be three, four or even five stops brighter than the foreground. In an image, you want the sky to be at least slightly brighter than the land, but not this much. I generally carry a whole stack of grad filters with me — different strengths, soft edged and hard edged, reverse grads, and so on. This may be less of a problem right at dawn or dusk, but it's best to be prepared even then.

As for composition, try to find a foreground that repeats or mirrors the pattern of the sky. Treat your subject as a graphic composition. Work with things as if as if they were simple shapes and lines. Doing so will enable you to compose more quickly and will often result in an image with greater impact.

Even if you come across a sky to die for, you really still need to have a foreground for your photo. Pictures of just sky and clouds rarely make for memorable images. Look for a foreground that will reinforce what the sky is doing. Be creative. You just need something to anchor the image so that the viewer's eye has a place to return to after exploring your sky.

Threatening storm clouds at sunset in the Palouse
The sun was setting but I had already quit for the evening. When I saw what was happening though, I madly drove out into the fields, almost getting stuck in the soft wet mud. Working with no coat or rain protection, I was able to capture this. Note how the sky mirrors the land.
  Sunrise on the Oregon coast
Sunrise looked to be a bust and I had already walked far down the beach when these clouds lit up just as the sun cleared the opposite horizon. I ran a hundred yards back the way I had come to frame Haystack Rock in the center of the cross made by the cloud reflection.
Rainbow over Kamiak Butte
Another shot from Washington state's Palouse region. The rainbow is obviously the subject, but I needed a foreground. By positioning myself in just the right place I was able to align the rainbow with Kamiak Butte.
  Northern Lights in Manitoba, Canada
This image is all about the sky. When you are watching the Northern Lights, the challenge is to place something in the foreground to make the image work - something not easy when it's dark night time and the only light comes from the aurora. The reflection in the lake allows the boat dock silhouette to stand out.

The word "photography" comes from the Greek and literally translates as drawing or painting with light. In nature and outdoor photography, the primary source of light is the sky. So, if you want to create images that will get people's attention, pay attention to the sky when you are out shooting. See what you can do with it.

I haven't gotten much during our recent storms, but then when it comes to weird weather you never know. The only thing that that is certain is that if you don't go out and try, you definitely won't get any good images. Sometimes the secret to getting the image is just being in the right place at the right time.

Date posted: December 24, 2006


Copyright © 2006 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Kestrel Meters: Keeping Track of the Weather in the Field
Choosing a Background First

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