Are dull, flat skies ruining your photographs? Learn how to capture real clouds and dramatic skies in camera, no sky replacement or Photoshop needed.
Love it or hate it, sky replacement is a new software advancement that is having a huge impact on outdoor photography. The purists say that altered photographs are now digital art rather than a photograph. Regardless of your stance, what if you could get amazing skies that were real, over and over again? Let me teach you the secret to epic, gorgeous skies in your photographs all captured in camera.
Become a Weather Geek
The weather is the first and most important step to having an interesting sky. Rather than relying on luck or post-processing, I will explain the tricks for knowing when a sky will look amazing. It is all about understanding the weather forecast. To start, I look up the local 10-day forecast for the locations where I want to do some landscape photography. While the forecast may change or not be completely accurate (this is nature, after all), it is the key to success. The important thing is to notice the cloud cover. In most apps, cloud cover is listed as a percentage, with 100% being a sky that is completely full of clouds and less interesting. A sky of 0% has no clouds and is equally plain. As a general guideline, I aim for the 50-75% cloud cover times.
The best time for light to get the epic color in your skies is sunrise and sunset. So, combine that knowledge with the forecast to select a day with a sunrise or sunset session when you have 50-75% cloud cover.
To take this concept to the next level, look at a weather radar projection. The edges of storm systems create the best and most dramatic cloud shapes. I will often put a location on the back burner until the perfect conditions, keeping an eye on the weather. I watch for a big storm and go at the beginning or end of it, whichever matches up with the golden hour. By waiting for a storm, I can create photographs of that location that are completely unique, as no two skies are exactly the same.
You can really get deep into using the weather to your advantage in photographs. Sometimes, a storm that is fast-moving, like summer thunderstorms, will have great skies all the way through. If you are lucky, you can capture lightning (from a safe spot) or a rainbow afterward, so I always keep an eye on summer storms nearby. There are also different types of clouds and storms, so you can really get into this concept of weather-planning. For example, in autumn, cold nights and warmer mornings often create fog at sunrise in low-lying areas. Lakes, valleys, waterfalls, and meadows are my favorite for foggy sky photography in autumn. By understanding the weather, I can literally plan and create fall foliage photographs with beautiful, moody fog. With a bit of nature knowledge, you can really get deep into using the weather to your advantage in photographs.
Your Secret Weapons: Lens Filters
Lens filters are vital to properly balancing the sky and foreground in your landscape photographs. A basic kit of just a few filters can turn bland photographs into showstoppers. My must-have filters for epic skies are a graduated neutral density filter (GND), circular polarizer (CP), and reverse graduated neutral density filter (RGND). These glass or resin filters act as sunglasses for your camera, filtering the light and creating natural effects to boost your images.
The GND filters are tinted dark on the top edge and fade to clear at the bottom. By placing the tinted side over the sky, you darken what the camera sees in that specific area. This helps the camera balance the bright sky and dark foreground. This is especially important when your camera is pointed at a sunrise or sunset and the sky is blazing in the sun.
However, it is important to realize that at sunrise and sunset, the sun is very low in the sky. That is where RGND filters come in. These are special filters where the darkest part of the filter is the center. You want the darkest part of the filter to cover the brightest part of the sky, which during sunrise and sunset is at the horizon. So, that is when you should choose a RGND over a regular GND. I swap my RGND and GND based on the time of day; it is all about sun position.
The last filter is a simple circular polarizer. When I am photographing outdoors, I only take this bad boy off my lens for nighttime images. A CP filter is a secret weapon. This tool filters the light coming into your camera in a different way than the GND filters. A CP filter cuts glare, which sounds mundane, but the effect is unmatchable. The glare that you don’t even realize that you are seeing is on everything from water to foliage, buildings, glass, and yes, even the sky. The effect of a CP filter dramatically boosts the contrast and colors in your photos. Clouds will pop more, water will be clearer, plants will look lush, and the sky colors will be saturated with vibrancy. It is my favorite filter for nature photography.