Thursday, February 24, 2011

Exploring with a Camera: Capture the Sky

Welcome to Exploring with a Camera! Today I'm going to talk about capturing the sky. The sky is a subject that I've  been fascinated with over the last few months, and I wanted to share what I've learned through observation. This post has a lot of information, and at the bottom you will find a link tool where you can link in your sky images to share too. I hope you will include any tips or personal observations you have, and increase the knowledge through the power of a community.

What is it about the sky that is so fascinating to me? I think because it is always changing, it is always interesting. The sky is never the same. The weather and clouds, the change in light from the time of day and season, and where you are located all have a dramatic impact on how the sky looks. Not only that, compositional choices, camera settings for exposure and post processing can have a big impact on the final appearance of the sky.

Here are a few things I've noticed...

Big Sky

The image leading this post off is an example of what I call a "big sky" image. Captured on the Oregon Coast in 2008, this wonderful sky has stuck in my mind. Why does the sky feel so big in this image? First, the photo was taken with a wide angle (short focal length), which enables the capture of a lot of space. Second, the horizon is positioned low in the image, so the the sky is dominant. Finally, you can't ignore the effect of the cloud formation. The formation itself leads you into the distance and gives more depth. I want to mention that I did boost the color in this image, to emphasize the blue of the sky.

Here's another big sky image, from the Amalfi Coast of Italy. This image is similar to the Oregon Coast image, not only in subject, but in the focal length, placement of horizon, and interesting cloud formations.

Big sky images don't have to be of nature, they don't even have to have blue sky in them. This image of London is a great example of a big sky in an urban environment. The same elements, wide angle and low horizon, apply to this image as well.

You don't have to have clouds to capture a big sky, that just seems to be what I am drawn to when I capture the sky. I hope some of you will share some cloudless skies in the link tool to provide examples.


How you choose to compose your image, horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) orientation, has an impact on the feel of the sky. The image below, of the sky above Mt. Vesuvius in the Bay of Pompeii, emphasizes the height of the sky, rather than the width or expanse as seen in the previous images. The vertical format compresses the depth of the clouds coming toward the viewer to create height.

Here is another vertical example, above the Swiss Alps. I find it interesting how both of these images make the sky and the clouds seem so large compared to the massive mountains. Note that both also use a low horizon, to emphasize the sky.


When capturing the sky, I like to have something to provide contrast to the sky itself, something to ground the image and provide a frame of reference. I find I ground my images with a piece of something real, even if I don't include the horizon. The tree in this image of sky from Madrid grounds the image, giving a little bit of context without changing the focal point.

And if you can have an interesting object help ground your sky, why not? This ancient Greek temple in Paestum, on the Amalfi Coast south of Naples, both grounds and provides a point of interest to the fabulous sky on this day.

Contrast that with a slightly wider angle crop, below, and you can see the difference in the focal point of sky versus temple. The sky is still an important feature, but the temple becomes the primary focal point.

Slice of Sky

You don't always have the luxury of having a broad view of the sky to capture. You can create equally interesting sky images by catching a slice of the sky. These images are trickier for exposure, since you have a bright sky behind often significantly darker surroundings. My camera light meter will always choose an exposure in this situation that results in an overexposed sky, so I deliberately underexpose. This will make the foreground darker, but the correct exposure on the sky will make it the focal point.

Here is an image from an early morning walk in Parco di Monza. The slice of sky is the dominant feature in the image, but there is context in the foreground.

The image below comes from an especially frustrating evening walk in Lisbon. I could tell the sky was gorgeous with the clouds and golden light, but I couldn't get anywhere I could capture the broad vista I wanted. There were buildings all around, everywhere I walked. Instead of the big sky, I focused on a slice of sky. I like this image for the subtle details of the city in contrast with that gorgeous sky.

This slice of sky, the view when exiting from a Paris Metro station, gives me an interesting feeling of emerging. The looking-up perspective and escalator provide the context that changes the image from a standard sky shot to something more unique.


The sky in reflection is gorgeous. Water reflections are a great tool to expand the impact of the sky in an image. In this image of the Venetian Lagoon, the reflected rays of light and colors of the sky continue the effect of the sky through more of the image. 

Using selective color processing on a reflection of the sky can completely change an image. In this image of my son from 2007, I loved how revealing only the sky in color gave me a feeling of springtime hope and moved the focal point to the sky in reflection.

I like this sky reflection from a modern Vespa for a couple of reasons. First, you can see that it has just rained from the drops on the mirror but the sky is reflected blue - things are clearing up. Second, a modern silver Vespa, while unique if you are from the US, is not all that interesting on its own. This sky reflection provides significantly more interest to the photo.


Finally, I want to explore the sky as a backdrop. Sometimes an image just doesn't work without the backdrop of the sky. It may not be the focal point, but an interesting sky in concert with other elements make a great image. This Parco di Monza sunset image needs both the sky and the tree in silhouette to work.

The focal point in this image is the life boat on the Ferry from Italy to Croatia, but the light in the sky is what makes it interesting. Can you imagine this without that light? I can, and it's not anything special in my mind's eye.

I have taken lots of images of church steeples and domes and monuments, and I can tell you this: the sky makes or breaks the shot. This evening sky in Split, Croatia makes all the difference between a ho-hum church steeple and a marvelous evening shot.

So, what skies attract you? Is it cloudless skies of blue? Stormy, threatening skies? I would love to see your images. Let's see how you capture the sky.

You can link in your images below, link will stay open until March 9. All images, recent or archive, are welcome. If you viewing this post in a reader, click here to come to the blog to see the link tool. I would love it if you would include an Exploring with a Camera button with your image, you copy and paste the button code from here.


  1. Oh you really do inspire me with the whole cropping thing. I must give it a try! And those skies. Outrageous.

  2. Croatia totally rocks, my friend. I am with you, my favorite- crop dusters with a big slice of sky. Pure nirvana. Great post, thank you!

  3. I love photographing the sky. It can so quickly change. Here on the coast I can look in one direction and see a clear sky and then turn around and it will have a totally different feel due to the light and clouds.

  4. I love all ofhtese photos and tips. I have been trying, just recently, to capture some sky photos, but I havent been very successful. Now, I have new perspective and i am going to go grab my camera now!

  5. Wonderful lesson -- the photos are terrific! The skies here in the valley are pretty boring -- usually blandly blue.... That's why I like going to the coast.

  6. thank kat for stopping by SS, you are always such a great contributor. such a shame i missed you in london. maybe next time x.

  7. Great write up - thanks Kat. Some great hints and tips here. I shall try to remember at least some of them the next time I'm shooting into the sky.

  8. Kat, I enjoyed this post! As always, you've presented wonderful information along with stunning visuals. I find getting well exposed shots that include a large area of sky are often tricky. I try to expose for the sky and later, use my photo editing tools to recover any foreground elements that are too dark. The beauty and drama that skies present are well worth any trouble though!

  9. I forgot to ask you. Any tips to capturing that blue hour sky like in your last shot?

  10. Kat -- I've stopped by your blog a few times in the past, but I can't believe I've missed your "exploring w/ a camera" stuff! I've looked over several of these and I love all the help and examples and inspiration you've provided!! I so want to jump in, but feel "behind" and overwhelmed!! :) lol! I'm going to need to re-read over your posts -- there's just so much good stuff (and trying to read and pay attention this late at night is never good for my memory!)

    I'll definitely be joining in soon!! hopefully. :) But for sure I'll be following and reading! :)

  11. Like you, I'm fascinated by the sky. You have some really gorgeous pictures here, absolutely beautiful. I'm currently looking for this week's Skywatch photo, perhaps I'll link to your site (if I find one that I like).

  12. I love to take photo's of the sky, thanks for the tips and great photo's.

  13. i love sky photos, and this tutorial is great. thanks for sharing all your tips!

  14. I really liked your tutorial on this topic - and the photos, actually especially the 'frustrated' one :)

  15. What a great post! And filled with so many beautiful images of the sky. I went for something a little different, hope you like it.
    Thanks for hostessing!

  16. Gorgeous photos. Thanks for the inspiration!

  17. I haven't paid much attention the sky, but now I will. Thanks for another great tutorial! Love your photos!

  18. these are all AMAZING! I am so inspired to go out and shoot the sky (around here, I think I'll wait til it stops raining first).

  19. I feel so inspired to try different perspectives with the sky - thanks so much for hosting and look how many entries you have!

  20. I came over here from Ashley's blog. I just learned an awful lot from this post. I linked up my Scavenger Hunt sunday post with my Capture the sky shot. I think I may do a post just for this topic though.

  21. So amazing how something we take so much for granted can be so dramatically different and beautiful in so many different ways each day, each minute. What beautiful images! Thanks for sharing.

  22. Hope it was okay that I posted a different photo and linked up again. I was trying to use some of your advice.


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