6 Tips for Capturing Dramatic Skies in your Landscape Photography

Don’t let the “land” in landscape photography fool you; a great landscape photo relies just as much on the sky as the land. Boring gray skies make for boring landscape photos, after all!

That said, capturing a dramatic sky in-camera is trickier than it seems. When the sky is lighter than the land, your camera will typically overexpose it, turning a brilliant blue into a vague and unexciting gray or white.

But with a little fine-tuning, it is possible to capture a sky that is the cherry on top of a great scene! Here are six tips for capturing more dramatic skies in your landscape photography.

1. Time it right

Landscape photography may not require the split-second timing that’s necessary for capturing a toddler’s smile or a wide receiver’s catch, but timing is still a big part of the picture. The sky that’s gray one day could be bright blue the next. So when planning out a landscape photo, consider how the timing will impact the sky.

Watch for weather patterns that add interest to a shot, like a storm brewing just above the horizon. Weather plays a big role in the overall mood of the image – so if you’re hoping to capture a dark and gloomy shot, head out when the sky is stormy.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to capture a more relaxed or happy photo, look for blue skies dotted with clouds.

blue sky with fluffy clouds

The time of day matters, too. While the middle of the day will produce the most shadows on the land, it’s when the sky tends to be the clearest blue. And just after sunset and just before sunrise is often a good time to capture wispy clouds and a warmer tint of light.

Of course, sunrise and sunset is great for dramatic skies, as well.

2. Try the wrong white balance

Photography rules are sometimes meant to be broken, including rules about always using the correct white balance.

You see, the wrong white balance setting can create a more dramatic sky. This is especially true when shooting toward the beginning or end of the day – using a different white balance preset will adjust the color in the sky.

Auto, Cloudy, and Shade white balance presets will get you an orangish sunset with a light blue sky (with slight variations in warmth depending on the setting you choose). A florescent setting, on the other hand, will typically turn an orange sunset purple with a brilliant blue sky. Tungsten offers a similar effect, but with even deeper colors.

white balance examples

Using Kelvin temperatures to adjust your white balance results in even greater control over the colors in the sky. At around 5500K, you’ll usually capture a sunny sky with an accurate white balance – that is, where things that are white are still white in the picture, and where things that are gray are still gray in the picture.

A higher temperature – 6500K, for example – will give the land an orange glow but also enhance the colors in a sunset. A cooler temperature, on the other hand (e.g., 3000K), will play up the blues and purples. By using the Kelvin scale, you have more options for picking a white balance setting that best captures the colors in your photos.

Warm white balance for a warm sky
Here, the white balance was altered in post-processing to warm up the sky.

While it’s always best to get the shot right in-camera, shooting in RAW offers you even more flexibility when it comes to adjusting the colors in the sky (and the rest of the image, for that matter).

If you overdid things by making the shot too warm or too cool, you can easily adjust a RAW photo in post-processing, so that you use the color temperature that best fits the image. If you have a landscape photo that you already shot in RAW, open it and try different white balance presets, or the temperature slider, to see first-hand how shooting with a different white balance would have impacted the shot.

3. Compose for the sky

When the sky is more dramatic than the land, why not use that to determine your composition?

Pay attention to where you place the horizon when you are composing your shot. Use the rule of thirds to imagine the image is divided into threes, then place the horizon on one of those horizontal lines. If you are shooting a photo with an average-looking sky, try placing the horizon on the upper third of the image, so more of the land is included in the photo, like this:

horizon high up with a boring sky
As the sky here isn’t very dramatic, the higher placement of the horizon improves the composition.

But if the sky is really dramatic, take advantage of that and include more of it in the frame – by placing the horizon on the lower third:

horizon low in the frame with a dramatic sky
The sky here is dramatic, so the image was composed to show less ground and more sky.

4. Use a filter

There are two filters every landscape photographer should have in their camera bag in order to capture more dramatic skies.

The first is a graduated neutral density filter. Now, a regular neutral density filter is like putting sunglasses over your lens – it limits the light coming in for bright scenes or long exposures. But a graduated neutral density filter places that darkening effect only on a portion of the image. And by positioning the dark portion of the filter over a bright sky, you can properly expose the entire scene.

Without a graduated neutral density filter, the sky will often be overexposed and bland, or the land will be underexposed and dark. With the filter, you can achieve an exposure that works for both portions of the scene. The only downside is that graduated neutral density filters don’t work as well with an uneven horizon, like when shooting a cityscape. Graduated neutral density filters come in both circular and square formats, but the square is often preferred because you can place the horizon anywhere in the frame.

The second filter landscape photographers should use to capture more dramatic skies is a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters work by adjusting the reflected light coming through your camera lens. Since the sky is blue because of this reflected light, turning the front of the polarizing filter will adjust the intensity of the blues in the sky. Since polarizing filters only affect reflected light, they can still be used when mountains or buildings make the horizon uneven. Polarizing filters are also great for enhancing or removing reflections on water or other shiny surfaces.

polarizing filter example

5. Experiment with motion blur and long exposures

Long exposures aren’t just for photographing waterfalls. If you use a long enough shutter speed, the clouds will blur, too, creating a sky of wispy streaks and a slight feeling of motion.

To capture motion blur in the clouds, you’ll need to use a long shutter speed. The best settings will depend a bit on the weather and how much motion blur you’d like, but you can try starting with a two-minute exposure and adjust up or down from there.

motion in the sky

If you are shooting during the day, you may not be able to balance out a two-minute exposure with a narrow-enough aperture or a low-enough ISO; instead, you’ll end up with a photo that’s way too bright.

So how do photographers capture motion blur in the clouds when the photo obviously wasn’t taken at dusk or dawn?

They use a neutral density filter – which helps block out some of the light so that you can set a long exposure during the day.

(Note that a neutral density filter is the same thing as a graduated neutral density filter, but the entire filter is dark instead of just half of the filter).

motion in the water and sky due to a long exposure blur

While it’s always best to get the shot right in-camera, there are a few editing tools that can improve the sky in your landscape photos. One of those tools is the Graduated Filter inside Adobe Camera RAW (this works the same in Photoshop and Lightroom).

With the Graduated Filter, you can drag an effect over the sky in your photo. Like an actual graduated filter, the effect will only cover the top portion of the image and gradually fade away, making it possible to create natural-looking edits.

The Graduated Filter tool can be used to adjust the exposure, creating an effect much like an actual graduated neutral density filter. But the tool can also adjust contrast, saturation, clarity, sharpness, and color. That opens up a lot of possibilities for applying edits just to the sky for more drama – creating effects that sometimes can’t be done in-camera.

rainbow in the sky
This is the original photo.
rainbow in the sky but with a Graduated Filter to enhance the drama
This is the same photo, but with a Graduated Filter used on the sky to increase the drama.

Capturing dramatic skies in your landscape photos: conclusion

The sky can make or break a landscape photo. From timing and composition to filters and post-processing, when you consider the sky as you shoot, you’ll end up with more dramatic, frame-worthy shots.

Do you have any other tips for creating dramatic skies in your landscape photography? Share them in the comments!

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