The Importance of a Good Sky

As any seasoned landscape photographer knows, the sky is a crucial ingredient in a dramatic and compelling landscape image.

The sky is not often the actual subject in a scenic image, but it plays a substantial role.

What is happening in the sky can vastly change the appearance of the light hitting the subject.  It can change the mood of a scene, and it can change the mood of the photographer!

I have witnessed some incredible skies in my time — mostly when I have not been at a location with my gear and a photoshoot on the agenda, but occasionally when I have.

There are three main types of skies:

  1. completely plain (cloudless);
  2. completely overcast; and
  3. partially cloudy.

Of course, there are numerous types of clouds, and every cloud formation and every sky as seen through the camera lens is unique for a mere moment in time.

By and large, the presence of clouds is the main ingredient in a great sky.  However, it is not just the presence of clouds, but where they are located (eastern sky, western sky, etc.), how high they are, what kinds of clouds they are, and where the sun is positioned relative to the clouds.

Plain Skies

A plain sky is generally not ideal for compelling scenic photography, as firstly, it is uninteresting; and secondly, it means that the light can be harsh, and the colours of subject matter are dull.

Personally, I dislike plain skies, and generally do not shoot scenic images if the sky is cloudless.

However, there are two exceptions to this self-imposed 'rule':

  1. twilight cityscapes; and
  2. astrophotography.

While a 'colour bomb' or the presence of cirrus clouds is always appealing in a cityscape image shot at twilight, a cloudless sky can still be of appeal, as one of the compelling visual ingredients in such as image is the royal blue colour from which the 'blue hour' derives its name.  Naturally, one needs to be shooting 180 degrees away from the sun, which means towards the west during morning twilight, and towards the east during evening twilight.

Here is an example of one of my evening twilight cityscape images, shot under a cloudless sky:

Image: Barangaroo Precinct

Barangaroo Precinct

To my eyes, for this type of image, a plain sky works well.

The royal blue colour perfectly contrasts with the yellows, oranges and reds of the illuminated skyline.

Of course, with a 'colour bomb' of a sky behind the skyline, this image would be elevated to another level.

For astrophotography (specifically, galaxy images), a cloudless, moonless night is needed.

Here is an example of what can be captured at night under a cloudless sky:

Image: Afrika se Nag Lug

Afrika se Nag Lug

This image, while I planned to capture it, was definitely the result of more luck than planning.

We were in the Motswari Private Game Reserve in South Africa, and I had indicated my intention to photograph a tree silhouette under the night sky, so we visited this location.  We returned later, and I shot a series of images.

It was pure luck that the sky was cloudless; we were just there at the right time.

Overcast Skies

The next type of sky is the overcast sky.  This is a sky which is completely covered by cloud, mostly tonally flat and devoid of interest.

For landscape photography, this type of sky is not good at all, as it is gloomy and is devoid of interesting light and colour.  Landscape images shot under overcast skies are not the kinds of images you find on postcards.  (Yes, those still exist!)

Of course, if a gloomy mood is sought, then an overcast sky might be appealing; but to my tastes, to be appealing, it would need to also contain interest in the form of precipitation, and be captured when the light level is low.

Partially Cloudy Skies

The most desirable and dramatic skies are those which have some clouds, but are not completely overcast.

There is a very wide range of skies that can result in vastly different images.

By far, the most dramatic and exciting of skies is the 'colour bomb', which takes place at dawn and dusk, when there are the right kinds of clouds opposite the sun, and which is the result of the longer frequency rays of the colour spectrum reflecting off the clouds in the distance.

Depending on the size and formation of the clouds, the resulting reflection can bathe the entire scene in an intense, unusual light, completely transforming the look and feel of a location or subject.

The most intense sky I have ever photographed took place during a cityscape shoot in Perth.  The afternoon had been very overcast, and it did not look promising at all.  We spent a few hours in Kings Park, from which I planned to shoot the Perth skyline at twilight.

From experience, I knew that even when the sky is overcast, the cool light of evening twilight would still result in an appealing image; and with clouds in the sky, there would be some texture rather than the plain royal blue discussed earlier.

What I did not know is that magic would happen.

From our vantage point, we could not see the setting sun in the western sky, and we did not know that there was a gap which allowed the sun to peek through and shine upon everything in the distance.

As the day turned into night, the sky and colours changed dramatically, with this image being one of the stand-out images from the session:

Image: Best of the West

Best of the West

While the clouds in the distance were not very dramatic, the sun had reflected off clouds above and behind us (which we could not see), and resulted in an intense golden/red glow which bathed the entire scene.  Even the foreground foliage looks red!

Compare this image to one that I had captured only 13 minutes earlier:

Image: Picture-Perfect Perth

Picture-Perfect Perth

Again, the clouds themselves are not that spectacular, but there is enough presence and interest to create a very appealing image.

What stands out in this image is the intense golden light hitting the city's buildings, and the contrast of colour with the moody blues in an increasingly darkening sky.

The conditions on this particular occasion remain one of the most intense and memorable conditions that I have ever seen, and I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time in order to capture it.

The lesson to be learned here is that a drab sky can turn into a magical sky if the right conditions align.  I could not have predicted it, but I persisted with my intention to shoot the Perth skyline at twilight, and it paid off.

Most of the great skies I have photographed have been during seascape shoots at dawn.

The most memorable and dramatic sky I experienced was at Narrabeen on Saturday, 7th April, 2012.

A large group of photographers had met for a shoot on that morning.  Having shot the location before, I went out onto the rock shelf and immersed myself in the water rushing past me as the waves crashed onto the edge of the rock shelf a short distance away.

I could see a red glow in the distant eastern sky, and I started to become excited.  I knew that something spectacular would develop; and it did.

Image: White Wash

White Wash

In this image can be seen the intense red, orange and yellow hues of the sky prior to sunrise.  The colours are even reflecting off the water cascading over the rock shelf.

The best time to capture images is not sunrise itself, but the period before and after sunrise.  Prior to sunrise, when facing the east, dramatic colours can appear if the right kinds of clouds are in the right place.

Similarly, sunset itself is not that photographically spectacular; but the light after it certainly can be.

What cannot be seen in this image is the incredible colour-laden cloud formation that was in the southern sky during this particular morning.  This image captures the richness of that morning's sky:

Image: Fire in the Sky

Fire in the Sky

Conditions like this are rare.  Being in the right place at the right time is not so easy, and the only way of increasing the odds is to be there as much as possible.

Another particularly memorable 'colour bomb' I experienced was at Long Reef, a fantastic location for shooting reflections produced by the still water that remains on the flat expanse of reef after the tide goes out.

Image: Together Alone

Together Alone

The conditions on this morning were perfect, and I landed a nice collection of images from this session.

This is a spectacular sky, which has even more impact as a result of the reflection produced by the shallow, still water.

Another great sky I witnessed and encountered was a very short-lived sky during a dawn landscape shoot at Mount Mee in Queensland.

As usual, we arrived in darkness in order to be ready for the light.  The problem was that the weather was a little inclement, and it did not look like the conditions would be favourable at all.

However, we were surprised when the eastern sky put on this show:

Image: Dawn on Mount Mee

Dawn on Mount Mee

This image appeals to me because of its simplicity, and the rich range of colours spread throughout.  There are reds, oranges, yellows, blues, purples and greens.

The texture of the distant clouds resembled ocean water.

This results of this session again proved that seemingly bad conditions can be perfect for great conditions.  It is said that the landscape photographer's motto is "pray for bad weather"; and from what I have seen, the most spectacular light and skies are to be found before or after storms.

Incidentally, the rest of that day was grey, rainy and miserable; but we landed some pleasing images at dawn, which one would never have known existed without being there at the right time.

While shooting towards the sun can yield some spectacular images, it always pays to look 180 degrees in the opposite direction, as the effect of a rising or setting sun on clouds in the sky can produce fantastic results.

Here is an image I captured at The Entrance during dusk:

Image: Dusk at The Entrance

Dusk at The Entrance

What was behind me was not even slightly photogenic, but the sun was hitting the distant clouds over the water, and bringing out some intense orange hues.  The combination of blues, greens and oranges worked really well for this image.

While the 'colour bomb' of explosive colours in the sky holds high appeal to landscape photographers, this is not the limit of what looks great in images.

A brooding, moody, threatening sky can be as equally dramatic, and in my time, I have certainly captured a few skies that fit that description.

One of my most enjoyable and productive seascape shoots was at Cronulla on a moody morning.  The conditions were perfect, and the sky was rich with menacing clouds and a wide variety of tones.

Image: Southern Mist

Southern Mist

Look at that cloud shelf!  It is dark, moody and very threatening.

This kind of light makes shooting easy, as the dynamic range of the scene is reduced, and the challenge of trying to deal with bright lights and dark shadows is practically eliminated.

I encountered a similar moody sky on another morning at Lurline Bay.  The morning did not look like it was going to produce a great sky, but I was able to capitalise on the moody clouds in the distance in the creation of this image:

Image: Stormy Lurline

Stormy Lurline

In this image, the drama is engaged by the use of an ultra-wide lens and a slow shutter speed, which blurred not only the water churning around the rocks, but the texture-rich, low clouds in the distance.

I mentioned earlier that shooting 180 degrees opposite the sun is sometimes the best approach, and on one occasion during our most recent trip to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, my approach paid off.

We were heading back to camp prior to sunset after photographing the Cheli Pride lions, and wanted to stop for one more shoot.

Our safari leader Mario, himself a passionate photographer, wanted to photograph silhouettes of giraffes against the setting sun, but I had other ideas.

I had seen the dramatic golden light emerging, and I also saw a stormy sky forming in the southerly direction in which we were heading.

I emphatically pointed out that we should be photographing an acacia tree in these ideal conditions.

When there is intense afternoon golden light and a stormy sky to the east, the visual impact of images is very high, and I wanted to capitalise on it.

Once Mario had abandoned his plan, he went with my plan, and it paid off.  We spotted three distant, isolated acacia trees and raced towards them to capture the light.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Image: Golden Acacia

Golden Acacia

Firstly, the golden hour light bathing scene was rich and spectacular; but the moody, stormy sky in the distance provided both a visual and climatic contrast.

Very early in this article, I stated the sky is not often the actual subject in a scenic image, but it plays a substantial role.

One morning during an earlier trip to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, we had headed out early in order to shoot an obligatory acacia tree landscape image.

This is the image I captured:

Image: The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

In this image, while the acacia tree is the primary subject, the dramatic sky is also an important subject, and I placed it prominently in the scene.

A sky like this contains several ingredients found in pleasing images: texture, variety and colour.  When shot with a wide focal length, the expanse of the sky becomes a significant part of the image.

This image would not have worked if the sky was plain or only had a few smaller cloud formations here and there; and I probably would not have shot it; but I am pleased with this result, and the sky really makes the image.

Conclusion

While the sky is not often the main subject of an image, it is a great background with an image, and can transform a scene in an other-worldly way.  The position of the clouds, the formations of the clouds, the types of clouds, and where the sun is positioned, all dramatically affect how the scene looks.

Great landscape images are made when the sky is great.  Of course, it is not just a matter of having a great sky; so much more goes into it.

However, without a great sky, a landscape image will be distinctly lacking, and will not be anywhere near as compelling.  The sky affects the colours, and the colours and quality of light affect the subject.

When shooting landscape images, seek out good skies.  Head out in bad weather; head out if the weather looks drab and looks like it will not amount to anything.  Conditions can change dramatically, and in my own experience, some of the best skies have developed when the earlier conditions looked completely unfavourable.

Published on Tuesday, 4th January, 2022.

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