Blue Skies

I received a question from Sally, who has a jewelry shop here and also writes about her art in a blog here.  Sally isn’t happy about the way the sky looks in her photos, saying that they’re washed out and flat.  Her camera of choice is a Leica D-Lux 3, one of Leica’s great little compacts.  I looked at Sally’s blog, and found some beautiful photos (some with really great looking skies).  But I also found a few that did look a bit washed out, where the blue looked a bit too white.

Skies can be tricky for a number of reasons, the biggest being that they’re often flat, and look gray or white even to our eyes.  And as I discussed in  a few previous posts, if our eyes can’t handle a scene, there’s little chance that a digital camera can.  So, as with many scenes, the first step is being realistic with your expectations.  Take a close look at the sky.  Is it really something you want as part of the scene?  Often, it’s not, so don’t just keep clicking.  Recompose and keep the sky out of the frame.  There, that was easy.  But let’s assume for a minute that you’re on vacation (or is it holiday?) and it’s a beautiful day, with blue skies and a few white puffy clouds, and you just have to capture a few shots.  No problem, here are two simple things you need to remember:

  1. Keep the sun behind you.  Anywhere behind you between your left and right shoulders is fine, and you can even cheat a little bit on either side.  You just can’t shoot in the direction of the sun, even if it’s not in the frame, and expect a decent shot.
  2. Meter on the sky, not the earth.  If the sky is that important to your composition, then sacrifice a bit of what might be in the lower half of the frame.  You can’t have everything, so if you really want a beautiful sky you’ll just have to compromise.  If an earth-bound subject is close enough, you might want to consider using a fill flash to keep the lighting balanced.

Okay, those are the two simplest ways to get better sky shots.  But here are two more;

  1. Use a polarizing filter – it can make a huge difference, especially on shots where the sun is at your left or right shoulder.  Always keep in mind that a polarizing filter will reduce the amount of light getting to the sensor, so a proper exposure will require a change in aperture and/or shutter speed.  If you have a compact like the D-Lux 3, adding a polarizer is a little trickier than adding one to an SLR lens, but it is possible.  You can even hand-hold the filter in front of the lens if need be.  And speaking of hand-held, try holding one side of your polarized sunglasses in front of the lens of your point-and-shoot.  Shown below is a “with” and “without” sunglasses example (shots taken about 5 seconds apart).  Not a huge difference, but the one with the polarizer certainly has a deeper blue sky and the clouds are a little more three-dimensional.  One other thing — this sunglasses trick should only be used on compact cameras, not SLRs. 
  2. Post-process.  It’s not cheating, so go ahead and do it.  Many photo editing programs (even the free ones) now have features that allow selective editing, and it’s usually a very simple process.  So unless you’re a purist who frowns upon digital editing of any kind, give it a try.

Before I finish, just a quick note about the flag photo at the top of this post … My wife happens to use a D-Lux 3.  She took this shot without any special settings or filters, and other than cropping, no adjustments were made to the image.  The camera was in “Program AE” mode (automatic) and the metering was set to “multiple.”  What made this shot work were (1) where she stood in relation to the sun (it’s high but off to her left), and (2) where she pointed the camera to meter the exposure (the sky).  Nice and simple!

Keep those questions coming, and until next time … Happy Shooting!

4 thoughts on “Blue Skies

  1. Thanks, great info. once again. I occasionally use (dare I say) my polarized sunglasses when shooting on a bright day. Some sunny days, it’s just perfect and you don’t need them, other days, it’s just too bright and I do need something. It’s a cheap but potentially effective option; I just make sure they are nice and clean and no scratches and shoot through them. Doesn’t always work, but sometimes, it’s awesome. Great tip to meter on the sky instead of the earth (or your earthbound subject) – I haven’t tried that!

  2. Thanks Mike – that’s incredibly helpful. Your suggestion to ‘meter on the sky’ I had never considered doing before, but it’s something I’m going to do in future. Your wife’s photo using the AE with multiple metering is also great – very natural looking without too much contrast or washout.
    It’s shocking how little of the digital camera’s features I actually use – for example, following your excellent advice about setting the white balance, I’ve just started to do that every time I use the camera. My latest product shots look very much better because of it.
    Kind regards

  3. I often use a UV filter in bright sunlight. It definitely reduce glint in breaking waves.
    I use a circular polarizing filter on shiny metal or when I’m shooting through glass to reduce reflections.
    I use a Nikon 5700 “point and shoot” camera these days rather than my Nikon SLR film camera
    but I still use the filters.

    Do you use filters for ETSY shots? If so, when do you use them.

    • I use a variety of filters, depending on the conditions and the effect I’m going for. I really don’t have any “rules” for filter use – I just do what makes sense to me at the time.

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