Updated: Jan 28
I don’t know about you, but I love sky watching. I love beautiful sunrises and sunsets, I love watching storm clouds gather, I love lying in the sun and watching soft fluffy clouds drift past. I love calm skies and angry skies. I love the ever-changing nature of the sky and the fact that there is always something happening above us. Even in a country like Ireland, which is well known for its grey skies, there are still wonders to behold when we begin to really look at the sky. And what better subject for photography than something that constantly challenges you to find its beauty, which it then reveals in a dramatic way?
A deep blue sky makes a nice backdrop for many subjects, but it can be rather dull by itself, as can a completely grey sky. A few fluffy white clouds will add more interest, but this is just the start of how interesting skyscape photography can become.
What is skyscape photography?
Skyscape photography is when an image depicts a section of the sky, sometimes including part of the horizon, that can be seen from a single viewpoint. I have been drawn to photograph skies for some time and have many images in my collection. Through a process of trial and error, learning what works and what doesn’t work, I have compiled some tips which you may find useful if you are interested in skyscape photography, or just simply capturing some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
1. Pay attention to the weather forecast
This is particularly important if you are going to get up early to capture that beautifully coloured sky at daybreak. If you are fairly sure that you will waken up to a fabulous sunrise, it's a good idea to be prepared. The sunrise doesn't wait for anyone so you need to get up in time, have your camera ready and get yourself to your chosen location so as not to miss the amazing natural display of colour. I find that during a dry spell, regardless of the season, the sky is different every morning and we just need to be there at the right time to observe this beautiful natural phenomenon and hopefully capture a few images. During the day you can keep an eye out for light in the sky which might promise a nice sunset. A storm forecast will also be of interest to photographers as it can herald interesting and dramatic skies.
I have captured some beautiful sunrises from my own back garden
2. Pay attention to the light
Light is important in skyscape images, in fact, the main objective of skyscape photography is to capture light as accurately as we can. A grey dull day will not yield interesting skies and while the approach of storm clouds can be dramatic, we will need to catch the sun peeping out and backlighting the clouds to capture that drama. The ‘golden hour’, the first or last hour of sunlight, is usually a time that will give the most vivid sky colours and underexposing the scene will give more saturated colours, although we need to be careful not to over saturate.
When the sun peeps out from behind dark clouds it adds drama to the image
3. Have a few different locations
While the sky itself will provide some variety, being in the same location every morning to capture a sunrise will become boring. It is worth scouting out a few different locations, maybe hilltops or forest locations, a park or an open space with a good view of the skyline and capturing sky images from these viewpoints. Travelling presents opportunities for skyscape photography; when travelling the sunrises and sunsets you may capture in countries which you visit may be very different to those at home. Even travelling to other locations in your own country, such as going to the west if you live in the east, or travelling to the coast if you live inland, will enhance your experience of skyscape photography. No matter where you are it is often worth spending time without a camera, observing, so that you will know the best locations to visit to get your images when a good sunrise is promised.
My most recent holiday was to Lake Garda, where I captured some amazing sunsets, often just with my phone camera
Sometimes the sky just fills the frame with colour
4. Pay attention to composition
Composition is important in all types of photography and equally so in skyscape photography. Including foreground detail will serve to lead the viewer into the image, while having a far-off element can bring balance to the composition. Positioning of the horizon line is also important. It is generally advised not to place the horizon exactly in the centre of the image, and if we want to accentuate the sky then giving it more space in the frame is a good idea. Two thirds of the frame given to the sky versus one third to the land will give the sky prominence in the image. If other elements in our frame are placed according to the ‘rule of thirds’ we will add visual balance to our image.
5. Use silhouettes of added elements to enhance your sky image
When the sun is low, or you use a tree or building to partially block it, then you can create silhouettes by underexposing subjects until they are dark but still distinguishable. This can accentuate the dramatic sky colour.
Sunrise and sunset can allow us to get creative with our sky images
6. Capture sky reflections in water
On a clear day, and you are close to a body of water, you will often see the sky reflected in the water. By trying to capture both the sky and its reflection you can get a mirror shot of the sky.
7. Experiment with white balance
The camera sees the colour in a certain way but if we experiment with different white balance, or use the ‘wrong’ white balance, we can create more interesting skies and create different moods or hues.
8. Try out some Presets
To add a little bit of creativity to your sky images why not try out a few presets. We can find these on most image editing programmes. Here are a few to start with:
Cool shadows and warm highlights
9. Try different camera settings and lenses
It is recommended to use an aperture of around F/32 to get a good sharp image.
I have also seen a recommendation to use an ultra wide angle lens for skyscape photography, and while I don’t have such a lens on my camera, I have taken some sky pictures with the ultra wide angle lens on my phone.
Skies are also great for doing panoramic shots, and again your phone camera will come into its own if you don’t have a super wide angle lens.
I don't have powerful camera equipment so night sky photography is not really possible, although I did make an attempt at capturing the super moon earlier in the year, using a 70-300mm telephoto lens.
To sum up
Great sky images require patience and waiting for the perfect moment to capture that amazing colour or that fantastic cloud formation can be difficult. At times, the beauty is so fleeting that we can easily miss it, but no need to worry, it will all come again soon. Skyscape photography is a long-term project, one which we can go back to anytime that the conditions are right. Constant observation is key, and when you learn to read the sky, you’ll eventually capture some great sky images.
Why not give it a try.
For more professional tips on capturing stunning sunrises and sunsets, check out this post: