Landscape Photography Without Clouds

One question that comes up in every workshop I teach is how to shoot when there’s little or no cloud cover to act as a dramatic background. While the old adage about photographers loving bad weather may not be completely true, capturing a really beautiful scene under a cloudless blue sky does present a real challenge, even for the most experienced landscape photographers.

Below are two different examples of how I capture a scene with a cloudless blue sky along with a few rules to remember for situations like this.

  • Rule #1: Always favor the foreground when the background is less dramatic. Find some object in the foreground like a rock, stream-bed or plants to pull the viewer into the scene. Let the foreground and middle-ground make up 90% of the overall scene.
  • Rule #2a: Shoot right before sunset to add warmth and contrast to your scene. Use a graduated neutral density filter to even out the exposure between the foreground and background but go easy on it. In this situation, a little goes a long way.
  • Rule #2b: Shoot in the shade during sunset by letting the diffuse sunlight reflecting off the blue sky act as a giant soft box. The diffuse light right after sunset can open up details in a scene better than any HDR merge I’ve ever seen. Use a warming (3A) filter or polarizer to add some subtle “warmth” and contrast to a “cool” (<4500K) scene.
  • Rule #3: Remove or dial-back on your circular polarizer to obtain the most realistic looking sky. Your eyes will see the blue sky as almost white right before sunset. Nothing says “Photoshop” more than an over-saturated blue sky.

Desert Heat

Desert Heat – Caprock Canyons State Park in Quitaque, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using a TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 24mm, f/16 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

Sunset Hike

Sunset Hike – Caprock Canyons State Park in Quitaque, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using a TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 24mm, f/16 for 1/30th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

4 thoughts on “Landscape Photography Without Clouds

  1. Great shots and examples Jeff. I particularly like the second shot. For me there’s something about a road or a path leading the eye which makes a great scene.

    • Thanks Sean.

      In this case it’s a dry riverbed almost a million years in the making. The water runs underground in a process called piping which is how the canyon was formed. So ends my vast knowledge of geology. 🙂

      Jeff

  2. Lovely article, good tips, this is one situation where I constantly find myself in, and when I started with landscape photography I would pack my stuff and go home when I saw a blue sky, but you can still do some great photography under these conditions.

    I would just add two more tips:

    i) Leave the sky out ! If it does not add anything to your photo, leave it out. Look instead for light hitting the landscape, particularly during sunrise / sunset.

    ii) Shoot the Earth’s shadow. This was a tip I got from an article by the late Galen Rowell. After sunset, or before sunrise, on days where there are no clouds, if you turn to the opposite direction of the sun (east during sunset, west during sunrise) you can see a band just above the horizon that is actually the shadow of the Earth on the atmosphere. It can provide lovely effects with the pink / magenta glow of the sky after sunset on a clear day.

  3. Good tips, Jeff.

    Another easy fix to keep in mind, if you need to improve the contrast of a midday sky or sky with a few clouds after the fact, is to use the new Neutral Density Gradient Preset in Photoshop CS5.

    (Hopefully that HTML formatting works… my first attempt using same in a comment field. 🙂 )

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