Beginner’s guide to getting dramatic hues into your images
Is there anything less interesting than a photograph featuring a clear blue sky? Whether it’s brooding clouds on the coast or pink wispies catching a sunset, a dramatic, action packed sky can take a photograph to new heights. So often overlooked by landscape photographers in favour of the foreground, a good-looking sky can lend your image unexpected and often dramatic shapes, texture and colours.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Be out for sunset
If you've ever found yourself on a sun-kissed café balcony in summer you'll know that tourists love a clear sky for sunset. That's not what photographers want at all. In fact, Sunset itself isn't a terribly interesting photographic subject. It's what happens afterwards that's both unique and interesting. Or, at least, it can be. Sometimes the Sun will set and the sky will darken without much happening in between. Other times, you can get skies full of pinks, oranges, yellows and blues on what will always be a completely unique scene. It’s also a great time to photograph silhouettes.
An absolute must have for photographing skies is a polarising filter. Specifically a circular polarising filter, which will reduce reflections and stray light in the sky. That will allow your camera to capture more definition to clouds and obtain bolder and more saturated colours. Always shoot in raw so you can improve your images in post-processing. That goes double for sky photography around sunsets and sunrises when light levels are low and you are more likely to use higher ISO, which tends to introduce image noise.
2 Change your orientation
You're a landscape photographer so you shoot in the landscape orientation, right? Horizontal images are pleasing to the human eye, but their dominance in landscape photography is often to the detriment of dramatic sky images. Should you be using vertical portrait orientation images? That depends on your composition. In fact, it's worth playing around with several aspect ratios – whether that’s 16:9 or even 4:3 as an alternative to 3:3 – when looking at a scene in front of you.
However, if it's a dramatic sky you want to get into your image then do at least consider using portrait orientation, which can be particularly effective if you also want to emphasise a foreground of diagonal leading lines such as a road, river or footpath.
As well as being slightly unexpected in the landscape photography genre, portrait orientation images are much easier to share online than traditional horizontal images. Whether it's Instagram Stories or TikTok, portrait orientation images and video are ideally suited to the smartphone age.
3 Let a dramatic sky dominate
When you're out on a landscape photography shoot it's so tempting to keep your camera pointed towards the foreground. Once mounted on a tripod you may even be tempted to use a wide angle lens to get as much of the foreground in as possible, perhaps even tilting your camera downwards. Now do the opposite. If there is anything approaching an interesting sky, consider letting the foreground occupy perhaps just 10 or 20% of your image, with the rest of it dedicated to the shapes, textures and shadows in the clouds above.
The ‘golden hour’ is that short period of time just before sunset and just after sunrise when the Sun's light is both soft, diffused and warm. It's a time of long shadows and long shutter speeds. It's thus a time for creativity. Most critically, it's the time of day when skies are golden, with reds, oranges and yellows battling for supremacy, but always creating a warm colour temperature above.
4 Zodiacal light
If you’re in a really dark place just after sunset in March/April and look west, or just before sunrise in September/October and look east, it’s worth keeping an eye out for a vast V-shaped cone of light in the sky close to the horizon. It’s called zodiacal light and it’s nothing less than the sun’s light being reflected off cosmic dust between Earth and Mars. It’s often called ‘false dawn’ and ‘false dusk’. The further you get from the equator, the lower it is on the horizon and the harder it is to see. To capture it you’ll need a long exposure as with night photography, experimenting with settings as the light changes, though as a starting point try f2.8, ISO 800, 15 seconds.
Trying to predict the weather is a dark art and yet it's definitely true that successful photographers often ignore forecasts. Maybe you have local knowledge of what the weather usually does in a particular place, but either way, believing everything in the weather forecast would mean never leaving home. Many photographers' finest sky shots have been taken when heavy rain was predicted, but never happened, and vice versa.
5 Hunting the aurora
If you're looking for the most dramatic sky colour possible then you have to put photographing the Northern Lights on your bucket list. They tend to occur from September through March in the northern hemisphere around the Arctic Circle, and from March to September in the southern hemisphere around the Antarctic Circle. The planet is currently in something of a purple patch for aurora due to the Sun approaching the solar maximum part of its 11 year cycle in 2025. That means the likelihood of dramatic geomagnetic storms is increased until about 2028.
When you're out in the field shooting the Northern Lights, – clear skies allowing – a green forest fire in the distance is the most common sight, followed by dancing green curtains. Only if you are really lucky will you see reds, blues and purples. You'll have to be luckier still to see a geomagnetic storm above you, during which you will glimpse the oral crown, a mouth-like pulsing display.
A great way to make the best of even a distant, basic view of the aurora is to reflect them in a body of water. If you manage to photograph them reflecting in water on a still night then even if you don't see an incredible magnetic storm you'll still come away with some awesome images. A great place to do this is the South coast of Iceland, where it's just warm enough in winter for bodies of water not to freeze. Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón glacial lagoons are classic locations.
- AuthorJamie Carter
Jamie Carter is a journalist and author focusing on stargazing and astronomy, astrophotography, and travel for Forbes Science, BBC Sky At Night magazine, Sky & Telescope, Travel+Leisure, and The Telegraph.View all articles