Photography masterclass: The sky above
“Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.” This line from Queen’s 1975 monster-hit Bohemian Rhapsody resonates with me both as an erstwhile rocker and, latterly, an obsessive nature photographer.
It’s all about light. That’s what any landscape photographer will tell you. Without exciting light even the most spectacular of views look mundane. It’s true, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s just about light. Any image that includes the sky – and most sweeping vistas do – relies on it to contribute to, rather than detract from, the final result. Any landscape sky, therefore, needs to have texture, colour or mood, and preferably all three. It can be menacing or brooding or full of subtle pastel shades, but it cannot be plain. Plain skies just don’t work. Although we love to complain about the British weather, we’re very fortunate to enjoy constantly changing conditions. Some might call it fickle, but I prefer dynamic.
Capturing the moment
The trouble with dynamic skies is that they’re difficult to plan. Yes, there are clues in the time of year, time of day and prevailing weather, but generally they just happen. And often, they don’t happen for very long so you need to be ready. You need to see and prepare for what might develop.
So how do you photograph what is effectively thin air? I’m not one for sticking to photographic rules, but there are a few things I’ve learnt from past mistakes. One thing I try to do is include some land at the foot of the image. It doesn’t have to be much. In fact, most of my favourite skyscapes include nothing more than a slither of horizon; just enough to contextualise the grandeur of the sky. Including something the eye relates to – a building, a person or, in the case of this image, a boat – can reinforce this.
I usually shoot with a wide-angle lens, which helps to exaggerate scale, and I often use a circular polarising filter too. Now don’t panic: I’m not going into gear-geek mode! A polariser simply darkens the sky, allowing clouds to really pop out. It can easily ‘overcook’ the image, however, turning the sky almost black, so do use this filter with care.
The sky shouldn’t just be treated as a component in an image, however; in many cases, the sky is the image. So while you’re snapping away on beaches and hilltops around the country, why not celebrate the landscape – or should I say skyscape – above your head? Tilt the camera upwards and make the most of Britain’s skies – you’ll be hard pushed to better them anywhere.
- Be a weather nerd! Keep your eye on the forecast and try to predict dramatic conditions.
- Try to include some context in your image– something that underlines how big the sky is.
- Shoot for as long as you can. The texture and colour of the sky changes subtly all the time and just when you think it’s all over, it comes back again!
- Skyscapes often look fantastic in black and white, so experiment with the monochrome function on Photoshop when you get home.
- Shoot every 20 seconds for 100 frames, then turn the images into a spectacular time-lapse sequence.
- With the light changing rapidly, I’d gone along to Loch Insh to photograph some moody landscapes. But the scudding clouds above quickly drew my eye instead.
- Knowing that the intensity of the sky wouldn’t last, I quickly positioned my tripod and waited for the clouds to partially obscure the sun to eliminate any flare.
- Using a 17–40mm zoom lens allowed me to accurately frame the image by tweaking the focal length.
- By adding a circular polariser and under-exposing the foreground, the impact of the sky is heightened.
- I shot continually for around 10 minutes – both in horizontal and vertical formats, and with varying degrees of polarisation – until the effect had passed and the sun broke back through.