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If you’re anything like me, you don’t like spending time at the computer fiddling with Photoshop. I’d much rather be photographing or planning a shoot. So, I have absolutely no interest in using sky overlays. Instead, as much as is possible, I plan my shots so that my skies look good. 

So how do you make skies look good without Photoshop?

There are a few things you can do when you take the shot to ensure you spend less time at the computer editing. They are:

  1. Don’t include the sky in the photo
  2. Shoot with the sun behind you
  3. Use a polarizer
  4. Use a neutral density filter
  5. Light your subject

Let’s have a look at each of them.

How to avoid overexposed skies in pictures

Taken moments after the image at the top. So why was the sky blue in one photo and overexposed in another? Read on to find out what you can do to avoid overexposed skies in your pictures.

1. Don’t include the sky in the photo

I wasn’t being flippant when I said that. I really mean it. Even though the subject of this tutorial is how to photograph great skies. 

If you want a well exposed subject that is backlit by natural light, and the sky is in shot, the sky will be overexposed. The reason for this is that the sky will be the brightest part of the photo. So you have a choice – either expose for the sky or your subject.

If, however, you frame the scene so that the sky is not in shot, you will have a beautifully backlit, well exposed subject and no ugly, bleached out sky. Then you won’t have to spend time editing in Photoshop.

So, look for objects that will fill the background and block out the sky, like trees, buildings or even hills.

Avoid overexposed sky in pictures by not including it

2. Why photograph with the sun behind you for great skies?

With the sun behind you, the sky will be better. Your subject will be lit from the front though and this doesn’t always look as good as when backlit or with light coming from the side.

Further reading on using backlight when photographing with natural light: Angles of light: how to use backlight

(PS: This post contains affiliate links. Buying something through one of the links won’t cost you anything extra, but I might get a small commission by recommending stuff that I love using.)

3. Why use a polarizer for blue skies?

The job of a polarizing filter is to reduce glare and reflection and therefore increase saturation of colors. If you’ve ever had polarized sunglasses, you’ll know the difference polarisers make.

Using a polarizing filter avoids the need for sky overlays

If you really want to make your sky pop, especially if there are a few lovely white clouds floating around, use a polarizing filter. As you turn the filter you will notice that the sky becomes darker and, as a result, the clouds appear whiter. This works best if the sun is 90 degrees to you, not if it is in front of or behind you.

This is perfect for photographing shallow streams and rock pools for example, because you’ll be able to see through the surface reflection of the water.

The same goes for glass and in fact any reflective, non-metallic surface. 

Vegetation comes out greener too, because the reflected light has been eliminated by the polarizer.

An added benefit of polarizing filters is that, on bright days, they can be used to block out some of the light, allowing you to shoot wider or slower.

A few tips for using a polarizing filter:

  • Get a polarizer to fit the size of your lens.
  • Don’t use a polarizer when shooting at wide angles (e.g. wider than 24mm on a full frame camera) as the tonal range of the sky will not be even.
  • Use a circular polarizer if you’re using an autofocus lens and TTL (through the lens) light metering.
  • Don’t go cheap, especially if you’re using a good lens. You really don’t want a cheap filter ruining the benefits of a good quality lens.

Use a polariser and avoid having to use sky overlays in Photoshop

4. Why use a neutral density filter for great skies?

If you want to take long exposures during daylight, a neutral density filter is you best friend.

Like a polarizing filter, a neutral density filter (ND filter) blocks out the light, so that you can shoot slower or wider in bright conditions. Except that’s its sole job.

A graduated neutral density filter is ideal for getting great skies when photographing sunsets. Because it is darker at the top, it will make the top part of the image (the sky) darker. It fades to clear glass part way down so that the rest of your scene is not darkened.

You can get different strengths of neutral density filters, depending on how much light you want to block out.

The effect of a graduated neutral density filter

Neutral density filters also come in different shapes:

  • round neutral density filters screw onto the front of your lens,
  • Square or rectangular ones that fit into a holder fitted to the front of your lens.

The square and rectangular ones are really popular as they can be used with different lens sizes, so work out cheaper than having to get one for each of your lenses.

Graduated neutral density filters are always square or rectangular, but there are two types:

  • Hard – a quick transition from dark to clear, ideal for seascapes where the horizon is a definite line.
  • Soft – a gentle transition from dark to clear, for when the horizon is not visible, such as when rooftops are in the way.

Why you need a graduated ND filter for skies

How to fit a square or rectangular neutral density filter to the front of your lens.

5. Why light your subject for better skies?

If you expose your image for the sky in the background, you will have a lovely looking sky. Your subject in the foreground and possibly everything else, however, will be underexposed.

Lighting your subject with off camera flash will ensure that both your subject and the background are well exposed.

You can go further and start experimenting for more a dramatic look with off camera flash by underexposing your background….but that’s for another tutorial.

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If you have any questions about including the sky in your photos, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our photography tips have helped you to understand how to get good looking skies, share that too.

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5 tips for pictures with beautiful skies. Stop overexposing the skies in your photos. Learn how to photograph deep blue skies so that you don\'t have to use sky overlays in Photoshop. Discover how to spend less time editing your photos and more time taking photos with our photography tutorial. #photography #learnphotography #noskyoverlays #thelenslounge