How to avoid an overexposed sky in photos …without using Photoshop

If you’re anything like me, you don’t like spending time at the computer fiddling with Photoshop. I’d much rather spend my time photographing or planning a shoot. So, I have absolutely no interest in using sky overlays to replace an overexposed sky.

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?

It’s all about getting it right in camera.

How to get blue skies in your pictures

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

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 did one photo have a blue sky and the other an overexposed sky? 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’s backlit by natural light, and the sky is in shot, you’ll have an overexposed sky. 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 isn’t in shot, you’ll have a beautifully backlit, well exposed subject and no ugly, white sky. Then you won’t have to spend time adding a sky overlay in Photoshop.

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

Avoid overexposed sky in pictures by not including it

2. Photograph with the sun behind you for great skies

Light direction makes a big difference to how your capture skies in photos. With the sun behind you, the sky will be better and you have less of a chance of overexposing the sky. Your subject will be front lit, which doesn’t always look as good as when backlit or side lit

If you’re not photographing a person, then it could work. However, when photographing a person you need to be aware of the shadows that the sun causes on your subject’s face. They might also have to screw up their eyes, because of the sun shining directly at them.

(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. Use polarizing filters for dramatic 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 polarizers make.

Using a polarizing filter avoids the need for sky overlays

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

A polarizing filter is also 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.

More photographing, less Photoshopping!

How to use polarizing filters:

  • Get a polarizing filter 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 polarizing filter 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

A polarizing filter was used for the photo on the right, as you an see by the deeper blue of the sky. 

4. Use a neutral density filter to avoid an overexposed sky

If you want to take long exposures during daylight, a neutral density filter is your best friend. It’s also great for avoiding an overexposed sky.

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’s 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 filters 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. Light your subject for well exposed skies

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

That’s where off camera flash can be very handy. 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.

Leave a comment

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

Also, I love good news, so if my photography tips have helped you to understand how to avoid an overexposed sky, share that too.

2 thoughts on “How to avoid an overexposed sky in photos …without using Photoshop”

  1. Thank you so much for your article. Now I can see different approaches to getting good portraits in all types of light, including setting the camera to catch the correct level of light for the sky, and using flash to light the subject so that both look good. My portraits in bright day have always had blown out skies behind them.

  2. Very nice and to the point. I like each of your tips on how to shoot the sky, especially using shorter focal lengths. You may have stated elsewhere but I’ve also learned when shooting wide panos to be very careful or not use CPLs.


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