It happens to everyone: you point your camera at a landscape that’s blanketed in rich colours, you take a shot, and the colours that show up when you check your screen look nothing like what you saw. Most often, this happens with the skies – what you thought were beautiful tones of blue are all washed out, over-exposed and whitish. How does one get the skies to be so blue in a photo? I get asked that one a lot – so here are a few techniques you should know about.
Method 1: Compose your photo relative to the sun
This is the easiest method, and the one I use most: make sure the sun is about 90-degress relative to the direction you’re pointing your camera. I don’t possess the scientific background to adequately explain how this works, but it essentially gives you a clear view of the atmosphere’s natural blue hue without interference from the sun’s rays (or, at least, less of it). The blues produced in these photos are vibrant, rich and, importantly, natural.
Method 2: Modify your exposure
If the sky is over-exposed, it’s often because something else in the frame has been correctly exposed at the sky’s expense. There are many different styles of photos one can take involving the sky, so I can’t really offer any hard and fast rules; but you can start by not shooting in Auto mode.
Try focussing on something else that’s relatively brighter, or even on the sky itself, and you’ll find that the blue tones in the sky will begin to resemble what you’re looking for. This may end up under-exposing other parts of your photo, however, and objects in the foreground could appear out of focus, so compensate for it by adjusting your aperture (to capture a greater depth of field) and ISO settings (to increase the camera’s sensitivity to light).
Method 3: Use a polarising filter
In many ways an extention of Method 1, this is the advice most forum nerds and gear junkies will point you towards. Polarising filters are kind of like the newer style 3D glasses in that they only capture light that’s travelling in a certain direction.
The drawback to polarising filters is that they’re incredibly finicky to use. They’re made to fit at the end of your individual lenses, so it’s not likely that you’ll be able to easily be swap a polarising filter from one lens to the next. Unless you’re planning to spend your entire photographic session shooting everything through a polarising filter fitted to the one lens (or you’re planning to buy multiple polarising filters), they’re a pain in the backside to manage.
Method 4: Post-processing
If you’re shooting in RAW, you can adjust the luminance slider for the blue (and sometimes aqua) colour channels so that the skies take on a deeper shade of blue. Just bear in mind that everything that falls within that colour channel – water, shirts, tattoos, shadows etc – will likewise take on a deeper shade of blue.
If you’re working on a JPG, you can do much the same thing. In Photoshop, it’s called Lightness instead of Luminance. You don’t get as much nuance when adjusting colour tones in JPG files, but it’ll get the job done. The important thing to remember about modifying the blue channel in post is that it’ll only work if there’s data to work with. If the skies are over-exposed and appear white or washed out on the screen, it means there’s no data to manipulate, and nothing will happen. That’s where Method 2 comes into play.
Don’t fall into the trap of enhancing the blues too much, whether you’re working with RAW or JPG files – it’s very easy for it to start looking fake. It’s not just the tone of the colour that starts to look unnatural – dark, cartoon-style outlines will begin to appear (I’m not making this up!) on the outer edge of anything adjoining the sky, such as hair, trees, people, or anything else that might be in the horizon. It’s a dead giveaway to anyone who knows how to interpret the signs.
Well, hopefully this is helpful to you. There are probably a few other methods I’ve missed, but if blue skies is an issue you’re only just figuring out how to address, there’s plenty to work with here.
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