The Unfinished Canvas
How to work around a white sky
Many beginners send me images asking for feedback where the subject and background are perfect and in harmony. However, experts still do not regard these images highly. The spoilsport in all those images is a dull or white or overexposed sky.
Have you seen an unfinished canvas of a painter? There will be patches of colour and shapes perhaps, but some part of the canvas still is unpainted and white. You don’t need to be a professional painter or art expert to know that it is an unfinished piece of art because the white section makes it obvious. Painting & photography are both visual art forms & therefore many rules are exactly the same. If we photograph a scene where the sky is brilliant white, the picture will feel incomplete just like the unfinished painting.
Do you think the image above would look good if the sky was overexposed or white? I am sure your answer is no.
The sky keeps changing from one moment to another. So should your way of photographing it. Here are some tips that will help you:
1. My first tip for the beginners is to consider the sky when framing your subject. If it is a vast landscape that you want to capture and if the sky doesn’t add any value, avoid adding it to the frame or crop it, if possible.
In this image, I kept the sky out of my frame although the sky was deep blue and beautiful. No matter how beautiful it was, it would not add any value to this frame as the subject was the river & its amazing colour.
2. Tip two is to use a Circular Polarizer or CPL filter when the sky is light coloured. This will help you to darken the blue sky &make the clouds prominent. One thing to remember though is that this filter won’t work if the sky is completely white or if there is no cloud.
I used a CPL to enhance the dramatic effect of these clouds. I would have probably got an overexposed sky if I had not used a CPL here.
3. Tip three is to avoid overexposing the sky. It is hard to recover the details even when using editing software in an overexposed area. Comparatively, more details can be recovered from an underexposed area if we shoot in RAW format. So underexposing an image will give you a better chance to recover the image than overexposing it. That said, it is always better to get it right with your camera in the first place than using an editing software later as the results will not be as good as the one the camera can produce if the exposure is perfect.
To know instantly if any part of your image is overexposed, you can enable the highlight alert in your camera settings. The overexposed or highlighted area will blink in the preview screen. Also, if you know how to read a histogram, you can identify if there is an overexposed area in your image through it.
4. Tip four is about what to do when your subject is small. Let’s take the case of a portrait shoot to understand better. Underexpose the frame & use your flash as a “fill in flash” as it will help you avoid overexposing the sky as well as perfectly exposing your subject.
5. Tip five. It is said that the ideal time for outdoor photography is to shoot during the first 2 hours after sunrise and the last 2 hours before sunset. At other times in the day, there is a higher chance to overexpose the sky because the light is usually very harsh. If the sun is not directly over your head, the section of the sky on the opposite side of the sun will have some shade of blue. So explore this section of the sky if your subject is not negatively affected by this approach. In such cases, you can enhance the sky by using a CPL. You can also try using a ND filter here.
When I tried to take this image from the area near the fence, I was getting a white sky. So, I changed my position and came to the left side of the biker instead and used a CPL to enhance the cloud. This helped me capture a dramatic blue sky. For this image, changing my position didn’t affect my subject or the story I wanted to tell (the young biker’s dare devil stunts without protective gear)
Avoiding a dull white sky is necessary most times. However all images which have a white or an over exposed sky are NOT bad pictures. If your subject is very strong or if adding the sky is a necessity to tell your story well and it adds value to your image, then a white or over exposed sky becomes secondary & one can ignore it.
Consider the impact of the sky in your image, the importance of its presence, the strength of your subject and the appeal of the story you want to convey before deciding whether you want to crop the sky, enhance it using filters and imaging software or leave it as it is. Whatever it is that you decide to do, pay attention to the sky while framing your picture. Happy clicking!
About the author:
Udayan Sankar Pal is an internationally acclaimed photographer who aces on building stories through his photographs. A committed photographer for over 20 years, he is also the founder of the world’s only Archive of Photography Exhibitions.