Have you ever captured what you thought was a perfect photo, only to find an overexposed sky marred its beauty? It’s a common occurrence.
This issue has persisted for years. Early in my photography journey, I realized that addressing this should be among the initial photography skills to master.
Many of these challenges can be mitigated by heeding a few straightforward photography tips. In this article about avoiding overexposed skies, I’ll share some tips to ensure your photos have beautifully exposed, deep blue sky tones.
1. Shoot in RAW
If your camera supports RAW image files, make it a habit to use this format. Whether grappling with an overexposed sky or shooting under typical lighting conditions, RAW files retain about three times more data than standard JPEG files.
The advantages of this richer file format become evident during editing. It grants you greater flexibility and options when fine-tuning your images.
Keep in mind: It’s essential to remember post-processing software can’t rectify all flaws. If your sky is severely overexposed, there’s limited scope for correction. Hence, it’s more prudent to learn how to prevent such issues during the shooting phase.
2. Use Manual Settings
Your camera’s exposure is governed by three primary elements: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These components interact, and adjustments to any of them will influence the overall exposure of your image. The exposure triangle best illustrates this relationship.
These pillars interact seamlessly, so adjusting them based on your environment is essential.
While I typically shoot in aperture priority mode, I switch to manual mode during challenging lighting conditions, such as in low light or when faced with an overexposed sky.
To achieve less overexposure in your photos, maintain a low ISO, opt for a faster shutter speed, and narrow the aperture (opt for a higher f-stop value). These adjustments also enhance the image’s sharpness.
Most cameras come equipped with a default white balance. If the current settings aren’t adequate, you can adjust them to represent white tones better. For an overexposed sky, consider reducing the whites.
Remember: It’s preferable to have a slightly underexposed image rather than an overexposed one. Editing software handles underexposed photos more effectively, and the overall quality is superior. So, if your photographs appear too dark, don’t fret. You can quickly boost the exposure during post-processing.
3. AVOID THE SUN AS A BACKGROUND
One top tip to prevent an overexposed sky is to avoid shooting directly into the sun. The sky will appear washed out with a standard camera, without additional equipment like filters.
To sidestep this, be mindful of the sun’s angle. Is it to your side or behind you? As a rule of thumb, try not to have the sun directly in front of you. If sunlight hits one side, that side will likely be overexposed, while the other retains its natural blue hue. This imbalance can be jarring unless you intend to crop out one side.
Ideally, position yourself so the sun is behind you. This orientation ensures a rich blue sky. Then, you can fine-tune the exposure of your foreground and primary subject.
Pro Tip: Before diving into a photoshoot, snap a test shot. Examine the background, exposure, and other elements. This simple step can save you the frustration of discovering an overexposed sky after an extensive session.
4. TRY TO SHOOT AT DIFFERENT TIMES OF THE DAY
As you know, the sun’s position changes throughout the day, rising in the east and setting in the west. So, if the sun’s position conflicts with your subject, consider shooting at a different time.
It’s also worth noting that the sun is most intense around midday. This translates to more light entering your camera, increasing the risk of overexposure. In professional settings, additional equipment might be required to temper the brightness when shooting under the midday sun.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO SHOOT?
The optimal time is about 2-3 hours right after sunrise or before sunset when the sunlight is less intense. This period is called the Golden Hour, precisely an hour after sunrise or before sunset. This timing explains how one can capture the sunrise or sunset without ending up with an overexposed sky.
5. Use the Flash When Shooting Against Sunlight
There are moments when avoiding direct sunlight isn’t feasible, especially when capturing fleeting moments. Using a flash can be beneficial in such situations, especially for close-up subjects like specific details or portrait compositions. This results in a naturally blue sky and subjects that are softly illuminated. However, this technique isn’t practical for landscape photography since the flash won’t illuminate distant objects.
A quick tip: Ensure you set the correct focus point. In portrait photography, if the focus is mistakenly placed on the sky, it can lead to overexposure. Focusing correctly might result in a darker subject but with accurate sky tones. This can easily be adjusted in post-processing.
6. Merge Multiple Photos
This is a more advanced technique to address overexposed skies, particularly useful when shooting in challenging lighting conditions. The approach involves taking three photos with different settings:
- Underexposed Capture: Where the sky details are correct, but everything else appears dark.
- Properly Exposed Capture: The sky might be overexposed, but the primary subjects are balanced.
- Overexposed Capture: This reveals details from the darkest areas.
These images can then be merged using post-processing software like Photoshop or Lightroom, resulting in a well-exposed photo with deep blue sky tones and detailed foregrounds.
Note: When taking these separate images, ensure no moving subjects are in the frame. This technique is best suited for static scenes, for example, if you want perfect landscape composition.
7. Use Neutral Density Filters
Overexposed skies have been a persistent challenge since the dawn of photography. Such overexposure is especially prevalent during summer photo sessions. To address this, specific equipment, like filters, has been developed.
Filters function similarly to sunglasses, designed to temper bright tones. Among the most popular are neutral density filters (ND filters):
- ND Filter: A uniformly dark filter.
- Graduated ND Filter (Soft): Gradually transitions from dark at the top to clear at the bottom.
- Graduated ND Filter (Hard): The upper portion is dark, transitioning abruptly to clear below.
- Reverse ND Filter: Begins dark at the center and gradually transitions to clear towards the edges.
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These rectangular filters enable you to adjust the exposure in specific areas. This is why some filters have a clear (non-filtered) bottom and a darker top. Doing so allows you to darken the sky tones while leaving the foreground unaffected, resulting in a well-exposed photo.
8. Additional Tip: Don’t include the sky in your photo
It might seem like an unconventional suggestion to avoid overexposed skies in photos, but no rule in photography mandates always including the sky in the background. You can capture images without the sky by experimenting with different angles and locations.
The sky is often the brightest part of a photo, which can result in darker foreground elements. While you can adjust these darker elements with camera settings or post-processing, it requires additional time, effort, and expertise.
The sky isn’t always picturesque; sometimes, it’s cloudy and gray. My point is that you can achieve better backlighting by excluding an overexposed sky when capturing specific details or portraits.
9. How to Fix Overexposed Sky Photos in Lightroom
As the saying goes, this is where the magic begins. One of the primary steps in photo editing is addressing the main imperfections of the capture, such as achieving the right exposure and white balance. Adobe Lightroom is a popular post-processing software. While it offers numerous sliders, for addressing an overexposed sky, consider using the following:
- Exposure: A straightforward way to adjust the overall exposure level.
- Highlights: For overexposed skies, reduce the highlights to reveal more details in the overexposed areas.
- Whites: Decrease the bright white tones to balance the overall appearance.
- Shadows: This brightens up the darker areas.
- Radial Gradients: Use radial tools to modify specific areas in the photo. For instance, you can adjust only the sky while leaving the rest of the image untouched.
For more extensive sky modifications, software like Adobe Photoshop can be used to alter the entire skyline. However, this approach requires more skill, effort, and time.
What to Remember?
Occasionally, even professionals will capture photos with overexposed skies. However, by keeping these photography tips in mind, you can significantly reduce the number of overexposed images you produce.
Checklist for Your Next Shoot:
- Shoot in RAW.
- Manually adjust camera settings.
- Be mindful of the angle of sunlight.
- Opt to shoot when the sun is lower in the sky.
- Consider merging multiple photos into one.
- Use filters when possible.
- Correct underexposed images using editing software.
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