Photographing the sky is probably the laziest type of nature photography there is. You don’t need to travel to far-off places, book an expensive safari, have adventures or even leave the house. And locating the subject is pretty easy: the sky is usually right overhead.
The catch? Waiting for something to happen that might be photo worthy can take a long time.
Most of the time the sky is just, well, the sky. We think of it as featureless and uniform because it so often is. Every cloud looks like every other cloud, or so we think. We take it for granted, and pretty soon stop looking up altogether.
That’s why it pays to pay attention every so often.That’s where the surprises come in.
With the possible exception of sunrise and sunsets, photo-worthy moments of cloud and weather don’t always announce themselves ahead of time. They can happen at any time, and can last for hours or perhaps only a minute or two. And when they do happen, I have found, it is usually at the most inconvenient times!
Shooting the Heavens
Of course, having a spectacular weather event and a camera does no good if you can’t see the sky. Finding a spot with a view can be hard, especially in cities. I have discovered a few open lots and high spots within a couple blocks of my Kansas City home that afford a view of sky, at least in one direction or another, and another dozen spots around town, just in case I am out driving. Perhaps there are some spots near where you live that encourage sky gazing.
However, you don’t need a spectacular view to get a spectacular picture. And the presence of trees or houses in the photo can actually give a sense of scale to the image, making the majesty of the sky more evident against the smaller details of the landscape. If you can’t find a better view than right where you’re standing, shoot first and ask questions later!
There are no rules, as far as I know, but the first one would have to be: always carry a camera. These days, if you have a phone, you have a camera, and today’s cellphone cameras can take fairly good pictures. But a camera that gives you a little bit more control over the settings can be helpful. Here are some of the fancy things you can do.
Focus is usually the easiest part: the whole sky is focused at infinity, by definition, so you could just focus your camera manually to infinity. But using the auto-focus can be easier and more accurate. Be careful, though: uniform, featureless areas of sky or cloud will drive the auto-focus mechanism bonkers. (Sorry for the techno-speak.) In that case, focus on areas of sharp contrast or detail in the clouds, or toward a distant landscape, then keep the focus set as you move to shoot the actual subject. Shooting at the highest f/stop (with the smallest aperture) that you can get away with will also increase the sharpness of the image.
On most bright sunny or cloudy days, you’ll need to “fool” the light meter by intentionally taking a picture that is darker that the camera thinks is correct, by as much as two or even three f/stops (or smaller shutter speed). I don’t know why this is, but most cameras bleach out sky and cloud at the regular settings. Darker tones seem to bring out the fine contrast in very bright subjects.
At night, of course, the opposite problem presents itself: not enough light. Use a tripod if you need to, or just hold the camera steady for long exposures one. Digital cameras are much more forgiving of low light conditions, and you can always increase sensitivity on the camera without the photo becoming overly grainy. Exposures more than about a half-second will show cloud movement, depending how fast clouds are moving, so it is sometimes worth it.
Telephoto or zoom lenses are helpful in getting small or faraway events, but look for a telephoto that has a wide view when open, as well. Even then, it may take four or five pictures to encompass a spectacular sunset or a storm front as wide as Wyoming. So, take the pictures! Hold the camera relatively level as you sweep side-to-side snapping a shot every second. Then go home and download a free software program (or your camera’s software) to “stitch” the photos into a panorama.
Sun dogs, arcs, iridescence and halos can be challenging to capture because they usually occur close to the sun. You can used a tree or signpost or just your fingers to block the sun’s disc, but try photographing without them, too, because most digital cameras can capture the detail without the sun washing out the entire picture. Aim the camera directly at the sun if you can, to minimize lens flare and reflections.
Photos of the land and the sky together, of course, give you two natures for the price of one. When the land is present, you get a true sense of the scale and majesty of the sky. But usually, when you take a picture of the sky, the land appears black in the image. When you “shoot” for the landscape, the sky is to bright to see any detail.
The trick to capturing both, is to “bracket”, or take a series of photos at different exposures, from too dark to too bright. In the darkest, the sky will be perfectly exposed, and in the lightest, the land. You can then combine the two halves to display the best features of both, using digital imaging programs on the computer or that came with your digital camera.
There is no lazier, simpler and more accessible way to explore nature than to just lie back and gaze in wonder at the vast ocean of sky. To be able to capture images from the gazing, well, that’s stealing fire from heaven!