Friday, May 1, 2009

Vivid skies

I have been asked a number of times about how I get my skies to look the way they do. Now I want to preface this by stating that I don’t do landscapes (at least not very often), so I don’t think that this is an area where I am particularly skilled or excel at.

Stump The stump was lit by fill flash off camera right, bare strobe with a half CTO attached

I like to shoot people photos, so when I think of wicked cool skies I think “Wow, that killer sunset would make a great back drop for a portrait”. However I am totally willing to share my technique and the little experience I do have.

Be at the right place at the right time:
First thing is a no brainer, but it is the hardest part; be where there is a great looking sky. Experience is a big part of the equation, but anyone who stops to think about it will realize that great skies usually happen in the evening and the morning. Great skies usually don’t happen at noon. Things like haze and clouds can indicate that the evening or morning is going to bring a good looking sky (think of the color from haze and the contrast added by thick clouds). The key is to be in the right place at the right time. Though even fairly bland skies can look pretty intimidating when exposed and treated properly (more below).

This photo of my son was lit by three flashes, two can be seen in the photo acting as rims, with one main shot through an umbrella, the background was under exposed about 2 stops

Watch your exposure:
Interesting skies are tough, because there is so much dynamic range. Dynamic range is a measure of the brightest part of the scene compared to the darkest part of the scene, and today’s digital cameras just can’t capture the entire amount of dark to light how we see it with our eyes. Either the dark parts will go black (under exposed) or the bright parts will go white (over exposed). If there is a lot of foreground the camera will tend to over-expose the scene, and if there is a lot of sky you will likely get the opposite.

For the sky, I tend to push the exposure negative from what the camera thinks it should be. I either do this by reducing the exposure compensation or more often I shoot in manual and decide on exposure based on what looks good to me (the bad is under exposure often results in increased noise).

Back to the original statement, if the camera can’t capture the range of brightness of the scene how do you shoot to get proper exposure for the entire scene? There are a bunch of tricks that photographers have developed to help in these circumstances. For people pictures the thing I usually do is to add fill flash. I use fill flash off camera through a light modifier like an umbrella, however you can do a decent job with the on camera flash. If it wasn’t for flash this couple would have been the same brightness as the surrounding landscape (I'm talking about the black region way behind the couple). The flash brings the scene into a more even lighting that the camera can handle.

The lighting on the couple comes from two flashes set opposite each other, one bare strobe on the peoples backs and a flash shoot through umbrella as main

Use software to blend exposures:
Another option is to use software like Photoshop to blend different exposures of the same scene. I often use this method combined with fill flash to get the sky to pop. I will expose the sky just to the point where I am keeping detail but the sky is too bright, this gets the foreground close to the correct exposure but the sky is a bit over exposed. Later in post I will darken the sky to the correct exposure (This is a good reason to shoot raw as blending exposure is really made easy in a program like light room or adobe bridge).

I don’t bracket exposures (take pictures with different exposure compensation) often, as it just doesn’t work with people. Some might suggest HDR software but I haven’t ever used HDR software.

Use special settings to process your files:
Most cameras have a vivid setting or something similar. I shoot Raw, so I can adjust the files in post by increasing the vivid slider and the clarity slider. You can do much the same thing when shooting Jpeg by increasing the vivid setting in camera. The blues and greens will get more punch. In raw I use a vivid setting of about 30 to punch up the sky, much more than this and things start to lose touch with reality.

One light setup with a flash shoot through umbrella as the main, notice how little the ambient was dropped, but still lots of drama

Increasing clarity increases the midtone contrast. This slider is great to make the different shades of grey in clouds really pop. Clarity however can do awful things to people’s skin. That increase in midtone contrast will make wrinkles pop (not a good thing) in the skin.

Now you know how I do it, hope you found something useful!

No comments: