Through the Gadling Lens: photographing skies

Oh, how I’d love to regale you with my brilliant photographic skills in capturing the sky’s majesty!

I’d love to, but I can’t.

For some reason, I’m really, really horrid when it comes to shooting skies. Oh, I can manage to get a good sunset photo here and there, and occasionally my blue skies appear shockingly blue, but the truth is that for the most part, I get by with a little help from Photoshop — bump up the contrast here, deepen a hue there, you know how it goes. My husband, on the other hand, is masterful at shooting sky shots — the image you see to the left was taken by him this past weekend. And that image, by the way, is completely unretouched, straight out of the camera.

He kills me with his sky-capturing ways.

Anyway, I thought this week we could drool over the sky photo porn that currently graces our Gadling Flickr pool, for some inspiration as to how to shoot. This time, however, I’m sitting where you are — looking for any clues as to how to make my sky photographs that much better.

So, on with the show.
1. God rays

My husband calls these “God rays” — the rays of light that appear from clouds when the sun is behind them.

When I asked him how he managed to capture this image (because while he was taking this, I was trying to take the same image with my camera, and failing miserably), and he said, “I set my aperture to a pinhole — about f22 — my ISO was set to about 100, and then I played with the shutter speed to get the shot. It ended up working at 1/500th of a second.”

Okay, so that’s pretty technical. Suffice to say, however, that Marcus — I mean, Alien Hamster — took several shots to experiment with the various settings, to see what worked for him. And really, that’s sort of what photography is all about: experimenting and learning along the way.

Another great God ray shot:

This great shot was shot and shared by othernel, of sunset over the East Village in New York City. Notice how the sun is more golden — therefore, I’m guessing, taken at a later time in the day than my husband’s shot — giving the image an entirely different mood. Notice also in both that the objects beneath the sun’s rays are almost in silhouette: remember that when you’re trying to shoot these God rays, you’re shooting for the rays, not the actual objects in the frame. Well done.

2. Clouds

Clouds obviously also make great subjects for photographs, and the following are pretty stellar:

Now, this amazing shot shared by Patrick Powers has quite obviously been processed; however, it’s been done to great effect. Those clouds — those crazy-white, featherlike clouds — look positively three-dimensional, almost like they could float right out of the screen. The entire scene almost looks artificial, rendering the shot more a work of art, then a documentary image. Really beautiful work.

And how impressive is this shot shared by Bonnie Bowne, taken in the Grand Tetons? Notice all the shades that are in the thunderheads, going from snowy white to dark, foreboding grey. I love how the trees in the foreground are in total silhouette, so that their details don’t compete with the colours of the clouds. If I were to guess (and Bonnie, if you read this, feel free to correct me), she exposed the shot for the white of the clouds, “tricking” the camera into thinking it was shooting in bright sunshine — thus resulting in a faster shutter speed, and making the trees look dark. Amazing.

3. Sunshine.

Of course, the most beautiful subject you can shoot in the sky is sunshine, and obviously, sunrises and sunsets are pretty intoxicating. Here are a couple of really stunning ones.

This sunset, shot and shared by Andy Bokanev Photography is stunning — not just because of the colours of the sky, but notice he also managed to get the light in the lighthouse building, as well as the colours of the flowers in the foreground. That’s some pretty stellar exposure right there. The glow of the light in the windows does so much to set the mood of this image — very well done. I’m guessing that this shot was taken using a very long exposure (that is, a slow shutter speed) and a tripod, with the ISO set to a very low number, to reduce graininess. Absolutely stunning.

In addition, take a look at this sunrise:

PDPhotography, who shot and shared this shot, has revealed one of my favourite ways of photographing the sky: from 37,000 feet. I love shots out of airplane windows, and this one is pretty great. I think we often think that we should only pull out our cameras when we’ve finally arrived at our destination — this shot is a great reminder that there’s some beautiful scenery en route, as well.

4. Silhouettes

Finally, I love the use of silhouette to accentuate the sky. A beautiful example:

This is another shot shared by Bonnie Bowne, taken — get his — in the parking lot of a Walmart store. What makes this shot so effective is that instead of just taking the shot of the sky — which might have been the more knee-jerk approache — she took the shot with the stark, dark tree in the foreground. The black silhouette of the tree has the effect of actually making the colours and light of the sky far more prominent, more impressive. It was an inspired way to shoot the sky.

And finally, this amazing night shot by fiznatty:

Seriously, does this shot not take your breath away? Fiznatty says, “the moon rises above the snowy slopes overlooking the Swedish town of Bjorkliden.” Unbelievable.

Okay, again, taking a guess as to how fiznatty managed this: obviously, no flash was involved, and he likely used a tripod and left his shutter open for quite some time, in order to pick up the light of the stars in the sky. If I’m right, then fiznatty stood still for quite some time — maybe a minute or two? — while the shutter was open, taking the shot. Amazing.

So that’s it. Again, if any of the photographers who took these shots would like to share their expertise here, I’d love to learn from you. And if you have any questions or additional comments, as always, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.

Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.