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We are focusing on building a community, bringing the Mortal Muses photographers together, and making the world a bit smaller. On this page, you will find mission: MUSE, muse university and special features.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

muse university - capture the sky

exploring with a camera: capture the sky
a repost by kat of The Kat Eye View of the World

Welcome to Exploring with a Camera! Today I'm going to talk about capturing the sky. The sky is a subject that I've  been fascinated with over the last few months, and I wanted to share what I've learned through observation. 

What is it about the sky that is so fascinating to me? I think because it is always changing, it is always interesting. The sky is never the same. The weather and clouds, the change in light from the time of day and season, and where you are located all have a dramatic impact on how the sky looks. Not only that, compositional choices, camera settings for exposure and post processing can have a big impact on the final appearance of the sky.

Here are a few things I've noticed...

Big Sky

The image leading this post off is an example of what I call a "big sky" image. Captured on the Oregon Coast in 2008, this wonderful sky has stuck in my mind. Why does the sky feel so big in this image? First, the photo was taken with a wide angle (short focal length), which enables the capture of a lot of space. Second, the horizon is positioned low in the image, so the the sky is dominant. Finally, you can't ignore the effect of the cloud formation. The formation itself leads you into the distance and gives more depth. I want to mention that I did boost the color in this image, to emphasize the blue of the sky.

Here's another big sky image, from the Amalfi Coast of Italy. This image is similar to the Oregon Coast image, not only in subject, but in the focal length, placement of horizon, and interesting cloud formations.

Big sky images don't have to be of nature, they don't even have to have blue sky in them. This image of London is a great example of a big sky in an urban environment. The same elements, wide angle and low horizon, apply to this image as well.

You don't have to have clouds to capture a big sky, that just seems to be what I am drawn to when I capture the sky. I hope some of you will share some cloudless skies in the link tool to provide examples.


How you choose to compose your image, horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) orientation, has an impact on the feel of the sky. The image below, of the sky above Mt. Vesuvius in the Bay of Pompeii, emphasizes the height of the sky, rather than the width or expanse as seen in the previous images. The vertical format compresses the depth of the clouds coming toward the viewer to create height.

Here is another vertical example, above the Swiss Alps. I find it interesting how both of these images make the sky and the clouds seem so large compared to the massive mountains. Note that both also use a low horizon, to emphasize the sky.


When capturing the sky, I like to have something to provide contrast to the sky itself, something to ground the image and provide a frame of reference. I find I ground my images with a piece of something real, even if I don't include the horizon. The tree in this image of sky from Madrid grounds the image, giving a little bit of context without changing the focal point.

And if you can have an interesting object help ground your sky, why not? This ancient Greek temple in Paestum, on the Amalfi Coast south of Naples, both grounds and provides a point of interest to the fabulous sky on this day.

Contrast that with a slightly wider angle crop, below, and you can see the difference in the focal point of sky versus temple. The sky is still an important feature, but the temple becomes the primary focal point.

Slice of Sky

You don't always have the luxury of having a broad view of the sky to capture. You can create equally interesting sky images by catching a slice of the sky. These images are trickier for exposure, since you have a bright sky behind often significantly darker surroundings. My camera light meter will always choose an exposure in this situation that results in an overexposed sky, so I deliberately underexpose. This will make the foreground darker, but the correct exposure on the sky will make it the focal point.

Here is an image from an early morning walk in Parco di Monza. The slice of sky is the dominant feature in the image, but there is context in the foreground.

The image below comes from an especially frustrating evening walk in Lisbon. I could tell the sky was gorgeous with the clouds and golden light, but I couldn't get anywhere I could capture the broad vista I wanted. There were buildings all around, everywhere I walked. Instead of the big sky, I focused on a slice of sky. I like this image for the subtle details of the city in contrast with that gorgeous sky.

This slice of sky, the view when exiting from a Paris Metro station, gives me an interesting feeling of emerging. The looking-up perspective and escalator provide the context that changes the image from a standard sky shot to something more unique.


The sky in reflection is gorgeous. Water reflections are a great tool to expand the impact of the sky in an image. In this image of the Venetian Lagoon, the reflected rays of light and colors of the sky continue the effect of the sky through more of the image. 

Using selective color processing on a reflection of the sky can completely change an image. In this image of my son from 2007, I loved how revealing only the sky in color gave me a feeling of springtime hope and moved the focal point to the sky in reflection.

I like this sky reflection from a modern Vespa for a couple of reasons. First, you can see that it has just rained from the drops on the mirror but the sky is reflected blue - things are clearing up. Second, a modern silver Vespa, while unique if you are from the US, is not all that interesting on its own. This sky reflection provides significantly more interest to the photo.


Finally, I want to explore the sky as a backdrop. Sometimes an image just doesn't work without the backdrop of the sky. It may not be the focal point, but an interesting sky in concert with other elements make a great image. This Parco di Monza sunset image needs both the sky and the tree in silhouette to work.

The focal point in this image is the life boat on the Ferry from Italy to Croatia, but the light in the sky is what makes it interesting. Can you imagine this without that light? I can, and it's not anything special in my mind's eye.

I have taken lots of images of church steeples and domes and monuments, and I can tell you this: the sky makes or breaks the shot. This evening sky in Split, Croatia makes all the difference between a ho-hum church steeple and a marvelous evening shot.

So, what skies attract you? Is it cloudless skies of blue? Stormy, threatening skies? Whatever the sky, go capture it!


Join us every weekend for a new muse university post! 
If you would like to provide a post for this series, please contact kat [at] kateyeview.com


  1. I have to say I like the idea of selective color for sky shots. I know SC isn't the most popular of post processing now but I think it looks very cool in those photos!

  2. So much inspiration here...so many ways to capture the sky! Thank-you!!!

  3. Thank you for this informative and inspirational post! I love taking shots of our dramatic prairie skies (changing rapidly minute to minute) and you have clarified some points that I have intuitively followed, but now have firmly in mind!

  4. I love the picture of the boat and the marvelous sky...