Dealing with the sky in landscapes

When photographing landscapes with big portions of the image being the sky, correct exposure is not trivial. Usually the sky is much brighter than the rest of the image. If leaving the camera on automatic exposure, what usually happens is the land gets a correct exposure but the sky is overexposed and shows white in the photo. A white sky is dull.

How to compensate for this? One way is to use HDR technique, with multiple exposures and combining them automatically or manually through Photoshop. It is a lot of work and it does not succeed always due to wind moving the trees, waves etc. Best results are when everything is dead still.

I have a simpler technique, one needs a camera with a good dynamic range. Any modern DSLR is OK. I underexpose the photo by approx 1 stop. This way the sky does not loose the information. It is more correctly exposed while the rest of the photo is underexposed and turns out dark. It is easier through post-processing to fix an underexposed image by adding more brightness than the other way around, darkening overexposed parts. This is what I do for a quick fix of the exposure.

In Photoshop

1. Copy the original Background layer.

2. On the Copied Layer Increase brightness until the land is properly exposed. (sky becomes overexposed but that's OK)

3. Add a mask layer to the background copy.

4. Create a gradient on the mask layer so that the sky image comes mostly from the background (original) while the land comes from the brightened background Copy.

Using the gradient will seamlessly make the transition between the two layers and the resulting image is better exposed

Canoe at Bowman Lake

Bear Lake and wide meadow

Lone pine tree on the meadow

Photo credits: Gavril Margittai.
Gavril Margittai
View blog View portfolio
  • Gmargittai
  • San Jose, United States

Your comment must be written in English.

We value all opinions and we will not censor or delete comments unless they come from fake accounts or contain spam, threats, false facts or vulgarity.


August 03, 2012

Lightroom has a good graduated filter capability, with the advantage of changing the angle and steps of graduation.


July 26, 2012

Yep, it may sometimes be a little awkward to play with real filters in the field, e.g. when it's windy. Recently I found that software gradient filters can also be applied during raw post-processing, which produces much less noise. Btw, I also like using masks and blended layers. :)


July 26, 2012

Thanks for all the comments,
Indeed there are different methods of achieving this. The ND filter has been invented just for this purpose but forgive me saying is old technology. It belongs to film cameras although no doubt it works. With Photoshop one can achieve a much more precise tuning. And of course nothing beats bracketing your shot and combining the images. For best results with this a tripod is essential, but one can argue that for landscapes tripod is essential anyway.
I like playing with masks. :)


July 25, 2012

Andromantic makes a very good point. If you have to lighten the areas that are too dark in post production, noise will be exposed. It can be an issue. That's why bracketing capabilities are so important to have on your camera. Set up a five exposure bracket and then select the best shot of the sky and mask in the best shot of the land. This way you're getting the correct exposure for both, but you don't have to push anything in post production that will expose any noise!

That being said... I agree with Nigelspiers, too. Slapping on a filter that is appropriate for the situation would be the easiest way :-)


July 25, 2012

Hi Gavril,

I agree - white skies spoil a photo and it almost drove me mad until I bought a Hoya circular polaroid filter for $85. Bingo! - no more white skies. I now leave this filter on for every outdoor photo I take because it increases the overall color saturation and produces fabulously detailed skies. I now just need to adjust the exposure on each shot.


July 25, 2012

Hi Gavril,

Thanks for a nicely put method. :)
I used to do exactly as you describe (apart from choosing the underexposure degree depending on the relative top/bottom brightness difference, which is obvious). However, often when I needed to step down that much, 1 stop or more, the brightening step for the lower non-sky part would bring up some of the hidden noise in those darkish underexposed areas. It was mostly alright for myself and my friends, but when I started uploading in microstock, the noise level appeared to be unacceptable, resulting in refusals. Eventually I gave up this method, and now most often use ND and CP filters.

Please, do not take my remark as criticism. Maybe I am missing something that you did not mention. Could you comment on this noise issue. Thanks in advance. Great landscapes, btw!


July 25, 2012

I have not as yet tried your technique. I usually make a levels adjustment then use the history brush to ring back the exposure in areas that do not need the adjustment. I have had good luck doing this. Is there a reason to expect better results using your technique?


July 25, 2012



July 25, 2012

Or you could pick up a graduated neutral density filter. Easier and works very well in most situations.


July 25, 2012

Thank you! Very concise and very helpful.


July 25, 2012

thanks for the tutorial, well explained!


July 25, 2012

Small tutorial, but very useful and well explained, congratulations!