Three Steps to Better Skies and Landscapes
It's the end of the line. Any further east, and you're in the chilly Atlantic Ocean. To prevent mariners from wrecking their boats along the rocky shore, a lighthouse painted like a candy cane illuminates the night skies. This is Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine. Instead of having my photo taken with the engraved rock, I was chasing the last light of the day. Here are three tips and techniques which consistently work for me. Each one will help to improve your skies and landscape photos. Give them a try!
Tip #1 Find an Interesting Foreground
Everyone who visits Quoddy Head takes this picture below. It's nice, but the road in the foreground is not necessarily picturesque. I like to keep working until I create something that's uniquely mine.
This is where "composing with your feet" comes into play. Simply walk around the grounds without the camera to your eye. Take your time, and observe everything carefully. Take notice of anything that can be used in the foreground. Rocks, shells, flowers, etc... Once you find it, it's time to set up the tripod. (if you need help finding the right tripod for you, check my article here.)
Tip #2 Tame Those Skies!
People always ask me why their skies are washed out and appear white in their photos. Believe it or not, the fix is actually not Photoshop, but a much more affordable solution called graduated neutral density filters. These are by far the most useful filters a landscape photographer can have. Depending on the strength, you can block 2, 3, or 4 stops of light from a portion of the image. By placing the darker half of the filter over the sky, you will retain detail there while still properly exposing the foreground. Here's the difference:
Tip #3 Keep an Eye on that Histogram
Those who watched my Puffin video know I'm a big advocate of using the histogram to prevent overexposure. The same is true with landscapes. Check out the histogram on the bottom left, you'll notice all the data stacked up against the right hand wall. This indicates severe overexposure. If you see this, you're skies will be washed out unless you make an adjustment. After applying the 4 stop neutral density filter, look what happens to the histogram below. By blocking 4 stops of light from reaching the sky, we have preserved detail in the highlights and created a balanced exposure.
The filters I use are made by Hitech, which I prefer since they are truly neutral, and do not affect the image with a color cast of any kind. I opt for the "soft edge" over the "hard edge" as there is more of a gradual blend from dark to light. This makes it easier to blend the effect without a noticeable line across the horizon. I also like the square version so I can easily adjust where the effect falls by sliding it up or down in the filter holder. If you just want to start with one filter, try the 2 or 3 stop, as they will likely be used more often then the 4 stop strength.
For more landscapes that were created using these methods, check out my online gallery of scenic shots.