Friday, August 13, 2010

A word to the wise for better blue skies

Sunrise over San Giorgio Maggiore Church in Venice Italy. Example of warmer, directional morning lightOne of the worst things that can happen in outdoor/scenic photographs is that the sky washes out to white. This is because the sky is so much brighter than the foreground. Though filters and full-manual-exposure mode may be limited to cameras with interchangeable lenses, there are some more advanced point and shoot cameras that can be tricked into achieving similar effects. See your camera's manual for explicit instructions on exposure compensation or metering modes.

Polarizer Filter
A polarizer is used to reduce reflections, darken skies and increase color saturation. This is done by rotating the filter to the desired effect. The result is most dramatic when used 90 degrees to the sun. Some advanced point and shoot cameras allow you to use filters but most often polarizers will be limited to cameras with interchangeable lenses. One last note … if your camera is auto-focus you must use a circular polarizer.

Time of Day
The most interesting light tends to be somewhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour after sunrise or before sunset. This is often referred to as "The Golden Hour" as the light is much warmer in tone than the rest of the day. Also during these times the shadows are more elongated lending new textures and dynamics to the scene.

Advanced Metering Technique
Sunrise over San Giorgio Maggiore Church in Venice Italy. Example of warmer, directional morning lightMost importantly, when there is abundant blue sky, turn your back on the sun. If the camera has a spot meter, use it. If not then the frame will have to be filled with blue sky. Try not to get any clouds in the frame as it will bias the exposure. Now, keeping your back to the sun, meter off of just the blue sky and lock in that exposure. This makes the blue sky the "middle gray" tone in the image. White clouds can still sometimes get overexposed. With slide film (or digital sensors) underexposing an additional 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop will make the blue sky darker and bring more detail into the white clouds. With print film overexposing by 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop will often yield the same results.

It is very important to remember that the sun should remain between +/-90° and 180° from the direction that the image is being taken. This means, of course, that it won't always be ideal to photograph a particular scene because the sun is in the wrong place. In that case, you may have to come back at another time to really get the photo you're looking for. That said, when the sun remains +/-90° to 180° behind the photographer the rest of the scene should be adequately lit because the sun is front-lighting (180°) or side lighting (90°) the subject of the image. Depending on the subject, an angle of about +/-120° (front-side lighting) is often more interesting than 90 or 180° Also remember that front-lighting—when the sun is 180° behind the photographer—is often the least exciting type of lighting. Regardless, the techniques described are solid and will yield predictable exposures.

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