Exposing For The Sky

While sitting with either one of Africa's special creatures as dawn breaks, I often find myself saying to my guest, "Are you exposing for the sky?"

Early morning African skies are so beautiful, thin wispy clouds, soft pastel like oranges and blues. Why not take full advantage of this?

What I mean by, "are you exposing for the sky" is that you as the photographer must underexpose enough in order to preserve the beautiful colour and detail in the sky behind your subject. I will show you a visual example of what I mean with the RAW image below.

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

Notice how by under exposing by 2/3 here, I've managed to keep a great amount of colour in my sky?

I know are thinking more about the obvious problem in this image, there is no detail in the elephant. This is indeed true. Before I tell/show you how to bring that detail back and what to keep your eye one while shooting scenes like these, let me show you what the image would of looked like if I exposed for the elephant.

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

So by over exposing by 3 full stops, I have managed to retain detail in my elephant but as a result of this, blown all my highlights (no more colour/detail in my sky) which I will never be able to pull back again.

Remember, expose for what makes up the majority of your frame. This will lead to less work for you, in this case, lifting shadows on the elephant is less work than trying to drop highlights and dig deep to find details and saturation in that "larger" sky.

Now, and this is very important for when you shoot while exposing for the sky, keep a close eye on your histogram.

A histogram is a graphical representation of the tonal values of your image. In other words, it shows the amount of tones of particular brightness found in your photograph ranging from black (0% brightness) which is on the far left to white (100% brightness) which is on the far right.

So when exposing for the sky, and as you would of seen in the first image, you will have a lot of darker areas in your foreground and so you need to make sure you are not burning out (histogram level touching the top) the blacks in your histogram which is on the very left. Lets have a look at my RAW image histogram I pulled out of Lightroom;

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

You will notice the settings I used for this image, apart from being 2/3 under exposed, this histogram spikes in both the highlights (sky) and shadow (foreground) tonal ranges. The spikes touch the top of the graph which is telling me that these tonal ranges are burnt (losing detail) in areas on the image. You want to try and eliminate burning areas as much as possible but seeing that my pure blacks (far left) and pure whites (far right) are not touched and my shadows are not heavily burnt (symbolized by the blue triangle on the top left), this image is still usable.

So lets move on to the main tools I used in order to make this image look great. In the image below you will see a before (RAW) and after (basic edits) image. I'm sure you'll agree with me in saying that there is already a major difference in the look and feel of the image as well as the histogram just from using the basic panel in Lightroom.

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

As mentioned, this result was achieved by only using the basic panel in Lightroom. I set my whites & blacks, upped shadows to pull out the foreground, dropped highlights to enhance the sky and upped texture and clarity for some contrast.

Preserving colours is the main reason why we expose for the sky and so another tool that will have to be used to enhance the images is the HSL panel in Lightroom. Be sure you understand the difference between saturation and luminance though.

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

Saturation will allow me to enhance the colours. In other words, as seen above, by moving the orange button right, I'll be making all the orange areas in the frame 'more' orange. If I had pulled it left, the orange areas will become duller the further left I pull it.

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

Luminance, which means intensity of light, will allow me to brighten up or darken the particular colours. Again, as seen above, by moving the orange button left, I'll be making all the orange areas darker in the frame and if I had pulled it right, the orange areas will become brighter the further right I pull it.

Another very important thing to remember here and with all tools in Lightroom, less is more.

All the general adjustments are now done, there is still a little bit more one can do to further enhance the image and the tools of choice is up to you but in this particular image, the radial filter would be the tool that would require the least amount of work. They say, its all about a speedy work flow...

As seen in the image above, I have my radial filter around my elephant with a feather set to 40%. This feather will eliminate any hard lines that will be visible at 0% due to the adjustments I will make. The green area is my overlay and this is where my adjustments will affect the image.

Take notice of how fine my adjustments were to enhance the sky ever so slightly.

I then added a new radial filter, selected the invert box (bellow feather) as this will allow me to now make adjustments to the area inside the circle.

I would like to lift the shadows, exposure and clarity on the elephant and not on the area around him, I can fix that. Look at the top right, below all the localized tools, I selected the brush WITHIN the radial filter. (Mask :   New |   Edit  |  Brush)

Once you have selected brush, you will now be able to to add more of this tool in areas outside of the filter or remove some of the overlay by pushing and holding alt (on mac)/ options (on windows), left clicking and painting over the areas you want to deselect.

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

Now that the areas I do not want to make any changes to have been removed, adjustments to lift some more shadows and clarity can now be made to the elephant.

With that done, the image is complete, the image below will show you the major difference these slight edits have made to this image.

The Final Result

Exposing For The Sky | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

A perfectly usable image right? But I bet you never guessed this when you first saw the RAW file.

To conclude, understanding how certain tools work in Lightroom will not only be beneficial to your workflow but also assist you in the field in order to 'shoot for processing' purposes. What I mean by this is that, I know that if I were to expose for the sky my elephant will be dark BUT by ensuring that my histogram was not 'burnt' and knowing that I could pull the shadows/detail back out, I managed to see this image in my head before I took the shot.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog, I do hope that you have learnt something from it. If you have any questions regarding this or anything else in Lightroom, feel free to leave us this question in the comments below.

Until next time;


2 thoughts on “Exposing For The Sky

  1. Tony Enticknap


    A very interesting and well presented article Michael – thanks for posting.

    • Michael Laubscher

      Hello Tony

      You’re most welcome. Thank you for taking the time to read through it and for your kind words.

      Keep well.

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