6 ways to Prevent Blown-out Skies in your Photos

One of the most difficult aspects of photography in broad daylight is to ensure that both the ground and sky are properly exposed. Often times what will happen is that the sky will be completely blown-out and show as bright white (or close to it) in the photo. This makes for a pretty boring image. Today, I’m going to show you 6 ways to prevent blown-out skies in your photos.

Still not sure what I’m referring to here? Take a look at this photo:

Severely blown-out sky

Severely blown-out sky

This photo was shot early in the morning into the sun as it was just beginning to rise. The grass and trees were still quite dim. As a result, all detail was lost in the sky and the photo looks terrible. Fortunately there are some easy ways to fix this problem and prevent your skies from becoming blown-out.

Shoot HDR Photos

One way to prevent skies from being blown-out is to shoot HDR (high dynamic range) photos. Using this technique, you take the same photo at multiple different exposures and then use computer software to merge them all together into a combined image.

The resulting photo has a much higher range of exposure (hence the name), and if done properly will include detailed shadows and bright skies in the same photo. It’s actually a very simple process and the results look great. Check out my guide to shooting HDR photos using exposure bracketing to learn more.

RELATED: How to use Lightroom to create HDR photos

An example of an HDR photograph

An example of an HDR photograph

Use a Circular Polarizing Filter

A circular polarizing filter is something every photographer should carry in their camera bag, and is particularly beneficial on bright, sunny days. Using this filter will reduce haze, make a blue sky bluer, and cut down on glare. In other words, it’s something you should be using whenever you’re shooting landscape photography during the day.

In the case of our particular problem of reducing blown-out skies, it can help with that as well. Using a circular polarizing filter reduces the amount of light entering the camera by about 1-2 EV. That, along with the fact that a lot of the light coming from the sky is polarized, may be enough to prevent your sky from being blown-out.

RELATED: 4 Filters every Photographer should have in their Camera Bag

Left: No filter, Right: Circular Polarizing Filter

Left: No filter, Right: Circular Polarizing Filter

Use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter

If the polarizing filter doesn’t quite cut it, a sure way to counter blown-out skies is to use a graduated neutral density (ND) filter. This is another filter that you should really be carrying with you at all times.

A graduated ND filter works by blocking out light from the top half of the lens, and letting maximum light through at the bottom. So, if you set up your shot so that the dark part of the filter is covering the sky, you can reduce the brightness from that part of the image and with any luck the entire photograph will come out properly exposed.

In reality it’s usually not quite so easy. For example, if there are hills or buildings that extend up past the horizon, those will get darkened as well. It usually takes a bit of post-production work to edit the photo afterwards, but the graduated neutral density filter will at least retain the detail in the sky so that there is actually something to edit afterwards instead of pure white.

Graduated ND filter

Graduated ND filter

Shoot in RAW format & Fix afterwards

One option is just to resign to the fact that you’re going to have to do some photo rework in postproduction using software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. There’s really no reason not to be shooting in RAW format with memory capacity so inexpensive these days.

RAW format retains much more detail and color information in your photographs than JPG. This is an important point, so that there IS actually something to edit afterwards and that detail in the sky is not lost forever.

What you’ll want to do is manually set the exposure to the brightest possible without blowing out the sky. This will usually mean that the foreground is very dark. As long as it’s not black and you’re shooting in RAW, a fairly minimal amount of effort in Lightroom can brighten the foreground back up so that you end up with a nice balanced photo. Try using the recovery slider in Lightroom, which was specifically designed for this purpose.

Come back and shoot later at Dusk or Sunrise

During the middle of the day, the sun (and therefore the sky) is extremely bright compared to everything else, making it one of the most difficult times to get a properly exposed shot.

The so-called Golden hour, is one hour before sunset and one hour after sunrise. It’s at these times that the sun produces its most pleasing colors from a photography perspective, and it’s also the time when sunlight it the least harsh. If you’re able to plan your shoot to occur during these times, you’ll stand a much better chance of avoiding blown-out skies.

golden hour

A photo taken during the morning “Golden Hour”

Black Card Technique

The Black card technique is somewhat of a hack method to produce similar results to a graduated ND filter. In the technique, a black card is physically placed over part of the lens to block out the sky for only part of a multi-second exposure. The card is removed part-way through to allow the sky to be included, but since it was not present for the entire exposure, it will be much less bright than it would have been otherwise.

To use the technique, change your camera to spot-metering and meter for the ground. Let’s say for example that you would require a 10 second exposure. Now meter for the sky and record as well — let’s say for example it comes out to 3 seconds.

The camera is placed on a tripod, card placed over the lens to block out the sky, and the exposure started. After 7 seconds (10 – 3 = 7), the card is manually removed. If all goes according to plan you’ll have a properly exposed photograph since the ground was exposed for a full 10 seconds, while the sky was only present for 3.

The black card technique is much more prone to error than using a graduated ND filter, but it’s one alternative option.

Which technique to you use to deal with blown-out skies in your photography? Is there another method that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

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