lesson: let's talk sky! | by Jessica Louise

Let’s talk sky! I love capturing a great moody sky. I know for some, preserving the details in the rest of the picture are hard. I’m here to share how I choose to capture and edit a fierce sky.

First, here’s my gear. I love shooting wide so most of the time I have the Sigma 35mm Art lens on my Nikon D750. Now I know the D750 is known for it’s low light capabilities. The truth is I just bought it last summer. So all my crazy sky images before that were captured with my Nikon D610. A lot has to do with how you capture your images, but a big part is editing.

Images with my Nikon D610

Second, always shoot in Raw. There really is no need to shoot in jpeg. Mistakes (overexposed/underexposed) can happen and Raw is the only chance that you might have to save it.

Third, I work in Lightroom and Photoshop. You do not need Photoshop to make the sky pop in your pictures, but I will explain how you can use both platforms.

Lastly, this is just my method. Not saying it’s the right or wrong way. It’s just what works for me.

When I see a beautiful sky starting to form outside I’ll find any excuse to get a picture in front of it. Thankfully my daughter Penny is always on standby.


I like to shoot as wide open as possible, normally between 1.8 and 2.0 is the sweet spot on my lens. Depending on how much detail of the sky I want to see in my image determines if I want to narrow my aperture a bit. For the most part moody skies come right before or after sunset when it’s already starting to become dark outside. Because of that my ISO is normally cranked up pretty high, which leaves less wiggle room for a small aperture. Don’t be afraid to have a high ISO, whatever grain can removed in post processing.

Here are the two ways I shoot a dramatic sky.
Underexpose the image by two or three stops. Underexposing the image preserves the sky but leaves the subject dark. Sometimes if I’m going for an all around moodier feel I will do this. Then in post processing I will focus more on making my the subject pop, leaving the background darker.

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The second way and sometimes the easier way. Expose for the subject. Though sometimes this can cause the sky to blow out too much, leaving you with blown highlights. Which is why I always try to take two shots. One underexposed and one spot on exposed image. This will leave you with plenty of wiggle room if you have trouble editing an image.

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Now for post processing. With the example images I provided above I ended up sticking with the properly exposed image. Both of them would have worked perfectly fine, but I liked the pose in the second one better.
In Lightroom I applied a preset (LXC03) and made all the adjustments that I needed to make the image closer to my style. Once done with that I used a highlight graduated filter and dragged it down over my sky. I masked off the trees and the top of Penny’s head by using the color mask option and just dragging the dropper over the sky. I brought down the exposure, highlights, black and shadows a bit. Brought up the dehaze and a little bit of the clarity. Once done with that I adjusted the colors and lumiance of the sky in the HSL panel. This is all going to come down to your personal preference. Giving exact settings won't help because they will differ from picture to picture. I just encourage you to experiment.
If all else fails and you can not make the sky moody enough. Copy your settings onto your underexposed image. You will only be concerned with the sky in this image so don’t worry about making too many edits. Do the same steps to the sky that I explained above. You might not have to bring down exposure, highlights, shadows, or blacks, since your sky is already underexposed. Export both images into Photoshop. Select your sky on your underexposed image and drag it to your properly exposed image. Mask off any unwanted areas, adjust opacity as your see fit, flatten, and edit as you normally would.

Remember to experiment! I honestly believe it’s the best way to learn.

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