The balancing act

Balancing the exposure of both the landscape and sky is a challenge that has existed for as long as photography. A landscape photographer will attempt to expose the landscape (in most cases) so that there are some details in the shadows. The exposure of the landscape can be important for communicating depth through textures, shapes and shadows. Sometimes the sky can be just as important for communicating depth. Correct exposure will communicate textures and colours. But the common challenged faced by the landscape photographer is that the correct exposure for the land and the sky can be completely different. For example, if the land is well exposed the sky will be over exposed.

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Dynamic Range

The issue is mostly related to the camera’s limited Dynamic Range. Dynamic range is the range from light to dark that your camera can capture. If you are a beginner, it can be a surprise to see how different the camera sees the scene compared to the eye. The human eye can adjust as it moves over a scene, it changes aperture (pupil) and focus without you being aware. The dynamic range in your photo can depend on your camera. A high-end modern DSLR with have a Dynamic range similar to the eye. A lot of exposure errors can be fixed in post-processing, usually by boosting the shadows. Point and shoot cameras can have a very limited dynamic range. In the world of film, black and white has a larger dynamic range than colour film, which has a higher dynamic range than transparencies.

Common solutions

Grad Filters

This is the Gold Standard for serious landscape photography. A professional Graduated filter will be a large square of glass that is held in front of your lens. They have to be large because landscape vistas are often photographed with wide angle lenses. A large square of quality filter glass can be expensive, you may need a set of them, then you need the holder.They are typically dark glass at the top and clear glass at the bottom. The dark glass allows a good exposure of the sky while the landscape is being exposed well.

Black and white film

If you expose a black and white film correctly it will have a good dynamic range. Then there are darkroom techniques for extending the dynamic range during the printing process. This involves moving straight card or feathers over the image highlights during print development.

Expensive DSLR

Similar to black and white film, the expensive DSLRs have such powerful RAW files because they have greater bit depth. A correctly exposed image can be processed to have a large dynamic range. Highlights can be reduced and shadows can be increased. So long as the histogram is good, you can do almost anything with the data.

HDR Multiple exposures

HDR is a technique which exploded onto the photographic scene about 15 years ago. On a tripod, you take bracketed exposures of your scene. Then a computer program will find the best of the highlights and shadows and merge them together in a single image. This is a great way to develop your photoshop skills because merged exposures often struggle to look like photographs.

Long exposure techniques

In 2010, I discovered that I could control the exposure to different part of a scene during a long exposure with a cloth. This means that if I lower the cloth slowly down in front of my lens during the long exposure, the top part of the scene will have much less exposure than the bottom. The effect is just like the Grad filter, but using ‘time’ instead of ‘opacity’. I called it the Magic Cloth Technique. I thought, this was something I invented, but actually it had been used in the early days of photography when all exposures were long. It was also used in the darkroom where it is known as dodging. As you were exposing a print, you might ‘dodge the sky’ (basically blocking some of the exposure time).

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Composition techniques

You could always compose your landscape photos with tiny or no amounts of sky, or with huge skies and tiny slithers of land. If you have a fabulous sky, then stark shapes in the landscape can be rendered as a silhouette such as a rock arch or cactus while the sky is exposed correctly. Composing with water can be effective. If you have an incredible sky, try to get close to a water source, like a lake or river or ice. The reflective surface will be fairly close to the sky in terms of exposure, so even a point and shoot or camera phone can expose the scene well. If your timing is good, you could be lucky with light.