Mackerel sky: Photography tips for shooting the sky

Photographers live for moments of incredible skies. The sky and clouds can either make or break a shot and even turn an average landscape into an intriguing masterpiece full of complexity.

We often talk about lighting in photography but, what’s even better is when lighting and sky conditions combine to create an incredible backdrop for our landscape images.

I was fortunate enough tonight to witness a ‘mackerel sky’ sunset. This is when, due to the altitude of the clouds, as well as the wind patterns, the clouds create a beautiful pattern that looks like fish scales (hence, mackerel Sky). This is impressive enough during the day however, it’s even better at sunset when these scaley clouds catch the last hues of the setting sun, creating palettes of orange, violet and blue.

Tips for Photographing the Sky

  1. If the sky is your focus, always set your exposure meter on the sky and then either; take multiple exposures for both the sky and foreground or, in post processing, use the shadow/highlights sliders and ‘graduated filter’ in Adobe Lightroom ensuring that you keep the right exposure of the sky to keep all the colours and detail but also allow some interest in your foreground. Or, you can deliberately go for a silhouetted look by underexposing the foreground like I have in some of the images here.
Photographing the sky

Dramatic clouds make for great photos with lots of contrast.

  1. Great skies are wonderful but, only if they’re contrasted against foreground objects that put the sky and clouds in context and bring out the light and colours. Look for trees, buildings and other structures to show the sheer scale of the enormous sky.

  2. Combine wide-angle shots with close-ups. Wide angle shots are great for showing the sprawling scale of clouds and creating images where the sky seems to dwarf the landscape, creating a sense of awe. However. close-up shots are also good as the create images where the sky looks dense and surreal, especially against foreground objects.

  3. Work quickly. We all know how quickly colours come and go at sunset and sometimes you have only minutes to capture the last golden and violet hues before the sun slips away and you’re left with a monochrome twilight void of colour. Take as many photos as you can at the very tail-end of the sunset.

Always watch the skies and head out with your gear whenever nature graces us with unique skies. Happy shooting!

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