Why Is the Sky White In My Photos?

We’ve all experienced the disappointment of photographing a gorgeous scene, only for the photo to come out looking horrible. One of the most common problems encountered is the White Sky. Like in the image above, all the detail and colour is completely lost. So why does this happen? And how can we deal with the problem?

Why The White Sky Happens

The White Sky happens because the camera becomes ‘overexposed’ in the brightest parts of the image. In short, the camera is not capable of capturing both very bright and very dark parts of the image at the same time. It can capture the land correctly, or the sky, but not both.

We might expect it to be able to do so, because our eyes do this all the time. Our eyes are pretty amazing, actually. They are capable of clearly seeing a huge range of brightness.

For example, we can look out of a window at the sky and see the clouds, but we can also still see the room we are in, despite the fact it is much more dimly lit.We can clearly see detail and colour in both brightly and dimly lit areas of the world around us without needing to let our eyes adjust.

The digital camera can’t do this so well. When it looks at a given scene it has a narrower range, with a maximum and minimum level of brightness it can successfully capture. Anything below this range is rendered pure black. Anything above is rendered pure white.

Screen capture from editing softward (Lightroom) that highlights overexposed areas.

What Is the Solution?

There are several ways to deal with the White Sky, with varying levels of skill, complexity and equipment needed.

1. Don’t Include So Much Sky

Difficulty: Easy

This is by far the simplest thing you can do. If the camera is struggling with the brightness of the sky then you can simply try including less of it.

People often include too much sky in their landscape photos anyway. Understandable when you have a spectacular cloud formation or sunrise/sunset, but very often I see large areas of the photo devoted to really boring skies.

Remember, it’s the landscape we’re interested in for landscape photography.

Above: Beinn Airigh Charr, Loch Maree. The first image was taken with a fixed wide angle. No exposure problems but the sky is boring and takes up too much of the photo. In the second I used a zoom lens and included only as much sky as I needed to show the clouds on the top of the hill. It’s a much more dramatic and interesting photo.

2. Reduce the Exposure

Difficulty: Easy

The second option is to reduce the amount of light getting into the camera, so that the sky is no longer overexposed.

You can do this by manually adjusting the controls such as a faster shutter speed, or narrower aperture. The way I like to do it is with the exposure compensation dial, as that simply tells the camera always to shoot a little darker than it thinks it should.

This might mean the image is now completely fine, but it also might mean you run the risk of underexposing the ground a bit. I usually do this deliberately, because it’s easier to recover slightly dark parts of the image in post-processing than it is to recover ‘burnt out’ overexposed sections.

Above: same scene shot at slightly different exposures. I generally don’t use a tripod so they are not perfectly aligned. The one on the right is a bit dark, but it’s easier to fix that than a totally white sky. I’ve chosen an easier problem to fix.

Slightly too bright vs slightly too dark – I went with the one on the right, as it is easier to work with. After a few very quick and simple edits the final result looks much better, and is actually a nearer representation to the perception of my eyes than either image was to begin with:

Above: Edited version of the darker exposure.

3. Exposure Blending / HDR Editing

Difficulty: Medium to Very Hard

Another option is to shoot separate exposures for the bright and dark parts of the scene, and then to blend them together in software.

This can produce some superb results. In fact, by mastering the techniques of exposure blending, you can produce some really astonishing images. Some of the best known photographers out there blend dozens of exposures together with photoshop to create astonishing images. Are they authentic? Well that’s a question for another day.

In software such as Lightroom it is really easy to get started with exposure blending, but I always find that unless I’m prepared to put in hours of work then the results usually bear little difference to a single edited exposure.

Above: Exposure blended version of the same scene as above. Any difference to the edit above is miniscule. Not enough difference, in my opinion, to tell them apart or justify the extra time spent editing. But then, maybe I’m just not very good at it?

The thing with exposure blending is that it’s a gigantic subject in itself. There’s no limit to how deep that rabbit hole goes. So although it’s easy to get started and merge a couple of exposures, it can take years to learn how to get the best from it.

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4. Neutral Density Graduated Filters

Difficulty: Medium, but why bother?

The old school way to deal with this problem, from the days of film, is to use something called an ND Grad filter when you take the picture. This is essentially a fancy piece of glass that goes over the lens, which gets progressively darker toward the top. It lets you balance the brightness of the sky and nail the whole exposure in one fell swoop.

They are kind of great. It’s nice to nail the shot ‘in-camera’. But they are also kind of rubbish. For one thing, they darken everything toward the top of the image. So if there is anything that protrudes above the horizon, then that will get darker and darker toward the top too. Also, if you get it wrong – too dark, say – then that mistake is baked in. No undo.

Above: A very quick demo shot of an ND Grad filter, handheld. Note how the sky is too bright except where seen through the filter, and that the houses in the distance are unchanged. Such filters are usually attached to the front of the lens with an adjustable mount.

As if that’s not enough, it’s another thing to purchase, another thing to carry, another thing to fiddle around with, and another piece of glass that can get dirty or scratched or lost in the field. So when it’s so easy to get as-good-as results or better in software, I choose the simpler route. The only reason I can see now for using them is if you just love the process or are married to the style.

Hopefully this helps with understanding why White Sky can happen in your images, and how to deal with it. If you have any questions then leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

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