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Bringing Back the Depth of Grey Skies

I just got back from an amazing trip to Ireland! We went everywhere from the Ring of Kerry to the Cliffs of Moher, capturing the beautiful landscapes.

Along with foggy, grey skies.

I’m used to crazy Michigan weather, but Ireland seems to not want to make up its mind on the weather! But I couldn’t let that hold me back.

Don’t Forget to Bracket

If there was one thing I learned during the trip, it was the importance of bracketing. At the Cliffs of Moher, we had foggy, grey skies to deal with, but I was determined to capture an iconic shot.

Bracketing takes a set of photos (usually three, five or seven) at different exposure levels.

At the Cliffs, I turned on the bracketing feature and created a five-shot series of photographs, from -2 to +2 exposure compensation levels.

The key here is to make sure the middle photo (so, photograph number three if you’re shooting a five photo bracket session) has a neutral exposure. The darker shots will appear dark, but you’ll also see those clouds start to shine through. And the brighter photos will appear over-exposed, but elements such as the grass and water might shine a little more.

Create an HDR Photograph

By using a tool like Photomatix Pro 6, or Lightroom’s built-in HDR photo merge tool, you can put your bracketed photos together in one, single shot. You’ll already notice a difference by doing this — your photos will appear more balanced and you’ll see bits and pieces of the clouds in the sky.

For the above shot, I used Photomatix Pro 6 for my initial edits, which allowed me to create a certain look and feel to the photograph. I then brought it into Lightroom for some final adjustments to the entirety of the photo, including highlights, black levels, vibrancy, clarity and more.

Highlights and Exposure

While creating an HDR photograph will get you started, oftentimes it’s not enough. This is where Lightroom’s Graduated Filter tool comes in handy. Pay attention to two specific aspects of this — the Highlights and Exposure sliders.

By taking down your highlights, you’ll start to see more and more depth to your skies. The clouds will appear more three-dimensional. As a rule of thumb, I don’t slide my highlights below -50, so I keep the realistic nature of the photograph alive.

From there, adjust your exposure as necessary. Depending on the photograph, you might need to decrease the exposure, or increase it. On a bright, blown-out sky, it’s sometimes necessary to decrease the exposure. But on a cloudy, Ireland sky, I had to brighten it by 0.60.

Bring Back the Blue

Sticking with the same Graduated Filter selection, you can then increase the blue tint in your photograph. I went with a -20 adjustment here, which brought some blue coloring back into the sky.

The final step was to bump up the saturation, to +20. This let the blue appear less flat and more colorful, contrasting nicely against the clouds.

Conclusion

By adjusting things like exposure, highlights, tint and saturation, you can breathe new life into an otherwise boring photograph. For me, the Cliffs of Moher was one of my favorite places to visit, and I wanted this photograph to reflect that.

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