How to get great photos of the whole scene
One question I get a lot in my photography workshops is how to take a photo that shows both the subject on the ground and the sky. Especially on bright days with a clear blue sky, it can be hard to expose for the subject on the ground and the sky. The sky is just far too bright and comes out as bright white.
There are a couple of things that you can do if you want to have the sky show up in your photos, and a well-exposed subject on the ground.
The first thing to remember is that under-exposing a shot is better than over-exposing. Especially where the sky is in question, over-exposing is always going to render as white. Once something is exposed to paper-white, it can’t be brought back. No detail is no detail. If you underexpose by a couple of stops, you can fix that later in an image editing program.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR (and of course you are, right?) you can use the auto-metering to measure the sky, and while holding the shutter release half-way down, you can recompose the image and press the shutter the rest of the way. You will have to watch where the auto-focus point is, to make sure it’s still over the subject you want to photograph when you point the camera at the sky. If you’re using manual focus, this step can be a little easier. Alternatively, metre and focus as normal, and in your DSLR viewfinder you will see a scale from -2 to +2 with a 0 in the middle. Ideally, there should be a little notch above the 0, if the shot is exposed correctly. Simply alter the shutter speed or the aperture. Remembering that they affect the shot differently, so decide which one based on the circumstances that suit - if the subject is not moving, use the shutter speed, if the amount of the shot that is sharp doesn’t matter so much, use the aperture. Take a test shot with the metre on 0 to see how much the difference is, and then alter the setting so that the notch is hovering above the 1 or 2. The circumstances will affect the amount you need to adjust it. Closing down two stops should be able to let you bring the subject back to regular brightness, and keep the sky blue.
If you’re shooting with a smartphone, you will have less ability to change things, and it will depend if you’re using the native camera app or a third party app. But you should be able to make small adjustments with the camera apps to make the shot darker, and allow for the sky to be seen as blue. Make that adjustment and take the photo. You can then use the camera app editor, Instagram or VSCO, or any image editing program really, to bring the brightness of the shadows back up, without losing the sky.
The last thing you might be able to do, is take an HDR photo with your phone or camera. You can do it manually by taking three separate photos: one where the sky is blue, another where the mid-ground is bright, and a third where the foreground is bright. Then you can put them together in Photoshop or a similar program later. Some cameras have an HDR setting in the ‘scene’ options. This will have the camera take several images and compile them internally before showing you the final image. It’s a bit of a cheat, but if the difference is more than a couple of stops, this is the best way to do it.