In a previous article, I shared my favorite way of dealing with an overcast sky in photography. Today, we will focus on the opposite: clear skies. Those can also be a challenge for landscape photographers. But there are ways to take great photos under such conditions, and in this article, we'll explore several of them.
For many years of my photography career, I avoided taking photos on cloudless days. Because of that, I missed out on countless photo opportunities. I recently shared some statistics about my photographic year. Those show that great conditions are not the norm. Especially while traveling through Greece this past summer, I had to be content with clear skies. Had I tried to avoid those, I wouldn't have taken many photos.
The following tips helped me to make this a successful photo trip. To provide some variance, I share a mix of photos taken in Greece and during other travels, as examples below.
Use Reflected Light
Particularly in the morning and evening, a cloudless sky casts beautiful colors on the land. At those times, it acts like a gigantic reflector. During blue hour, your subjects will get a blueish color cast, and closer to sunrise and sunset, a mix of warm colors will dominate. Those colors can help you create different moods or emphasize certain colors in the landscape.
Take the following photo of the crater wall of Mount Ijen in Indonesia. The warm sky, which isn't part of the image, intensified the colors of the orange and yellow rocks. The soft light allowed me to capture the structures of the broken landscape without distracting shadows.
For the photo of the Kuhflucht cascade in Germany, I got up very early to capture it during blue hour. Not only allowed this for exposure times of around 30 seconds, but the blueish tones also give the image a moody atmosphere. It shows that it's possible to take good photos of waterfalls on clear days. Just try to use the soft light of the late or early hours to avoid glare on the cascade.
Use Directional Light
Direct light isn't always bad. For some subjects, it's what you need to create interest. Below is an example from Ta Prohm in Cambodia. This ancient hallway doesn't look that spectacular during most times of the day. But in the early morning, with the directional sidelight shining through the columns, the scene comes to life.
For such an image, hard shadows and contrasts create depth and help to draw the viewer into the frame. What this shot still has in common with the previous examples is the absence of sky and light source.
Capture Sun Stars
In the following example, the light source enters the frame. If you find a photogenic woodland, you can use a cloudless sky. Find a composition that allows you to include the sun. Stopping down the lens, you can create beautiful sun stars. It works best if you position your camera for the sun to peek out behind some trees, branches, or leaves. Moving around just a few inches can make a huge difference.
Aside from the sun, the clear sky provides a clean canvas against which the shapes of the trees stand out.
To get the most out of such a photo shoot, use times of the day when the sun is still low in the sky. The light will be softer, and the contrasts not be that harsh yet. Around noon it will become much harder to take a pleasing image. It will be difficult to include the sun in the frame, and the shadows will be more chaotic and less directional.
A common theme in the previous tips is the exclusion of the sky from the photo. Even in the last example that features the sun, the sky is largely hidden.
A great way to exclude the sky is by using a long lens. Try to find high vantage points which allow you to point your camera slightly downward, as I did in the example photo. By shooting early in the morning, you can also use the shadows created by the directional light. It gives such images more structure.
Look for Details
Even if you don't bring the long lens, there are ways to fill the frame with subjects that don't require the sky. The solution is to look down at what lies at your feet.
As I explored Sarakiniko beach in Greece one morning, I couldn't compose a scenic photo of this moonlike landscape. The area I tried to photograph featured many rock patterns that would have required a dramatic sky to complement them. A clear sky didn't work.
So I directed my attention at little details like this pocket of rocks. Using the warm, reflected light, I was able to create a minimalistic photo that puts the focus on the nature of the rocks at Sarakiniko.
Create a Clean Image
A day later, I still managed to capture a photo of Sarakiniko including the sky. The key to success is to find a scene without too many patterns. A clear sky is not a good backdrop for a chaotic landscape. But if you can compose a clean image with soft forms and shapes, a cloudless sky provides a natural balance.
It works best if you find subjects that reflect some of its colors, which helps to tie everything together. Lakes, rivers, and wet surfaces work well for that. But even rocks will reflect the colors of the sky to some extent.
Photograph Light Rays
Light rays are an elusive subject. Finding the right combination of light and mist is difficult, but the best chance to capture such conditions is on clear mornings. A cloudless sky during the night lets the heat from the earth's surface escape into the atmosphere. It leads to cooler temperatures near the ground. Once those reach the dew point, fog can form.
Finding the right photo spot will still require preparation and scouting. A forest close to a lake or a large meadow will provide you with a good chance to capture light rays. Position yourself with your subject in the direction of the rising sun. You might also want to bring the long lens because zooming in on lines of trees surrounded by mist will help you better capture this phenomenon.
Shoot the Night Sky
If none of the above tips work for you, there's one final thing you can do: Make use of the night sky. A cloudless night will be perfect for taking photos of the milky way or some other constellations. I dedicated a complete article to how to take stunning night photos. You might not get that much sleep if you are after images like the one below. But photographing the stars can be a great experience as, most of the time, you'll have even the more popular photo locations for yourself.
As I showed above, there's no shortage of photos you can take on cloudless days and nights. You just have to be open and not fixate too much on the notion that great landscape photos require dramatic clouds. To become a successful landscape photographer, you must learn to take good images in any condition. It will help you create a much more diverse portfolio that appeals to a larger audience.
I live in the PHX East Valley & struggled with this because the Sonoran Desert is a 'high pressure' desert, which means outside of the summer monsoon and the winter rainy season, the skies are mostly cloudless.
At first I solved the problem of cloudless skies by using a super-zoom camera for landscape details that you suggested. In fact, I have used all your suggestions at one point or another.
Buying a GPS camera drone has been a real inspiration for desert photography for me. Now I can get to locations impossible before and use a wide-angle lens, minimize the sky above the horizon, I can point my camera straight down and hover.
Of course, learning to fly a drone, finding a suitable subject, moving in 3-dimensional space for the best composition, keeping an eye on your battery-life, dealing with screen warnings, trying not to crash or run into random power-lines, & dealing with distractions around you ALL at the same time, then hoping you can fly it back & land it without crashing are anxieties that land-based photographers don't have to think about!