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Minimalist Landscape Photography with the Sky

No nature photographer can avoid the sky. Not only is it a huge space that links us to the rest of the universe, it can even become a dramatic canvas for our shots! But if we don’t handle it well enough, the composition will feel like there is too much empty space. Shooting sky images with the 7:3 ratio will train you to be more mindful of how you use space in your shots. Ready, set, go! (Reported by Toshiki Nakanishi, Digital Camera Magazine)

Blue sky over farmland

EOS R/ RF28-70mm f/2L USM/ FL: 31mm/ Flexible-priority AE (f/11, 1/320 sec)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight


Step 1: Know what you can achieve by incorporating more sky

When we are face to face with a stunning scene—a whole field of beautiful flowers against a clear blue sky, for instance—we tend to want to include everything in the frame. But incorporating the key elements in equal proportions makes them fight for attention, and with no clear main subject, the viewer won’t know where to look.

Negative example: 50% sky, 50% land

Lavender field, trees and sky

Which is the main subject? Not very obvious here.

In certain situations, it simply makes more sense to include more of the sky in the frame, such as when you are shooting the night sky with sparkling stars. That’s when you should be bold and let the sky take up more of the frame so that the main subject—the sky—becomes more obvious. Of course, you should also still be careful to ensure balanced placement of the sky and ground!

Good example: 80% sky, 20% land

Starry sky over snowy mountains

The main subject is much more obvious.

FAQ: Which is better, telephoto or wide angle?

The expansive feel that a wide angle lens creates is excellent for bringing out expressive details in the sky. They are particularly good for when there are lots of interesting clouds: the wide angle perspective enhances their movement and make it feel as though they flow all the way outside the frame.

Blue sky over farmland

Shooting wide angle enhances the sense of vastness.


Step 2: The scenery on the ground may be lovely, but be selective about what you leave in!

Rainbows are another example of a scene that could easily become too busy: we get so caught up photographing it that we tend to end up including too many elements on the ground. Whether you decide to make the sky 70% of your shot or 80% of it, it’s good to factor in the relationship between the main subject (the sky) with the secondary subject (the ground) when you compose.

Negative example: Too many elements on the ground

Rainbows (failed shot)

The land in the foreground is dark, and having it take up so much of the frame weighs the entire image down, distracting us from the rainbow.

Good example: After neatening the composition

Double rainbow

I recomposed the image to include less of the ground, which simplifies the shot, and also took care to ensure that the elements were balanced. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to and stay on the main subject—the double rainbow.

Also see: Quick Tips for Photographing Rainbows

Reminder: Make sure your horizon is straight! (Your electronic level has its limits)

With so much sky, any tilt in the horizon will look more obvious. Check for tilting when you shoot. 

Horizontally tilted image, corrected

Tip: Here, we are more concerned about how straight the horizon looks in the image, not how parallel it is to the ground, so using a physical or electronic level may not be as helpful. Use the grid display to help you see better. Correcting it in post-editing requires you to rotate and crop the shot, which could make the shot lose some of the “wide” feel.


Step 3: Make good use of clouds for greater impact

A clear, fine day is not a good day for sky photography. Instead, try shooting with a long exposure on a cloudy day, or even right before sunrise or right after sunset.

Take a long exposure to capture their flow

Dramatic dark clouds over mountain

One condition that’s excellent for dramatic shots of the sky is when there are strong winds and many clouds. To enhance the expressiveness of the slow-moving clouds, try taking a long exposure shot, using an ND filter to reduce light.

A stunning replication of glowing sunbeams

Sun rays over horizon

The sun’s rays peeking out just above the horizon before sunrise and after sunset can be a wondrous sight to behold. When shooting such scenes, remember Step 2! The sky and sunbeam are your main subjects, so keep that in mind and aim to reduce the proportion taken up by the secondary subject.


Self-check: Things to ask yourself as you shoot

1. Is the proportion of the frame occupied by the sky appropriate?

The best sky to land ratio depends on the scene. It is very important to consider what story you want to tell using the space taken up by the sky.

Pink and purple sky with moon

In the image above, the full moon floats in a beautiful, ombre sky. A balanced composition was achieved with a 7:3 sky to land ratio.

2. Does your composition bring out the best in the sky?

Negative example: Too much land

Ombre blue sky at sunrise

The dawn sky in the above shot is a beautiful ombre, but my attention was on the land, too, and it shows. The sky would have looked more impressive if there was less land. Be decisive about which subject you want to showcase, and compose so that all eyes are drawn to only it!

For more ideas on sky and landscape photography, check out:
Getting Started in Landscape Photography: 5 Things to Know
Decisions in Landscape Photography: Whether or Not to Include the Sun in the Frame
Capture the Fiery, Vibrant Colours of Sunrise
4 Keys to Shooting Pre-dawn Landscapes


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Toshiki Nakanishi

Toshiki Nakanishi

Born in 1971 in Osaka. After learning photography on his own, Nakanishi moved the base for his photography activities to the town of Biei located in Kamikawa-gun of Hokkaido. While capturing landscapes that focus on light, he also produces works that bring out the figurative beauty of nature. Head of PHOTO OFFICE atelier nipek.