Dynamic Photo Composition: How Much Sky - How Little

Design decisions: The sky can make or break a landscape or seascape picture

by Kerry Drager

Low Horizon - Sunset sky
Low Horizon - Sunset sky
© Jim Miotke
All Rights Reserved
(Note: This article is adapted from The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography - co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager.)


Determining the ratio of sky to earth is a key concern in composing dynamic photos. Regardless of whether it's a sweeping landscape or seascape, or a more intimate scene, the amount of sky you choose to include in the composition can make a huge impact on your photo.

Too often, though, photographers automatically split landscape or seascape images into equal halves, with the horizon line or maybe a distant shoreline extending right across the middle of the frame. The viewer, then, is left to decide which half of the scene is most important. But that’s for you - the photographer - to decide when composing your image!

Rather than automatically cutting the composition in half, stop and ask yourself: Which is more important, the landscape (or waterscape)? Or the sky?

High Horizon - Old Boat Scene
High Horizon - Old Boat Scene
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved
A photo’s visual weight (the most interesting things in the scene) should determine where you place the horizon. With the Rule of Thirds, you can position the horizon line on the lower third dividing line or the upper third. And you can adapt the Thirds principle as necessary. If things are exceptionally dull overhead or down low, even a third of the frame devoted to that space could be too much. So you can be more extreme and place the line extremely low or high - say, a thin strip of sky or landscape.


Exceptions Can Be the 'Rule'

Occasionally, splitting the composition roughly in half is the best choice. This mostly involves water reflections, when the scene above is just as compelling as the reflection below. Giving equal weight to both elements helps capitalize on the eye-catching blend of symmetry and serenity. Other times, you may want to leave out the sky entirely. Sometimes, this is when a bright white canopy envelops the sky on an overcast day, since the stark brightness can overwhelm everything else in the scene. Other times, you may simply want a tighter composition that puts all the emphasis on a landscape or waterscape, without any visual competition from the sky.


No Sky - Surfer at Sunrise
No Sky - Surfer at Sunrise
© Kerry Drager
All Rights Reserved

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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Kerry Drager
Photography Instructor: Kerry Drager
The content manager and course advisor for BetterPhoto.com, Kerry Drager is also the co-author of two books: The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography (2011) and The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light (2012). In addition, he teaches photography online at BetterPhoto's digital photography school. See his instructor bio and list of courses...

Be sure to check out Kerry's Pro BetterPholio website - www.kerrydrager.com.

Also, he is the author of Scenic Photography 101, the photographer of the photo-essay books The Golden Dream: California from Gold Rush to Statehood and California Desert , a contributor to the books BetterPhoto Basics and Daybreak 2000, and a co-photographer of Portrait of California. In addition, Kerry was profiled in the April 1994 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine and in Vik Orenstein's 2010 book The Photographer's Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business, and his website was showcased in the January 2003 issue of Shutterbug magazine. Plus, his work has appeared in magazines, Hallmark cards and Sierra Club calendars, and in advertising campaigns for American Express and Sinar Bron Imaging.

Also see his Visual Creativity photography blog, and follow Kerry on Facebook.

Kerry lives with his wife, Mary, on California's Central Coast, with their three Newfoundland dogs, four cats, and a mixed terrier.