How to Master Red Sky Photography
Morning red needs some special requirements to appear. Learn how to plan and photograph red skies for a masterpiece.
My latest YouTube video explains how to predict and photograph a red sky. The red sky is one of the most beautiful weather phenomena, but the fact is that it does not appear every day. We need some special requirements, and basically it’s all about the right time, the right place, and the right time.
Where does red come from?
When white sunlight passes through our atmosphere, particles in the air filter out spectral colors with different strengths. Blue is the most filtered; it is scattered in all directions. This is also the reason why the sky is blue and why the white sun looks yellow during the day.
When the sun is low, as it is at sunset and sunrise, light must travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere. More light is filtered, and since red is the least filtered color, the light turns red. But that’s not enough to make the sky red.
The canvas for light
Whenever we want to paint we need any type of canvas or paper. For the red sky, the clouds are our canvas. When red light hits the clouds, they turn red. But we need the right clouds in the right position.
Cumulus clouds are those simple, fluffy clouds, which only have a small area at the bottom. Cloud layers, on the other hand, cover the whole sky or at least a large part of it. The area at the bottom of them is quite high.
Bring the sun under the clouds
We want the clouds to be illuminated from below. But how should it work? At first glance, this seems impossible, because the sun will always be further than the clouds. But if we consider that our planet is a sphere and the sun neither sets nor rises, but our Earth rotates, it should be easier to understand how to bring the sun into such a position that our clouds are illuminated from the bottom.
A few minutes before sunrise and a few minutes after sunset, the sun is below the horizon. If there are clouds above our subject and there is a gap in the sky behind our subject, the sun can shine through that gap and our clouds will be illuminated by sunlight . As the light has to travel an extremely long distance through the atmosphere from its position, the light is further filtered and ultimately the red light illuminates the clouds below. Single cumulus clouds lead to many small saturated areas in the scene. Layered clouds lead to a large area that is lit up instead.
How to predict red skies?
It is quite difficult, if not impossible, to predict red skies on weather apps. Weather apps just give you a version of a weather forecast for a single point. They don’t show you the type of clouds nor do they show you the spread you need.
This is why it is recommended to use weather maps instead. Just look for a nice subject, to be sure, there are clouds above your subject and there is a big void in the clouds behind it. The size of the gap depends on the height of the clouds. But if your gap is 120 miles or more, chances are it will work.
What else you should consider
Avoid low clouds. They will block sunlight. Go for medium or high level clouds instead. They are much higher, and the sun can shine on them from below.
If you want to use a shorter focal length, consider that the red sky will only be a tiny part of your composition. You can use the red sky to accentuate a special area of your composition, which could support the quiet morning or evening mood. If you opt for a longer focal length instead, the red sky takes on more weight in the image. The sky itself could be the subject, and the mood can be quite dramatic.
The histogram is very important. The sun is below the horizon, so we just get the light reflected from the cloud bottoms. And it’s red — really red. Sometimes it gets so red that I have to desaturate the image afterwards. This is why your histogram is lying. The histogram only shows the sum of red, green and blue lights. In red sky conditions, there is almost no blue and no green there, just red. It happens quite easily that the histogram shows a well exposed image, while the red channel is already overexposed. I’m only looking at the color channel histograms. For red sky photography, only the red channel interests me here.
Don’t just capture the weather phenomenon
The reds turn everything into such a magical vibe that is overwhelming. The problem is that the red sky itself already looks so amazing that we might forget to consider everything we need to achieve a convincing composition as well. But it’s the composition that makes the difference between an average shot and a masterpiece.
In the video mentioned above, you will see how I photographed a panorama of a beautiful mountain range in the distance. I considered the subtle ripples in the lower right corner to emphasize the contrast in the reflection between the shadowy mountain and the bright sky. Shutter speed makes a big difference here. These ripples anchor the image, and due to the diagonal ridge line of the mountain, we are drawn back to the vanishing point, which is accentuated by that impressive red sky in the distance. All the mountains, the clouds in the sky, and all the fog above the water are well balanced.
For more tips on red sky photography and enjoying the whole adventure, watch the video above.