The folder full of sky.

I was mentoring a younger photographer who was hellbent on being an architectural photographer. I have no interest in architecture beyond hoping that architects concentrate on making the buildings and houses that I must look at everyday.....pleasant and interesting. I'm not at all into conceptual architecture but happy when it only exists in plans.

At any rate, I've done at least several hundred assignments for magazines, home builders and industrial builders, documenting the interiors and exteriors of all kinds of structures. For nearly everyone of those assignments I used a some kind of 4x5 inch view cameras and had mostly mastered the quick use of front and rear standard rises and falls. Almost all the assignments were done on film.

So I was showing the photographer how and why to use the rise on his tilt/shift lens and we started talking about a job he'd just done. He was a bit miffed with the results because the house he was assigned to photograph could only be done on a specific day, and that day had been plagued with a bald, ozone-y sky. The light on the house was fine but the sky was a whitish-gray mess.

I suggested that he just grab a good sky from his files and drop it in behind the house. This is the age of PhotoShop, after all. He didn't have a "sky' folder. He immediately went into male photographer problem solving mode = (Google) and started looking for stock skies. I just shook my head.

I think every working, commercial, professional photographer; no matter what their specialty, should have a folder on their computer that's filled to the brim with high res shots of skies. Morning skies, evening skies, big Texas Cloud skies, glowering thunderhead skies, high/thin/cloud skies and every other sky you can think of. In fact, when I'm out roaming around and I see a rich, blue Texas sky dotted with dramatic white clouds I can't grab my camera and a normal (or slightly wide) lens quickly enough.

This is not just advice for architecture photographers; I drop in backgrounds if I'm doing a portrait in an office that has a spectacular view that just hasn't materialized during my shoot.

If you don't already have a sky file you  probably need one and now is a great time to start. It will come in handy. Eventually you'll have an emergency sky for every occasion. We still try to get every photograph just right, in the camera, but schedules, clients, weather and bad view angles sometimes frustrate our best intentions. Dip into the file, make a new layer and fix things up.

Just remember to match the saturation of the sky to the rest of the file and to toss the sky layer out of focus if it makes logical sense.

Several years later the younger photographer dropped by for a visit. I reviewed at his portfolio. It looked great. He told me that half the images in his "book" were made with dropped-in skies and the other half were shot as straight. To his credit I could not tell which was which. He thanked me profusely and we both went outside to see if there was any sky worth shooting.....


  1. I forget when I first started using Photoshop, but it must be close to 30 years ago (I used version 0.72 for a bit before the first full release came out) and I think I started my sky, and other background folders pretty much right away, from scanned film of course. I'd done architectural construction and commercial photography for almost 20 years and Photoshop opened up a lot of new business for me. For about 6-7 years nobody in this area could produce as good Photoshop composites, so I could set my own price. As I am an architect as well and had a strong computer background, this was a good fit for me.

    In film days I shot architectural models preferably mounted to a #5 Gitzo Geant on a beach here in Vancouver so I could have a choice of having either the distant North Shore Mountains or the sky as a background, but the weather wasn't always cooperative, to say the least. After Photoshop, film was scanned and sky and backgrounds added whenever the weather didn't cooperate. Backgrounds got updated as technology improved, and I often took background shots in the area where the new projects were to be built. Finished projects had sky and and even possibly some background added from other files when appropriate.

    Anyone who shoots professionally outdoors and therefore can't always control lighting and backgrounds needs to accumulate files that 'fill in the blanks'.

  2. This is a reason I'm happy to be an amateur. If I get a picture that would have been really good, except for the sky, I can just say "Too bad the sky wasn't better" and toss it.

  3. My folder is called "backgrounds" and has random colors, textures and shapes, along with trees, windows, and odds and ends that might be handy someday. And, of course, skies and clouds. A while back I needed a 'haunted house' to put behind a subject. A look through the folder turned up a ruined country school building that adapted well, plus a stormy sky for an overall background.

  4. A good interesting suggestion...thanks

  5. I started my folder of sky shots back in the "shoot film and digitize" days. Ok, sure, it might be a little weird to have a modern shot with a Kodachrome 25 sky, but if I haven't used that specific sky in a few years, why not, if it's what I'm looking for.

    Last week I was driving without a camera of any kind, when the most amazing pre-storm clouds were roiling above. Another life-lesson about never leaving for any reason without a camera in the car... my glove-box camera is back in the glove box.


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