Tough Condition In Photography - Smoky Skies

By Goran Prvulovic

As photographers, we pride ourselves on being able to control as many aspects of our photographs as we can. From the angles, lighting, setup, etc., it’s this mastery of our surroundings and understanding of how they impact the photo that is the hallmark of a true professional in the field.

But sometimes, there are some things that are just out of our control. Natural disasters can be one of those things. No matter what you try to do, if there’s a forest fire, or a hurricane raging – there’s not much you can do to change that besides just waiting for it to pass. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of such situations.

Currently, some forest fires are ravaging through British Columbia, just west of where I live, and the wind carries the smoke over the mountains into Calgary. Now, we have these small fires almost every year, but this time it's been particularly bad. The sky has been smoky and hazy in a way that would usually ruin most attempts at traditional landscape photography.


However, as is always the case, when you use a bit of creativity you can use even a setback to your advantage.

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For example, look at a photo such as this one. Would you ever have thought that such a smoky sky can produce such an impressive sunset? Frankly, this specific picture isn’t even a sunset technically, it’s still rather high in the sky, but the cool thing is that the clouds dim the typically bright glare from the sun, allowing us to look straight at it and see it in a way that we usually don’t notice. In fact, the perfectly round sun looks like a bright, orange moon.

Look also how muddy the horizon is. You can barely see the mountains – which are usually perfectly clear from this vantage point. A normal photographer would say that this is a horrible scenery for taking pictures, but with some creativity and a willingness to explore the possibilities, it became something entirely fascinating.

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These next few photos are variations on the same idea, with the sun descending a little deeper for each and every picture. The first photo put more emphasis on the clouds, and the murky sky with that purple/brown haze covering the mountains. But in this one, you see a blueish tint instead that actually allows the mountains to come out a little more.

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Quite similar to the previous picture, but shifting the composition of the photo a little bit so theirs a 50-50 split between the ground and the sky, as opposed to the 70-30 of the previous photo. Notice how such a change gives off a different ambiance? Showing off the sky a bit more tends to give off the feeling of expansiveness, freedom, of flying away and seeing how vast the world is. Contrast that to where you show more of the ground, which gives the feeling of being grounded, rooted, or anchored safely into what we already know.

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Similar to the other picture, but notice how the skyline and mountains have lost a bit of that blueness and have reverted to that pasty brown color? If there is one thing that this forest fire smoke does, is play around with the color palette of the scenery.

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Perhaps my favorite picture, with the perfect angle, the sun has submerged directly behind the trees on the hill – obscuring the light source. If anything, we get the most beautiful colors in the sky, with rays of pink bouncing off the clouds on the top all the while standing behind the beautiful blue background of the cloudy sky.

I think when it comes to sunsets, you need to have a good match between just how much of the sky and how much of the ground you chose to show off. With such a beautiful sky as this one, it only makes sense to show off more of these neat pink clouds.

But it goes to show you how much you can create from what most people would think to be horrific conditions for shooting pictures. Forget the doubters, and what most people say, it’s opportunities like these that are golden for photographers trying to break into the field. What other photographers will be chasing after smoke-filled skies? Most won’t.

That’s exactly why it’s so important because having a unique portfolio will help you stand out from your competition.

Anyway, I hope that this blog post inspired you to start thinking outside of the box and step outside the normality of conventional photography logic. You’ll never know what you might find.

Until next time,

Goran