If you want to add a dark and brooding sky to your black and white photos then a graduated filter is the obvious way to do it. As long as the sky still has a full range of tones, i.e. it’s not burned out to a solid white anywhere, you can practically do what you like with it.
Here’s an example. This picture is already quite rich and contrasty, but it would be nice to add even more depth to that sky to help frame the figure in the foreground and give the composition even more contrast.
But when you do this, you often leave the picture looking tonally very top-heavy. So here’s a tip for maintaining the overall tonal balance – add another graduated filter at the bottom of the image.
This might sound counter-intuitive – you might think the bottom part of the picture doesn’t need darkening. Honestly, though, it’s worth trying this out just to see the difference it makes.
For this example we’ve used Lightroom, but you could do the same thing with adjustment layers in Photoshop, localised adjustments in Capture One Pro and similar tools in a whole host of different programs.
01: Here’s the ‘pin’ marking the position of the first graduated filter for the sky. There was nothing out of the ordinary in this adjustment, just a reduction in the Exposure setting and an increase in the Contrast value.
02: And here’s the second graduated filter. This has been positioned very carefully to provide just the right tonal balance with that dark sky. The composition works much better with this area darkened.
03: The settings for this second graduated filter are slightly more complex because it was important to preserve the shiny wetness in the stones. The Exposure setting has been reduced to create the overall darkening effect, but the Whites slider has been pushed right up to preserve the brightness in the reflections. At the same time, reducing the Blacks value has made the darkest tones even richer and denser.
This is the finished picture, and it has the dark, stormy sky we wanted and it’s now balanced really well by the darker foreground at the base of the picture. You can use the same techniques on colour images, though pictorially you can’t usually get away with the extremes of tonal adjustment that black and white allows.