A few months ago, Leah Lavelle and I drove through the Olympic Peninsula on our way to Neah Bay and Shi Shi Beach. I took this photo mid-morning looking across Lake Crescent.
We caught some amazing light with heavy contrast as the sun broke in and out of the clouds. I've revisited these shots a handful of times trying to find an edit that captured the sky, hills, and lake.
Camera: Nikon D7100
Lense: Nikon 17-55 F2.8 at F5.6 and 44mm
This shot was incredibly contrasty. The sun is almost directly in the middle of the frame behind the clouds. My goal when I got the photo into the camera was to balance each third of the frame as best I could. I knew I'd be losing some highlights, but I wanted to capture as much detail in the water and hills as possible.
Dropping in a graduated filter to bring back the clouds
As I edited the photo, I used a standard contrasty edit -- nothing too new there. The key was placing a graduated filter over the top third of the frame to bring back the shadows in the clouds. I placed the filter by dragging from the top toward the bottom as you can see in the screenshot below.
The red overlay illustrates the intensitu and location of the filter in Adobe Lightroom. Once you place the graduated filter, you'll want to dial in the exposure, and potentially tweak highlights, whites, or shadows when you use them on bright clouds. I particularly wanted to bring back the shadows in the top left corner of the frame.
Whether you shoot cityscapes or landscapes, graduated filters offer a huge boost for clouds or harsh skies. If you want to see some more examples, my landscape shots from the Columbia River Gorge use graduated filters as well.