One of the subjects that appears again and again in my own photography is the sky. It is no doubt a classic subject for many photographers. The sky is of course always present and available to photograph, but is not necessarily always a compelling subject- so when does the sky become worth capturing? What are the qualities of the sky that transform it from a granted element of our everyday environment, into a moving and even sublime subject for a photograph?
To answer these questions and more, I looked to Flickr and my own image archive.
Using the Openframeworks add-on ofxFlickr, by Brett Renfer, I was able to scrape thousands of images of skies from the Flickr community. Arranged in a grid based on the order in which I downloaded them (third image), they already reveal some information about the way the sky is photographed.
Seeking a greater sense of order in the images, I chose to sort using t-SNE, or t-distributed stochastic neighbor embedding. For this, I used the ofxTSNE add on by Gene Kogan. The sorted image itself is compelling, but can also better reveal the trends and variation within the dataset.
Now with some kind of organization, trends within the dataset start to emerge. Night skies are popular, but specialized (often requiring equipment like tripods, high ISO capable sensors); there are distinct categories here- auroras, the milky way, and lightning were the most dominant. Sunsets and sunrises dominate the top edge of the collage- this is a time when the sky is predictably interesting, so their high representation seems logical. The photographers here are clearly not shy about bumping up the colors in these images either.
Rainbows have a small but still notable presence; this is a compelling sky event, but is less predictable. Gray, stormy skies also make up a large portion of the image. The cloud formations here seem to be an attractive subject, but have less representation in the image set— perhaps because it isn’t always pleasant or feasible to go out and make images in a storm.
The largest sections, represented in the right side of the collage, show mostly blue skies with medium and large cloud formations. What varies between these two sections is how they are edited; I saw a distinct divide between images that were processed to be much more contrasty, and those that were less altered.
Even within the “calmer” images, where no large cloud features were present, there was a large variation in color. It’s safe to say that many of the more vibrant images here were also edited for increased saturation.
Applying this same process to my own images (albeit a more limited set; I took these ~200 images over the span of a few weeks from my window in Amsterdam) also allows me to compare my habits as a photographer to the Flickr community at large. I generally prefer not to edit my photos heavily, and leave the colors closer to how my camera originally captured them- Flickr users clearly have no problems with bumping up the vibrancy and saturation of their skies to supernatural levels.