Shooting Sky: Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Every photographer looks for the best frame for his shots but, unfortunately, weather condition, time of the day and other elements greatly affect the final result. How the sky looks like is one of this.

This could be a really annoying thing. It could happen that you, as photographer, have always dreamt to take that wonderful picture but the weather is down so, instead of your great shot you get that washed out dull sky. A dull grey sky sure is not the perfect background color for a nice shot!

Shooting Sky: Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Obviously you can wait for a better sky in a different day or in different condition. By the way not always you can come back a day or even a week later to repeat the shot.

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Shooting Sky: Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

How we can save our time spent to take the perfect frame?

Many professional photographers have solved this problem simply replacing the dull sky with a better one.

A collection of sky photographs can help to save the day allowing a great final result.

With this article we will inspect how to archive good sky photos suitable to replace them in some situations.

In addition, in the second half of the article I’ll propose you a tutorial about how effectively replace the sky in a dull photo.

Let’s start!

Why Shooting Sky?

Because:

  1. A beautiful sky greatly enhances the photo’s general atmosphere.
  2. Finding the perfect frame is great but not always possible.
  3. To build a skies collection. A photographer which has an archive of sky photographs could take advantage from it during post-production activity.
  4. Just because clouds are interesting (this is a good reason! :D). The sky is like a blank canvas and clouds are the paint that gives creativity and a touch of imagination.

Clouds can be the main point to enhance the photo. It is always better to take sky photos every time you like it and in different day time so that you have a large collection to choose from when you need.

Preparing the Shot

1. Place and Time

The sky is always above us, is a frame itself, a limit.

It looks different when you stare it in different places: into the city, next to the sea or on the top of a mountain, with same equipment and camera setting conditions, even at the same time, you get different skies. That’s why temperature and air humidity highly affect the light incidence. So pay attention where you are going to take your photos and choose appropriately your position.

Choose the shooting time of the day with accuracy too! The time of the day amazingly affect the shots and the results. The choice obviously depend on which effect do you want to reach. I love shooting skies early in the morning when the air is clear by daily pollution.

By the way, for a complete collection, you need skies from all day time except for the central hours of the day. Don’t shoot from 12:00 up to 2:00. Those are the worst time to shoot an outdoors scene. The sky’s the brightest, the shadows are the ugliest, and the sun’s directly overhead.

The rising or setting of the Sun is very special moments because it lights the clouds up in every shade from yellow to bright red and violet.

2. Camera Settings

You can usually leave the camera on landscape mode and the shot will come out right.

If you prefer doing it manually pay attention to the Sun position and light angle. Better is to leave the Sun just out of the frame to avoid unwanted flares.

Very often a Graduated Neutral Density Filter is effective inreducing the brightness difference between the sky and the ground, thereby allowing your sensor to record detail in both these areas. Anyway, you have to use it BEFORE, when you are taking photos so that it lets you shooting better. In this phase the GND filter can’t help because your photos already have dull sky and you are developing your sky shots archive to remediate those photos.

3. Additional Equipments

Consider to use a polarizing filter. It amazingly enhances photo sharpness and contrast by clearing light aberration and incidence cutting off the glare and making the clouds standing out more. The amount of clearing depends on the angle of the reflected light, the rotation of the filter and the amount of polarization. This will ensure vivid color and detail because it increases color saturation.

4. Saving Rules

In addition to the previous technical suggestions there are some basic rules that are very important to bear in mind when you go out for sky and clouds shooting.

  • Save Your Eyes!Remember not to point in the light source direction. There are several good reasons to avoid that. The first a more important is a wealth reason: pointing the Sun is like looking at it and you can seriously damage your eyes!
  • Save Your Camera!The second is a camera saving suggestion. Pointing a strong light source may damage the camera exposimeter.
  • Save the Shadow/Light Balance!Last but not least a creative reason: too much light means less shadow, contrast and color in your picture.Don’t aim at the sun or even in its direction. It will kill your exposure damaging the picture overexposing the lights.

Here following three sky photos example. All of them have been taken in the same place but at different time of the day: morning, afternoon, evening near the sunset.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

It was a very cloudy and windy day so what we get is a various cloud conformations.

This other picture has been shot in the morning but too near the Sun light, that’s why, compared with the first of the series, the colors look so strange.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Post-processing: Blend the New Sky

You achieved your first goal and you now have your sky photos collection. What to do now?

It is very easy to overdo adjustments or do them not carefully enough, resulting in unnatural look.There are rules to choose the right sky for the photo?

Firstly, you have to pay attention to the blank sky light source. Is true that the sky is washed out but other elements in the picture, shadows, spotlights, may reveal the fake if you don’t choose the new sky with accuracy.

Secondly, you have to pay attention to the time of the shooting of both pictures to blend. The two times have to match as much as you can to give a more natural look to the lights. This is the reason why I previously suggested taking sky photos everywhere and any time. The largest and complete is your photo archive the easiest is to find the right sky to adapt.

Let’s look how to fix a white sky now with a practical example.

Fixing the White Skies Technique no. 1 – Selection and Replacement

Open your image. For this example I’ve chosen a very famous monument, The Big Ben in London.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

As you can see the sky is completely white except for the right bottom corner where is slightly gray.

We want to replace this dull sky with a bright blue one. In order to do that we will use the first sky picture which I shown up here. It is perfect because we have to consider the normal climate of London. London is generally windy and cloudy but I’m sure that a beautiful sky appropriately chose may even better put in evidence the monument.

Open your image that needs the new sky in Photoshop together with the sky image that you want to blend.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

You can replace the sky in a number of different ways. The basic principle is that you have to remove the white sky. The more it is white and contrasted, compared with the other elements of the photo, the better is the selection.

Step 1

Duplicate the main layer and hide that one called Background. This is just a safe measure to be sure to be able to return on your steps if something goes wrong.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 2

Select theMagic Wand Selectiontool, set a tolerance of 10 and click on the white sky. Refine the selection holding the MAIUSC key to select more areas and clicking again on the missing areas.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 3

Click on CANC button. You have now the old white sky as an empty area ready to be filled in. Deselect the area by clicking CTRL+D.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 4

Drag the background layer from the sky image into the main image. It will appear at the top of the layer list.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 5

Rename it as “Sky”. Drag the Sky layer and move it under the main visible one. Move and size it appropriately to cover the transparent area.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 6

We have now to do some minor adjustments to make it looking better and more natural. In this case the sky is too dark for the image. Using tools like the Exposure and Curves to lighten it we can makeit blending better with the overall lightness of the Big Ben image.

Stay on the Sky level and go to Image > Adjustments> Exposure. Play a little with Exposure and Offset settings to light up the sky.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Then go again on Image > Adjustments>Curves. Again, play a little with Curves. At this point the blending is done.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

The sky has now the right color and light accordingly with the rest of the photo.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

As you can see, by choosing appropriately the right sky, we have avoided that annoying halo effect around peaks and towers that sometimes affect and complicate the blending operation. This may occur particularly when trees or other minute elements are part of the skyline. Making an accurate selection may be difficult or too long with foliage, trees or subtle elements. Let’s see how to proceed with those images.

Fixing the White Skies Technique No. 2 – “Blend If” Tool Method

Blend If is a useful tool that you find by double-clicking theAdd a Layer Style icon at the foot line of the Layers palette and selecting Blending Options.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

A new dialog box called Layer Style will open. The Blend If tool is in the bottom part, as shown.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Blend If blends two layers on the basis of lightnessand color values in the layers.

It is equipped with some little sliders measuring levels from 0 (black in the grayscale) to 255 (white). Changing the sliders positions make visible or not what is below blending the two overlapped levels. Everything to the left of the black slider and everything to the right of the white slider becomes transparent.

The blending effect may also be smoothed by splitting the sliders.To split the sliders just hold the ALT key and drag away one half of the slider. Drag the two pieces apart. You can do the same for all sliders depending on what you need to do.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Between the two pieces the effect has a transition from 100% through to 0% on the basis of the distance between them.

This tool could be really helpful to replace washed out skies, let’s see how.

Step 1

Open both the image that needs the new sky and the sky image that you want to blend with Photoshop.

This time I’ve chose the Toda-ji temple in Nara (Japan) and another sky.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 2

Drag the background layer from the sky image into the main image. It will appear at the top of the layer list.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 3

Double-click the Add a Layer Style icon at the foot line of the Layers palette and select Blending Options.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 4

In the Layer Style dialog box move the sliders of the Blend If tool. In this case we want the background level appearing so we will act on the Underlying Layer sliders. Moving the sliders and splitting them holding the ALT key we will see the temple appears under the sky.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Step 5

As you can see below the two gold horns are dirty with blue.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Open again the Blend If tool. This time select the Blue Channel from the dropdown menu and move the sliders as we have already seen.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

The blue disappears from the gold leaving the horns clean.

The Blend If is very useful but obviously it is not the “definitive” tool. It helps a lot with problematic and wispy areas, giving good results but to do even better you should combine it power with layer masks. If the dirty areas, as in example, are larger, by applying a mask to the layer you will conceal the areas.

In our example we can apply a layer mask to cover the golden horns and all those area we are not satisfied with.

Step 6

Click the Apply Layer Mask button to apply a mask to the sky level.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Choose a small and soft brush, select the black color and start to paint on the area that you want to cover.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Done! The sky has been replaced successfully.

instantShift - Creating an Archive and Blending to Enhance Washed Photos

Conclusion

There are many methods to replace a dull sky of a picture. We have seen a couple of them and played a little with some useful tools.The same techniques can be differently used in a number of ways.

To tell the truth there isn’t a unique best technique. Each photo is different and requires some minor adjustment differences. Just trying by yourself you can develop the sight for the right tool. Collecting sky photos could be useful and fun. Consider the sky as the wind tablet and the clouds as the paint and you will discover thousands of images inside clouds.

Try by yourself, experiment, take a lot of photos and have a lot of fun!

Other Resources

Image Credit

Find Something Missing?

While writing this tutorial, it’s always a possibility that we missed some other great tips. Feel free to share it with us.

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10 Comments

  1. wow! excellent tutorials on photography. I’m thinking of getting into astrophotraphy so these tutorials well help me a lot thx! bookmarked. :)

  2. Thank you for this, this would really help me out in my road to polishing my very basic camera skills. Do you recommend a starter camera that is both easy to use and very functional?

  3. Hi Sydney,
    I suggest you at least to buy a “bridge” camera, something which allows to customize settings. Obviously, if you can afford it, a DSLR camera is highly recommended…

  4. excellent tutorial

  5. wow! excellent tutorials on photography.

  6. useful post… thanks

  7. Some Fantastic images here, some really creative, some excellent timing.

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