Singing “Home on the Range,“ a cowboy might picture the perfect place where “the skies are not cloudy all day.”
A cloudless day might appeal to many people, but not to landscape photographers.
The so-called “bluebird day” generally makes for poor landscape photographs with a boring, featureless sky. Maybe you’ve also heard this: “When the weather gets bad, the photos get good.”
So what do you do when Mother Nature gives you few or no clouds to work with? Let’s look at some tips for dramatic skies.
If there are no clouds at all to work with, your options while shooting are pretty limited. You may want to compose your shot so that there is little, if any, sky. However, if you have even a few clouds to work with, here are some ways to make the most of them:
Polarizing filter effectiveness depends on the angle of your shot in relation to the angle of the sun. The strongest effect is with the sun 90 degrees to the direction your camera is pointing; you get varying degrees of effectiveness at other angles.
Look through the viewfinder, rotate the polarizer, and watch as the contrast between the sky and clouds changes. Sometimes this will be very dramatic, especially with white puffy clouds on a blue sky.
Adjust to your taste, backing off a bit if needed. There is such a thing as too much, however, so remember:
What you do with a polarizer when making the shot can’t easily be undone later in post-processing. Be careful when using a polarizing filter in combination with a wide-angle lens. Parts of the sky may darken more than others across the shot, giving an unusual look you probably won’t like, one that is tough to fix later.
Landscape photographers often deal with a wide dynamic range between a bright sky and a much darker foreground. Should you expose for the sky or the land, the highlights or the shadows?
A graduated ND filter that goes from a darker density at the top to clear at the bottom can help even out the exposure. The advent of digital editing tools that emulate this in editing has caused many photographers to dispense with using these filters.
One advantage to working without a GND is that you can change your mind later if you don’t want a GND effect. You can also better deal with scenes where the horizon isn’t perfectly straight across. Still, some photographers favor the traditional graduated ND filter in certain circumstances.
Rather than use a graduated ND filter in the field to even-out a composition with a bright sky and dark foreground, take multiple bracketed shots while varying the shutter speed (but not the aperture).
Many cameras have this feature built-in, so you can make a series of bracketed shots with one press of the shutter button. Having a series of the same shot taken at varied exposures will give you the raw materials for some of the editing techniques we’re about to explore.
Sometimes you are able to capture an image that has clouds in the scene, but they are underwhelming and need some editing help to give them extra pizzazz. Let’s look at some tips for dramatic skies using standard editing techniques.
Lightroom is usually my editor of choice, and so the techniques I’ll mention next will use it as a reference. The concepts should translate fine to other editors, however, so if you grasp the ideas you’ll be able to implement the same changes, whether you use Capture One, ON1 Photo RAW, ACDSee, or something else.
Whatever you’re photographing, work to keep your exposure “in-bounds.” That is to say: Don’t blow out the highlights on the right side of the histogram or block up the shadows pushing them past the left side of the histogram. Whether working with a dark or light shot, or maybe an image with both light and dark extremes, if the entire histogram is “between the goalposts,” then you have an image that is workable.
That said, whenever possible, use the ETTR (expose-to-the-right) method. If you are not familiar with this, I suggest you read up on it. The greatest amount of data in a photo file is in the brighter tones. If you have a bright sky (and are trying to get some detail in the clouds) combined with a darker foreground, it is better to have to darken the image while editing. You can purposely expose for the highlights and get the sky correct in-camera, but then you may be later faced with trying to brighten up the shadows. A cleaner, less noisy image will result if you have to later bring down the highlights rather than if you drag up dark shadows “out of the mud.”
Also, we are talking about editing a RAW file, not a JPEG. If you are still shooting JPEGs then you have already limited what you can recover. If you don’t shoot RAW images, I suggest you stop here, learn why and how to shoot and work with RAW files, and then come back.
It’s maybe harsh, but if you want to be a more skilled editor and do things like recover cloudy skies, then learning how to work with RAW files is a prerequisite. ‘Nuff said.
Here is my standard workflow in Lightroom for just about any image. If there are clouds in the shot, it’s Step One that brings them alive.
How much to adjust any of the sliders will depend on the image. In general, this simple workflow will get your image “in the ballpark” and likely help start bringing out detail in the sky.
You may want to move onto other global adjustments like Texture, Clarity, Dehaze, Vibrance, and Saturation, because you can adjust those to your taste. If, however, your sky needs special help, it’s time for some local adjustments.
It’s quite possible your sky will need some local adjustments to give it the look you seek. If you’re not familiar with Lightroom’s local adjustment tools and techniques, DPS writer Andrew S. Gibson has written a good article on that subject.
I will add a couple of things to try when using Lightroom’s local adjustment tools to help accentuate your sky and clouds:
I mentioned bracketing your shots while shooting high dynamic range subjects, such as with the bright-sky/dark-land combination you may often encounter.
When editing, having multiple bracketed images to work with will offer all kinds of possibilities. One of them is the ability to do HDR (high dynamic range) work within Lightroom. This is a whole lesson unto itself, and I suggest you learn it.
After producing an HDR image from multiple images merged in Lightroom, you’ll have a 32-bit file to work with, rather than the standard 24-bit single image files you are accustomed to dealing with.
The image will now have 10 stops of exposure adjustment (the Lightroom Exposure slider will go from a +/- 5 range to a +/- 10 range).
Make your bracketed shots so the darkest image captures all the bright sky detail and the brightest image picks up all the shadow detail. Combined into a single 32-bit HDR DNG image in Lightroom, you’ll have lots of adjustment possibilities to get a just-right exposure with good sky detail.
You can do a lot in Lightroom, but sometimes you need more control and more power. One of the things Photoshop offers that Lightroom doesn’t is layers. Here are some tips for dramatic skies using Photoshop for editing.
You will need at least two shots with different exposures for this technique. Let’s outline a very simple approach.
The multi-layer masking approach can also work well if you use Photoshop selections to choose what you will keep from one layer and use from the other layer. Selection techniques can be simple or very complex in Photoshop, depending on how complex a selection you need to make. I will point you to a good entry point for further study: this article by DPS writer Yacine Bessekhouad.
Perhaps you only made one shot, didn’t bracket and, despite some of your editing techniques, the sky and clouds still seem a little wimpy. Never fear.
Here’s something else to in Photoshop:
In the rock classic “Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix sang, “S’cuse me while I kiss the sky.” Some people later thought the lyrics to be “kiss this guy;” that’s called a misheard song lyric or mondegreen. A website is devoted to them. As a photographer, I prefer to sing my own version: “S’cuse me while I switch the sky.”
Sometimes when there’s no clouds at all, or a plain blue sky, a plain gray overcast sky, or maybe you blew out the sky and there’s nothing to recover, you’re left with no alternative. A sky replacement is needed.
Other times, you just want a different sky for a more dramatic effect.
Whatever the case, substituting skies is a great way to get some nice images and a really great way to polish your editing skills.
Sometimes sky replacement is an easy task, such as when you have a flat horizon or perhaps a hard-edged building against the sky.
Of course, if you have trees with leaves or intricate details to select, it can be much more challenging.
My goal here is not to teach you the various techniques of sky replacement. There are many instructional articles and online tutorials for that. Here’s an example from DPS writer Simon Ringsmuth for basic level sky replacement. Here’s an online Youtube tutorial where a more detailed foreground tree is dealt with. Here’s yet another tutorial with different techniques.
As I said, sky replacement can be a deep dive into Photoshop tools and techniques. But what if there was a simpler way? We’re now beginning to see one-click tools that do a pretty good job of sky replacement.
Sky replacement software has been around for a few years, but it’s only been recently that it’s produced good results with relatively complex subjects. The use of artificial intelligence in applications has made a huge difference in the quality of the finished image.
The “king of the hill” at this writing may be Skylum’s Luminar 4.
Luminar 4 comes with a few dozen skies you can use as replacement, and you can add your own skies.
(If you’re serious about getting into sky replacement, I would strongly encourage you to start collecting sky images, snapping shots whenever you see an interesting sky and adding them to a folder for possible later use.)
Something to bear in mind when deciding whether to use the included skies or your own is resolution. The replacement sky should have a resolution at least as great or greater than the image to which you’ll be adding it. Using a low-res sky image with a higher-res original image will just look bad and degrade your shot.
A confession here:
I have only dabbled with sky replacements in Luminar 4 using the free demo version, so I don’t claim to be an expert. I am reasonably impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Even with a fairly complex subject, such as the harbor shot below with lots of sailboat masts and rigging extending into the sky, it did a very nice job.
Might you do better with Photoshop? I guess that would depend on your skill level. Artificial intelligence has not yet reached the level of human skills and intelligence. Then again, much will depend on your level of proficiency with Photoshop. Speaking for myself, I’m not sure I could currently do better than Luminar at this time.
And doing it with a few simple clicks? Good stuff, if you ask me!
Luminar isn’t the only program for doing sky replacements. I work on a PC and my tablet and phone are Android devices, so I’m not as familiar with what’s on the Apple side of this kind of software. I do know other forms of software are moving toward the use of AI and doing sky replacement.
I was pleased to stumble across an Android app that may not be as refined as Luminar. And for images you might shoot with your phone and want to do a sky replacement for the web, Enlighten’s Quickshot does an admirable job and is very easy to use, right on your phone. I see it is also available for iOS.
So if you can, does that mean you should? If you can replace the sky in a photo, should you? When does the result stop being a photograph and become an art piece, a reflection of the skills of a photo editor and not those of a photographer? Would you enter an image in a photo contest where you had replaced the sky?
I don’t claim to have the answers, but I have raised the ethical questions surrounding sky replacement before. Take a look at this article I wrote several years ago which dives deeper into that subject.
Have you ever had the misfortune of watching a really bad magician? A show where it is clearly evident the performer really did have something up his sleeve or where there was no doubt about how the trick was done? I’d use that example as a lesson in what not to do if you decide to do sky replacement with your photos.
A shot where the light in the sky comes from one side while the subjects in the foreground are lit from the other side would be an example of “bad magic.” So would different light temperatures between land and sky or evident fringing where poor selection and masking was done. Rather than embarass yourself with a poorly executed sky replacement where even non-photographers can spot the fakery, practice your skills for yourself only. I believe only when you’re ready for “primetime” should you begin showing your sky replacement images.
Then, of course, you will face a new dilemma. Once people are aware you can produce shots with amazing skies, even when you do capture a photo in-camera with a gorgeous sky they will wonder, “Is that real or did you add it?”
I hope you picked up some good tips for dramatic skies in this article. I also hope you’ll give consideration into not just when and how to implement these techniques, but if you should or shouldn’t.
Some people really don’t enjoy photo editing and would prefer to do everything in-camera as much as possible. For others, editing is part of the craft and no photo is complete until it has undergone an extensive edit session.
As I write this, the Covid-19 crisis lingers, and so maybe you have more time at home to work on your editing skills. Meanwhile, let me leave you with this sign-off used by Garrison Keillor, host of the radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”