3 Simple Steps to Make Your Skies Pop in Lightroom

3 Simple Steps to Make Your Skies Pop in Lightroom

Photo of Monument Valley: Example of sky enhancement with Lightroom.

You take a photograph of a scene that includes a beautiful blue sky with puffy white clouds. You look at your LCD after taking the photo only to see that the sky your camera captured is not what you see in front of you. Instead, your camera captured a washed-out-looking sky with little or no detail. It looks overexposed. What to do?

You could take another picture, reducing the exposure so that the sky looks better. But if you do that, the foreground will be underexposed and maybe even black. So what now?

There is good news here, and it is that Lightroom can fix this problem easily and incredibly quickly. In fact, there are three quick steps you can take in Lightroom that will each dramatically improve the daytime sky in your pictures. They are all dead simple. You can do any one of the steps, or do all three together. Even if your sky already looks pretty good, and you just want a minor enhancement, these steps will help.

Photo of Big Sur: Example of sky enhancement using Lightroom

1. Darken the Blues

The first move you should make is to darken the blue tones in your image. This is simple to do in the HSL/Color/B&W panel in Lightroom’s Develop module. There you will see a number of sliders that control individual colors. You can adjust the hue, the amount of saturation, or the luminance of these colors. Use the sliders – specifically the  blue slider – to affect only the blue tones in the image and reduce the brightness of those tones. Just find the slider marked Blue, make sure that the panel is set to change Luminosity, and pull the slider to the left. There is no set amount or range of values for this change, it will just depend on each picture.

HSL/Color/B&W panel in Lightroom's Develop Module

If you need more punch to the blues, change the setting above to saturation, and push the Blue slider to the right. This will increase the saturation of the blues in your image. For our purposes here, what is important to know, is that increasing the saturation of the blues will make the luminosity adjustment you just made have even more bite.

You should see a dramatic improvement in your sky, just with this one move. Sometimes it is all you need to do. But for additional improvements, read on.

Note: be careful not to go too far. Pulling one color to extremes can cause banding (separation of the colors into stripes, not a smooth transition) or image degrading. 

Photo taken from Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys: Example of sky enhancement using Lightroom

2. Control the Highlights

It might have surprised you that our first move was not to tone down the highlights of the image. After all, that is where the problem lies. The sky is so bright that there is little detail in it, and a reduction in the highlights will target those tones and add detail.

Highlights control in Basic panel of Lightroom's develop module

But recall that part of what makes a sky look great is deep rich blue tones combined with bright white clouds. If you crank down the highlights, yes, you will add detail to the clouds, but you will push the tones of the blues and whites together so that there will not be the strong contrast you want. That’s why we started with darkening the blue tones.

If there is already sufficient detail in your clouds, you do not need to do anything further. In fact, sometimes you may want to increase the Whites or the Highlights to create more contrast between the blue sky and white clouds.

Other times, however, your sky will still be too bright and the clouds will lack detail. In that case, it is time to tone down the brightest portions of the image to add some detail. Do that by pulling down the highlights of your image. You want to do just enough that you add detail in the sky, but not so much that your clouds turn grey. Let the histogram be your guide. Pull the Highlights slider to the left until any spike on the right side of your histogram moves to the left (use the Alt/Option button to see where the highlights are clipped). At the same time, you should be adding detail to your sky.

Photo of Lighthouse on Sanibel Island, Florida: Example of sky enhancement using Lightroom

3. Add a Blue Tint to the Sky

At this point, your sky should be looking very good. In fact, in most cases, the two moves above should be all you need. If you have a particularly flat and lifeless sky, however, you may need to break out the big guns. That means adding a tint to your sky.

To do this, you will need to employ the Adjustment Brush (actually, you can use the Adjustment Brush for either of the two steps above, but you usually won’t need to). Click on the Adjustment Brush, then when the sliders for the brush appear, go to the White Balance ones at the top. Move the Temp slider to the left, which will increase the amount of blue in the image.

Adjustment brush and tint controls in Basic panel of Lightroom's develop module

Before you apply the brush to the sky, there is one important thing you need to check. Make sure the “Auto Mask” box at the bottom of the Adjustment Brush panel is checked. Doing so will limit the brush to the sky only. Once that is checked, go ahead and brush in the effect where you want it.

When you are done, you can adjust the effect by moving the blue slider (or any other sliders you might want to change). When you close the Adjustment Brush, the sky should be blue and look much better.

Photo of the Portland Head Light: Example of sky enhancement using Lightroom

Application

The old adage about “getting it right in-camera” still applies. Try to get your skies looking as good as possible in the field with proper exposure techniques. Further, if you have a polarizing filter, that will make midday skies look much better. You might also employ a graduated neutral density filter to tone down the sky and make it even with the foreground.

When these techniques won’t work, however, Lightroom can make your skies look dramatically better. Of course, you could also use blending or HDR techniques, but these can appear surreal and involve much more work. The same goes for a wholesale sky replacement.

So next time, use Lightroom to achieve the desired effect simply. You can use these steps along with your normal workflow to make your photos look even better.


Here on dPS this is landscape week – here is list of what we’ve covered so far. Watch for a new article (or two) on landscape photography daily for the next day or so.

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Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his brand new Lightroom Course where Digital Photography School readers can use the Promo Code "DPS25" to get 25% off!