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3 Simple Steps to Make Your Skies Pop in Lightroom

3 simple steps to make your skies pop in Lightroom

You photograph a scene that includes a beautiful blue sky with puffy white clouds. You’re excited – until you look down at your LCD, only to see that the sky your camera captured is not what you see in front of you. It’s washed out. It has little or no detail. It looks overexposed, colorless, and really, really boring. So what do you do?

Here’s the good news:

You can fix this problem both quickly and easily in Lightroom. And you don’t need to be a post-processing wizard to make it happen.

In fact, there are three editing steps you can use to make your daytime skies pop. Each step is dead simple, and you can do just one of the steps, or you can do all three together.

Even if your sky already looks pretty good, these steps will help! Here’s a teaser of what it’ll do for your photos (with the unedited photo on the left and the edited photo on the right):

Photo of Big Sur: Example of sky enhancement using Lightroom

So if you’re ready to improve your skies in Lightroom, then let’s get started!

1. Darken the blues

Here’s the first step to enhancing a sky:

Darkening the blues.

This is simple to do in the HSL/Color panel in Lightroom’s Develop module. You’ll see a number of sliders that control individual colors – and you can adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance (brightness) of each color.

So find the Blue slider. Remember, the goal is to reduce the brightness of just the blue tones.

Then click on Luminance:

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

And pull the Blue slider to the left.

How much should you adjust the Blue slider? Honestly, there’s no set amount or range of values for this change; it’ll just depend on each picture. But I don’t recommend making the blues too dark (otherwise, the sky will start to look unnatural).

Once you’ve made your Luminance adjustment, you may want to add more punch to the blues. So click on Saturation and push the Blue slider to the right. This will intensify the blues even further and give your luminance adjustment more bite.

By now, you should see a dramatic improvement in your sky. Sometimes, adjusting the blues is all you need to do!

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

Note: As mentioned above, be careful not to go too far. Adjusting the blues too heavily can cause banding (i.e., separation of the colors into stripes) and other forms of image degradation. 

2. Control the highlights

You may be wondering:

Why didn’t we start by toning down the highlights? After all, that would handle a lot of the washed-out areas of the sky.

The truth is 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 won’t be the strong contrast you want.

That’s why we started by darkening the blue tones.

By the way, after darkening the blues, take a careful look at your photo. If there is sufficient detail in the clouds, you don’t need to recover the bright areas further. In fact, you may even want to increase the Whites or the Highlights to create more contrast between the blue sky and the white clouds.

Other times, however, your sky will still be too bright and the clouds will lack detail (even after adjusting the blues). If that’s the case for your photo, it’s time to tone down the brightest portions of the image by pulling down the highlights.

Highlights control in Basic panel of Lightroom's develop module

Here, you want to add detail to the sky, but not so much that your clouds turn gray. Let the histogram be your guide. Pull the Highlights slider to the left until there are no histogram peaks pressing up against the right-hand side of the graph.

Ideally, you’ll get an effect like this:

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 steps shared above should be all you need to make your sky pop.

If you have a particularly flat and lifeless sky, however, you may want to bring out the big guns: adding a tint.

To do this, you’ll need the Adjustment Brush. (By the way, you can use the Adjustment Brush for either of the two steps above, but you usually won’t need to.)

So click on the Adjustment Brush icon:

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

Then find the Temp slider and drag it to the left. This will increase the amount of blue in the image – but only in places you paint with your brush.

Before you paint on the sky, there is one important thing you need to do:

Make sure the Auto Mask box at the bottom of the Adjustment Brush panel is checked. This will limit the brush to the sky so that it doesn’t bleed over into midground or foreground objects. Once Auto Mask is checked, go ahead and brush in the effect!

After you’ve brushed the relevant areas of the photo, you can always increase or decrease the blue tint by moving the Temp slider. You’ll end up with a beautiful blue sky!

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

When should you adjust your sky with Lightroom?

You can do a lot to enhance a sky in Lightroom.

But the old adage about getting it right in-camera still applies. Try to get your sky looking as good as possible in the field with proper exposure techniques. And if you have a polarizing filter, consider using it; the effect will make a midday sky look much better. You might also work with a graduated neutral density filter to tone down the sky and help balance it with the foreground.

Sometimes, with the proper techniques, you won’t even need Lightroom to improve a sky. But there will also be times when you just can’t get it looking right, or you make a mistake in the field (e.g., you accidentally overexpose the sky).

And that’s when you’ll want to use the steps I’ve discussed above.

So the next time your sky isn’t looking its best, try using Lightroom to achieve the effect you’re after. Follow the three steps I shared – alongside your normal workflow – to create breathtaking skies!

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

Enhancing skies in Lightroom: final words

Lightroom offers some powerful sky enhancement tools – and now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to use them for great results.

So find some photos that include washed-out skies. And practice improving them with Lightroom! Pretty soon, you’ll be a sky-editing master.

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Jim Hamel
Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel excels in showing aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. He is the creator of several courses here at Digital Photography School, including the popular 31 Days to Becoming a Better Photographer course. His book Getting Started in Photography has helped many begin their photographic journey. You can see his work on his website: JimHamelPhotography.com

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