Facebook Pixel S'cuse Me While I Tweak the Sky: Tips for Dramatic Skies in Your Photos

S’cuse Me While I Tweak the Sky: Tips for Dramatic Skies in Your Photos

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.

Tips for Dramatic Skies - Sky needs work
There’s a good sky here, but it’s going to take some coaxing to bring it out.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4 | 1/4 sec | f/18 | ISO 200

In camera

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:

Use a polarizing filter

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.

Tips for Dramatic Skies - Wide angle plus polarizer a bad combination
A wide-angle lens (this shot was made at 17mm) plus a polarizer can be a bad combination. Note how the sky is darker in some places than others. This would have been better without the polarizer.

Use a graduated neutral density (GND) filter

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.

Bracket

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.

In edit

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.

Basic sky editing

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.

  • Adjust the exposure slider. Don’t worry too much about making it just right. you’ll fine-tune again later.
  • Bring down the highlights. How much? Look at your image and watch the histogram as you work.
  • Open up the shadows. Move the slider to the right. Watch the image and the istogram.
  • Set your white point. There are several ways to do this. I like this method: Hold down the Alt key (Option on Mac). Click and hold the Whites slider. The image will turn black. Now while holding the key and the mouse button down, slowly move the slider to the right until you see a few specks of white on the image. Slide back left a bit if necessary. What you’re doing is making the points that you should into the brightest (whitest) points in the image. They will set the extreme right point on the histogram.
  • Set your black point. This technique is the same: Holding down the Alt/Option key, click the Blacks slider, hold, and drag left. The screen will go white until you reach a point where some black specks appear. I sometimes find I will allow a few more black specks (totally black) points to affect an image than white points, but that depends on the image.
  • Re-adjust your exposure and contrast. You may need to go back now and re-adjust your Exposure slider a bit and/or adjust the Contrast slider.
Tips for dramatic skies - Basic Lightroom editing
With just some basic Lightroom editing, the clouds look better already.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4 | 1/4 sec | f/18 | ISO 200

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.

Going local

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:

  • Try the Range Masking tools to better select your sky. Used in combination with the Graduated Filter, the Radial Filter, and the Adjustment Brush, you’ll be able to apply your effects where you want them and not where you don’t.
  • Try using the Clarity and Dehaze sliders when seeking to tune the sky to achieve the look you want. Go easy, though. It’s easy to go way overboard, especially with the Dehaze slider.
Tips for dramatic skies - Local editing in Lightroom
Combine a Graduated Filter with the Luminance Range Mask in Lightroom to select the sky. Then use the sliders to get the look you seek.
Tips for dramatic skies - After Lightroom treatments
Now we’re talking! Compare this to the original image at the top of the article.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4 | 1/4 sec | f/18 | ISO 200

Multiple shots: HDR in Lightroom

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - Lightroom HDR
5 bracketed images are merged into a single HDR photo in Lightroom.

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - finished Lightroom HDR
The 32-bit DNG file created after a merge-to-HDR routine in Lightroom gives a much larger exposure range to work with.

Moving to Photoshop

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.

Blending

You will need at least two shots with different exposures for this technique. Let’s outline a very simple approach.

(You will need to use layers and masks in Photoshop, so if you’re not familiar with those, here’s your chance to learn.)

  1. This will work best if you shoot from a tripod so your images are identical except for exposure. Shoot at least two shots, one exposed to capture all the bright details in the sky, the other exposed for the darker areas of the land.
  2. If you’re coming from Lightroom, highlight both images, then click Photo>Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop. Have the lighter image on top.
  3. To be sure the images are sized and aligned perfectly, select both layers in Photoshop (F7 turns on the layers palette), click the first layer, hold down Shift and click the second layer, and then from the top menu click Edit>Auto-Align Layers>OK.
  4. Create a mask on the top layer. (With the top layer selected, click the Add Layer Mask icon, which looks like a rectangle with a circle in it).
  5. Use the Brush Tool with the color set to Black. Click on the mask you just created. Now paint over the sky. As you do, you will reveal the darker sky layer underneath. Adjusting brush size, opacity, and brush softness will help you better control things.
Tips for dramatic skies - Exposure Blending with two exposures in Photoshop
One shot exposed for the sky, the other for the land. I then layered, aligned, and blended using a mask in Photoshop.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - Targeted Adjustment tool in Lightroom
Here’s a different technique to try when you have a blue sky and not much additional blue in your shot. Use the Lightroom targeted adjustment tool in the HSL/Color panel to bring down the luminance level of the blue. You can go even further with a monochrome conversion. The look is similar to having used a polarizing filter.

Do some multiplying

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:

  • Make a duplicate of the layer. (Ctrl/Cmd + J.) You will have two duplicate layers on top of each other.
  • Duplicate that copy again so you now have three duplicate copies. Temporarily turn off the bottommost layer (probably labeled “Background”) by clicking the eyeball icon.
  • Now, change the blend mode to Multiply. The detail and contrast in the clouds should be amplified.
  • Duplicate again for further amplification.
  • Repeat with additional duplicates; hit Ctrl/Cmd + J as desired to keep duplicating. until the sky turns the way you’d like. Don’t worry about the foreground just yet.
  • To reduce the duplicates into one layer, merge the visible layers: Layer>Merge Visible (or Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + E).
  • You will now have just two layers, the merged layers and the background layer. Turn the Background layer back on by clicking the eyeball again.
  • You will now need to use one of the selection and masking techniques to mask out (“erase”) the probably over-darkened land/foreground portion of the top layer.
Tips for dramatic skies - Using a multiply blending layer
Here I brought the shot into Photoshop, made a duplicate, and then applied the Multiply blend mode to the top layer. Bringing back the darker portion was easy here with a straight horizon line. This look is similar to what you might get with a traditional glass graduated ND filter.

S’cuse me while I switch the sky

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.”

Tips for dramatic skies - The boring original
Could this sky be any more boring? Let’s help it.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4 | 1/60 sec | f/8 | ISO 100

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - Nice donor sunset
Now here’s a nice sunset. Let’s work a piece of this in.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4 | f/11 | ISO 200

With Photoshop

Tips for dramatic skies
Put the clouds layer on top, then use a black brush on a white mask and paint to reveal the lower beach area again.
Tips for dramatic skies
Back in Lightroom for some more fine-tuning. Isn’t this a much nicer image than the original?

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - A No-Cloud day
Some might have called this a perfect day when this historic train rolled into the Boise (Idaho) Union Pacific Depot. Not a cloud in the sky. Boring! At least with the hard, straight lines and continuous blue color, making a selection is easy.

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - Good clouds
Here’s a dramatic sky. But will it work?
Tips for dramatic skies - Does it work?
Impressive, but does it work? Might you question if this really was the sky that was present when the photo was taken?

With Luminar 4

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - Luminar 4 Before and After
This was an easy job for Luminar 4 and this stock sky looks pretty convincing.

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.)

Tips for dramatic skies - Before Luminar 4
Nice shot, but it would be better with a dramatic sky.
Canon 6D | Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 | 200mm | 1/30 sec | f/16 | ISO 100

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.

Tips for dramatic skies - After Luminar 4
This sunset sky in the Luminar 4 collection was just right for this shot. The program also let me tune the color balance of the original image to match more effectively.

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!

Tips for dramatic skies - A tougher challenge for Luminar
With the masts and rigging extending into the sky, replacing the sky with Photoshop selection tools, layers, and masks would be challenging. With Luminar 4, it was done with a few clicks. Perfect? Maybe not, but impressive. It added the birds, too!

Other tools

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.

Tips for drmatic skies - sky replacement with Quickshot on Android
I replaced the sky in this shot right on my Android phone. I used Quickshot, a pretty good little app. For online work that will be posted on the web, it seems plenty capable.

Ethics of sky switching

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.

If you’re going to do magic…

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?”

Tips for dramatic skies - Real or Not?
If you’re going to “do magic” and replace skies, it had better be convincing. You tell me: Is this the original sky or not?

Conclusion

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.”

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Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.