You’ve been off on your travels and come back with some decent photos . The problem is, the weather wasn’t great with uninspiring cloud cover washing out many of your skies to white.
Even more frustrating is when the sky in another direction is much more interesting.
It’s a common situation, but something we can change quite easily in our photo editing suites.
One of the first things you will need to do, starts with your camera. You will need to shoot lots of interesting skies. The key to a useful sky for this purpose is to shoot towards the horizon. This means any clouds will have the same perspective as the shots you want to improve. Shoot with a third sky and again with two thirds sky to give you a range of options.
Choosing your Sky
One of the most important points to consider when swapping your sky, is the kind of light in the scene. Trying to change it too much will create an unrealistic effect. A bright blue sky with scudding white clouds won’t gel with a sombre scene shot under a leaden sky.
Different parts of the world also have different kinds of light. The UK has hazy light, especially around dawn and dusk which is one of the frustrations we face as photographers as our scene can be bathed in sunlight but the sky over the horizon is white. In the Mediterranean skies often have a more brilliant hue, so it’s worth keeping in mind wherever you are to capture some local skies.
Method 1, Selections.
This is the most commonly used method of swapping a sky. It works really well where edges are uncomplicated, such as the horizon over the sea, or architectural shots.
Step 1. Open the files.
Open the photograph you want to alter and the sky you want to insert. With sky file visible, press Ctrl A (hold the ctrl button down while you press A) to select all the picture. (If your sky is not visible, click on it’s name at the top left of the screen first). You should see the marching ants all around the edge indicating the selection. Press Ctrl C to copy that ready for pasting.
You now don’t need that file any more so you can close it.
Your main scene will now be visible.
Press Ctrl V to insert the sky. It will appear as a new layer in the right hand layers panel. Press on the eye icon immediately in front of the thumbnail to hide this layer for now.
Step 2. Making a selection.
Click on the background thumbnail in the layers panel to make sure you are working on the correct layer.
To change the sky we now need to select the parts you want to alter. This uses a tool that has improved tremendously over the years, the quick selection tool.
On the left hand side is the tool column. Right click on the selection tool to show the choices available and click on Quick Selection Tool. Swipe across the sky area while holding the mouse button down and a rough sky area will be selected.
There will be parts of the picture included in the selection that you don’t want to be there and parts that have not been picked up.
To refine the selection, look at the top bar under the main menu. This shows you the attributes of the tool you are currently using. Towards the left there are buttons with a brush and a plus and a brush and a minus. These are used to add little bits to the selection or take them away. To use them just brush over the areas you want to include or exclude while holding down your mouse button. You can keep making alterations until you are happy with the result. Zooming in to each area will help.
You can change the size of your brush to make finer alterations. I started with a 14 pixel here. The drop down box next to the number gives access to brush size.
When you are happy with the selection, click on your sky layer in the layers panel to highlight it, click on the eye icon again to make the layer visible, then click on add layer mask. This button is at the bottom of the layers panel and looks like a rectangle with a circle in it. The mask will appear next to the sky layer and your selection will be replaced with the new sky.
To get the part of the sky that best suits the image in the right place we want to move the sky without moving the mask. To do this, press the chain symbol between the sky thumbnail and the mask thumbnail. Click the sky thumbnail to make sure it is highlighted and select the move tool from the left hand tool menu.
This brings up a box around your sky image with tags on the sides and corners. Use these to change the size of your sky to enlarge or reduce the details. Moving the pointer inside the box area allows you to move the whole sky to position features where you want them.
I have positioned my clouds to sit over the hazy area to the left of my picture where the complicated edge was hard to mask. It gives the smoothest finish.
Double click inside the box to accept the changes.
All that remains is to make any basic adjustments you would like such as levels, contrast and cropping.
This is the completed image. It has an appropriate sky as the scene is bathed in sunlight. The original white sky was caused by the late afternoon haze. This was an ideal sky swap project.
You may have noticed that some areas are a little difficult to include in a selection. For scenes where the horizon is more complicated, we can use an entirely different technique which makes use of blend modes.
Method 2 Blend Modes
Open your two starting files as above.
In your sky file press Ctrl A > Ctrl C to select and copy your sky. Close the file and press Ctrl V to import the sky over the background layer.
Now double click on the sky layer thumbnail in the layers panel and the Layer Style dialogue box will pop up.
You will see a “blend if” option and drop down box where you can choose the colour of the underlying layer to blend away. In this case I want to blend away the light grey sky so I use the default gray setting. If you are replacing a blue sky, you would choose blue from the options.
The bottom slider labelled underlying layer is where the magic happens.
Move the dark marker to the right and watch as the the background layer appears. Adjust this slider until the sky is replaced. You can fine tune the effect by splitting the marker. To do this, hold down alt while left clicking the slider. Move right half to the right and left half to the left, watching your image until you are happy with the blend. Mine worked best with settings of 174 /245 as indicated above the slider.
The last step is to add a mask to stop the blend occurring where you don’t want it to. Choose the Polygonal Lasso from the tool menu. Hover the mouse at the top corner of the image and click to begin the selection. Swipe the mouse to the other top corner and click again. Swipe the mouse down the side to about an inch below your skyline. Swipe and click across the image keeping below the skyline. When you reach the other side of the image swipe to the top and click to join the lines. The marching ants will appear to show your selection.
Make sure the sky layer is the active one and click on Add layer mask at the bottom of the panel (rectangle symbol with circle inside). The mask thumbnail will appear next to the sky layer.
To finish, add any levels adjustments, crops or other fixes.
In this case I used levels, vibrance and saturation to boost contrast and colour followed by healing in the bottom corner to remove the distracting ripples.
As you can see it is a very quick and easy method when you have a single colour sky to replace.
Notice that I have used a bright sky for a bright sunlit photograph so the two areas don’t look at odds with each other.
Over to You
Why not give this a try on some of your own landscapes to add that extra bit off interest and take your shots from good to great.
I’d love to hear how you get on and if there are any improvements to made to this tutorial.
Thanks for reading and happy shopping :-)