Replacing Boring Skies

Surely you’ve run into this before: you’re in a place that you want to show off through some great photos, but the weather is against you. There’s a dull gray sky with no room for creativity. You have a subject that’s interesting, but the rest is boring. In most cases you can make use of tone mapping, gradient filters and the like, but there are also cases where there’s no adjustment that can make the sky look good, and yet something does have to be done with it. There is one last resort—replacing the sky.

A boring, bland sky that adds nothing to a photo. Photography lovers run into this kind of problem often. That’s why in today’s article we’ll be presenting a brief guide on how to replace an uninteresting sky using Zoner Photo Studio.

However, I’d like to start by warning you not to use skies downloaded from the Internet. Use only your own, photographed e.g. in better weather. Not only are Internet photos often low-quality, above all they’re someone else’s property and creativity. And after all, you have some self-respect, right? You don’t want to show off with a picture whose best part isn’t your own work.

The First Step—Choosing the Right Pictures

Your first task is to choose one photo where you want to replace the sky, and a second one with a “replacement” sky.

For illustration I’ve gone through my own photo archive and picked out a photo where replacing the sky could only improve it. I took it once upon a time in some palace gardens. The gardens were lovely, but the sky was gray, with uncontoured clouds. And it was raining too. Mainly for this reason, the photograph is boring and drab. But it’s a perfect fit for showing off how to exchange skies.

Nikon D7000, Samyang 8mm f/3.5 This is the photograph that I’d like to spice up.

Nikon D7000, Samyang 8mm f/3.5
This is the photograph that I’d like to spice up.

I’ve also found another with a spicier sky. It’s this picture here, taken just outside a city. The picture overall isn’t too usable, but its weather is markedly better. So I’ll be borrowing the upper part of its sky.

Nikon D7000, Samyang 8mm f/3.5 A boring photo with a better sky.

Nikon D7000, Samyang 8mm f/3.5
A boring photo with a better sky.

Both photographs were taken with the same focal length, which will help me avoid believability problems caused by shot width differences.

The Second Step—Overlaying the Photos

Before moving on to the second step—overlaying the photos—I need to deal with the fact that the first photo has the kind of faded colors that are typical for bleak weather. And that the second photo, meanwhile, was taken in bright sunlight.

So we’ll add color to the original photo and contrast as well, and make other changes as needed. Note that if the second photo had the sun in it, I’d have to position it so as to leave the original photo’s shadows leaning in the right direction.

Since I’m satisfied with the picture’s colors, I use Image Overlay to lay the sky photo onto the base photo. The original sky is white, so the light part of the sky is already there for me. I just need to also get the blue part into this area. So I choose the Darken blending mode. This also helps me avoid making the sky cover the “non-white part” of the photo.

Covering one photo with another in Darken mode.

Covering one photo with another in Darken mode.

Before clicking Apply, I will need to deselect the lower part of the photo—the part with no sky in it. Here the best way to do this is to take the Selection Brush and keep only the sky area. For complicated photos, you can use other selection tools as well.

Removing the bottom part of the selection.

Removing the bottom part of the selection.

As the illustration shows, this is not the kind of selection you need to sweat over for hours. Rough is enough. Thanks to the Darken blending mode, the new sky is only really visible in bright areas. That eliminates the need to make a complicated selection around the tree branches, smokestacks and the like.

The final version and the original. To see the changes, click and drag the slider between the pictures.

Is This Still a Photo?

An edited photo doesn’t really have any documentary value. This picture basically lies about how my trip went. But sometimes in life you just want to create a pretty picture instead of capturing reality.

In many cases I use this approach with two pictures of the same sky, where I shoot a light and a dark version, and then join them together for a final result. In some cases this is more natural and personal than doing an “automatic join” via HDR.

I personally prefer blending in a second picture of the same sky, because it still contains the essence of the first picture. In any case, just keep in mind that this kind of edit, useful though it is, pulls you away from photography towards the graphic arts.

Does your sky need some enhancement? Download Zoner Photo Studio, use it free for 30 days for your photo edits. If you have any questions, ask our support at support@zoner.com.

Last updated 9. September 2015

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Author: Matej Liska

Comments

  • TerryB

    Great tutorial. One thing though, and it will seem a dumb question as I don’t do this type of image editing, but now feel I ought to, how exactly did you import the sky image to overlay the original?

    On a general note, this method looks far more natural to my eyes than HDR and, yes, it’s not the real thing, but only you would know that. Just let others admire our “seeing eye”. Unless something looks really unnatural to us we take what we see as reality.

    One thing I definitely would have done is edit out the crane! :D)

    • Zoner

      Thanks for your comment, Terry!
      To overlay the original, you choose Place Image (key I) and then Paste from File. Find the picture you’d like to insert and voilà, it’s there.

      This kind of editing is always a matter of everyone’s photo-ethique, so there is no right and wrong. And we’ve also happened to see very nice examples of HDR – you actually wouldn’t tell it’s HDR :).

      • Dgsage

        Hello, I am sorry but if I do that I just have the photo overlaid covering completely the original one. How do you select the sky from the first one or how do you select the part you want to keep in the first one. I am very knew at using Zoner and try to recover the use of layers I had an other software I used to work with.

  • Brian Evans

    Well it was fascinating, but as a beginner, I understood about 10% of it. Doubtless many people thought it was a breeze, but please bear the beginners in mind now and then.

    • Zoner

      Thank you Brian for your comment – is there anything we can explain better, maybe in other articles? Please feel free to write us to magazine@zonerama.com what you want to read about. Thank you for your feedback!

  • Paolo Gennari

    Questi tutorial, sono interessanti , ma non esplicativi, occorrerebbe specificare i vari passaggi che si devono compiere per arrivare al risultato finale, solo cosi il tutorial avrebbe la sua funzionalità.

    • Zoner

      Thank you for your feedback, we’ll try to be more specific next time.

  • Sam

    Yes, a very good tutorial indeed. The finished photo is far more pleasing to the eye, and although it is now not an accurate part of your day, it will, in the fullness of time become so. Better to edit the photo as you have done, than have it deleted because of its drabness, the palace would then not be part of “your day”, and therefore not a true record either. A catch 22, be damned if you do, or damned if you don’t.

    • Zoner

      Well, it always depend why you take photographs. We think both, author and you are right. :)

  • Dan O

    An excellent article. I must disagree with the statement “… keep in mind that this kind of edit, useful though it is, pulls you away from photography towards the graphic arts.” I think we need to make the distinction between journalistic and artistic photography more clear.

    If you’re not presenting your photo as an accurate representation of what was there, if you offer your photo as an image that communicates something of the feeling that you had at the time, then you’re allowed much greater freedom in editing. Ansel Adams is said to have made 10 or more versions of his famous photo of the moon over Half Dome before settling on the one that we all know and love. (The final version has a darkened sky to lend drama to the image.) Is that not photography?

    Cameras don’t always capture what our eyes see, and they certainly don’t capture what we feel. I’m not a journalist, I’m a photographer, and it’s not just a freedom, but a driving force of my art to edit images so that they better reflect the emotion, the story, the drama of my subject.

    • Zoner

      Nicely said, that’s definitely a good point too, thank you!