You know what it's like, you sit there with your camera on a tripod, hoping for a break in the weather so there will be a dramatic sunset over some sprawling vista and instead of pyrotechnics it just gets darker and murkier. And then you go home, swearing never to bother with landscapes again. Or perhaps you were out with the family late in the afternoon, but they weren't too happy about going hungry and waiting around until 9pm in some wind-swept desolate location. Well don't despair, there's always something you can do to improve an image but those who feel digital chicanery is cheating better turn away now.
ORIGINAL IMAGE Here's the original image, and it's a grey day alright. The use of a narrow aperture has produced a slowish shutter speed so that the flowers in the foreground on the rocks are blurred in the wind. The idea is to improve it in a way that looks realistic.
SCREENGRABS AND IMAGES The screengrabs have been reduced in size so they fit on the page. Click on them to see the full size grab. Also, the original image is here for you to follow the tutorial through with if you want to have a go yourself. Just right click on it and select Save Target As. You can download the image where the sky was taken from by right clicking HERE and selecting Save Target As again.
STEP BY STEP
1. The first step is to find another image with a better sky. Here's one I took earlier. Use the Polygonal Lasso Tool to mark out the area of sky that you want to pinch then press Ctrl-C to copy it.
2. Switch to the dreary landscape and press Ctrl-V to paste the sky in as a new layer. Rename this layer as Sky layer, and the use the Move tool to position it. It will help if you reduce the opacity by 25% so that the underlying horizon can be seen.
3. At this point create a duplicate of the Sky layer and rename it as Water reflections. The go to Edit > Transform > Rotate 180 degrees. Then go to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal. It should now be a reversed mirror image of the sky. Don't panic if it doesn't immediately look it, it's because there's more sky in the layer than you can see. Select the Move tool and drag it around until you can line it up opposite the Sky layer. Ensure the Water reflections layer covers all the water near the horizon, even if that leads to overlap.
4. At this point, turn the visibility of the Water reflections layer off and select the Sky layer. Now click on the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers palette. Zoom in to 100% and select black as the foreground colour. Select the Paintbrush at 100% and click on the layer mask. Now paint over the areas of land so that the new sky is blocked off from those areas. It's worth changing the Hardness of the Paintbrush when you come to paint near the edges of the scenery so there is less of a feathered edge. If you make a mistake, swap the foreground and background colours over from black to white and remove the mask where it's gone wrong. Then switch back again.
5. When you think you've finished increase the opacity of the Sky layer back up to 100% and look for a halo effect around the scenery edge. If there is one, switch the Paintbrush colour to white and nibble in on the edges of the mask so that the halo is removed.
6. Now click on the Water reflections layer and turn on the layer visibility. Click on the Add Layer Mask icon as before and repeat the same process for the reflections as you did for the sky. The aim is to mask off all rocks in distance, sea and foreground. Where rocks have sea washing over them, reduce the opacity of the Paintbrush to 30% and mask it off to a lesser degree.
7. When finished, change the blend mode of the Water reflections layer to Colour and reduce the Opacity until it adds colour to the water without it having too much contrast. In this case that was around 70%.
8. Next we need to add some golden orange light to the scene. Create a new layer called Sunlight and fill it with a golden orange colour. Change the blend mode of the layer to Soft Light then add a layer mask to it. Now, the sky needs to be masked off completely so do that first.
9. Reduce the Opacity of the Paintbrush - which should be using black - down to 10%. On the original image that this sky came from, the sunlight came sideways across from the right, so to retain the correct kind of look, mask off areas on the left of any scenery or that would naturally be in shadow. There will still be some spill over light, but using a 10% brush means that the light can be blocked out subtly.
10. Now change the brush Opacity to 20% and mask off the sea to bring back some of the blue colour. You'll need to paint over it a couple of times. At this point, if you haven't been doing so already, it's a good idea to save the image with layers - not as a JPEG in other words. Then go to Layer > Flatten Image.
11. The orange light will have been a bit flat, but this is where it can now all be spruced up. Go to Image > Adjustment > Curves. Use an S-shaped curve to increase the contrast. Then go to Image > Adjustment > Hue/Saturation and increase the Saturation by 10.
12. Finally, sharpen the who thing up by going to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. Enter a Strength of 100%, a Radius of 2 pixels and a Threshold of 3 levels. Obviously tweak these settings to suit the particular image. A final touch is to use the Burn and Dodge tools to darken areas that should be more in shadow and lighten those that should be brighter. Then save to finish.
FINISHED IMAGE Here's the finished effort with a lot more colour, saturation, contrast and a much nicer sky than it started with. The better the original image, the better the outcome.