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Shooting and adding digital skies

A guide to taking photographs of skies that can then be added to photographs digitally.

| Landscape and Travel

How to take and use photographs of the sky to enhance your digital photographs - the sky, as they say, is the limit.

Words & Pictures Peter Bargh ePHOTOzine

It's surprising how a collection of sky photographs can come in handy when you have dull looking image that needs salvaging. In this article I will suggest ways to record the sky and then show you how to use the sky photos as an element within another photograph.

There are many times when you are out and about and the sky is dull. Most of us snap away regardless, while the professional will hang around all day, or even come back a day or week later. He's in search of the perfect sky and dull grey is a definate no!

Shooting and adding digital skies:

I'd hiked up to the top of a mountain in Kos and came across this tiny church, but as I got there the mist came down and I didn't want to hang around! So I took this quick shot and headed off back down the hill, knowing it could be salvaged later.
As it happens I'm glad I did leave, because the heavens opened up as I was halfway back down the mountain and I was drenched.

The beauty of having access to digital imaging software is that you no longer need to be that dedicated and can often create a montage of an image and a sky that will look quite natural back home.

The first tip is to build up a selection of sky photographs. When you're out on a good day shoot a few sky shots. Blue skies with fluffy clouds are always worth recording and they are relatively easy to expose. Just select a suitable area looking for the best range of clouds and also the bluest area of sky. You'll find this is about 90º to the sun. Also consider using a polarising filter which will make the blue more saturated so the white clouds stand out more.

Shooting and adding digital skies:

Here are three examples of typical cloud formations and cropping using the camera's lens. The one on the left is using a telephoto lens to take just a small section of a large cloud. This is a dramatic, powerful formation and would suit being the backdrop to a statue. Look at the bright areas to indicate where the sun is (above left) and when you drop your subject in make sure the light on the statue is from the same side or choose another more suitable cloudscape.
The middle shot is one of those crisp, spring skies comprising lots of shapes, dramatic blue and a sun masked behind one of the clouds. This image was taken using a wide angle lens and gives off the impression you have shot from a low angle, so the subject should be similarly matched. The shot on the right has the sun just out of the frame to avoid flare and make the clouds backlit. The angle is less dramatic than the middle shot so it would suit a subject that's been photographed head on.

Shooting and adding digital skies:

It's fairly easy to expose for clouds and normally you can rely on the camera's built-in meter, especially when it's a multi-pattern variety. The shot on the left is overexposed because of the sun that's bursting out from behind the cloud. A few seconds later the cloud had passed in front of the sun and that's when you get the lovely backlight effect of the middle shot. The version on the right is what happens if you meter for the highlights and lock the exposure. You have to aim for a careful balance between the two extremes of blue sky exposure and the direct sun to give you the middle exposure.

Change the frame
Shooting and adding digital skies:
Sunsets are also easy to expose for. You can usually leave the camera on auto and the shot will come out right. You just need a tripod or support to prevent camera shake at the lower shutter speeds. In these two examples you see the changing colour of light as the sun goes down. The left hand shot is the last drop of colour before it goes black and the right hand one is about 10 minutes earlier where you get the golden light as the sun just dips behind the horizon. The tip here is to work fast, because a sunset doesn't hang around for long.
Also consider, as we have done here, cropping to the unusual panoramic shape. This removes waste ground or sky and gives a very pleasing result. You can place two shots side by side on an A4 canvas and print them out together to save paper too.

Now lets go back to our original misty church photo that you saw at the beginning of this article. First select around it using your image editing software's Magic Wand tool or Lasso. As the sky was so uniformally dull It was easy to select using the Magic Wand. Then inverse the selection so that the Church is selected and not the sky. Copy and paste the photo to your selected cloud image. The church will appear on a new layer where it can be scaled to suit the cloud image, cropped, rotated or enhanced. I've already mentioned you should try to ensure the lighting direction is the same as the clouds, but also consider changing the colour of each layer so that the two match as closely as possible making the montage more natural before you flatten and print the result.

Shooting and adding digital skies: In this version using a front lit cloud formation I've brightened up the church using Curves to make it white again and look as though it's bathed in sunlight. I have also added a very slight warm tone, using Hue/Saturation to make it look more like summer, which is when the clouds where shot.

Shooting and adding digital skies:
Please click on image to enlarge

Shooting and adding digital skies: There are times when you may need to extend the canvas to ensure the right part of the cloud scape is showing above the subject. In this example the top strip is just blue sky doesn't look very dramatic. By extending the canvas at the bottom of the clouds before you cut and past the church you can lower the position of the church and allow more clouds to appear above the church. Notice that I have not made the front look brilliant white like the first example as this is a back lit shot and the front of the church would be in the shade.

No matter how skilled you are with an image editing program choosing a bad cloud shot will never look natural. The above two will pass but I believe the one here is the most lifelike and it's more of an overcast day so the light on the church has been subdued to reflect this. Shooting and adding digital skies:

You don't just have to limit yourself to clouds. Adding a sunset can produce charming results. The sunset was in Derbyshire and the Church in Greece. Playing God or what! As it's a sunset the light is dim so I have reflected this by reducing the brightness and saturation of the church while adding a golden hue to match the sunset. Shooting and adding digital skies:

Or how about a moonscape. Saturation is now reduced to almost black & white and a lighting effect has been added to keep the moon bright and add a degree of brightness to the front wall. Shooting and adding digital skies:

Finally a rainbow. I'm not satisfied with this one yet, but it's included just to show you that the sky's definately not your limit.

Have fun shooting skies and adding them to your photos. And please send your examples to ePHOTOzine...we'd love to see them.

Shooting and adding digital skies:
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Mjhearne Avatar
Mjhearne 16 432 4 Scotland
Thanks for some great tips!!
ToothPilot Avatar
Very useful. Thanks
franfoto Avatar
franfoto 16 2 32 England
Well written and illustrated and extremely useful. Many thanks to Peter for this.
avashan Avatar
Ive been really thinking "how do i change my sky"thank for the great tip
TimothyDMorton Avatar
Just the tip I needed as was discussed in today's photographic workshop at Mohawk College of Applied Arts and Technology in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada.)
paulyrichard Avatar
Once a dull image, always a dull image. No amount of digital intervention will change that.

All the images in this set look very unnatural and obvious.
DRicherby Avatar
DRicherby 15 269 726 United Kingdom
Yep, these all look pretty fake, though the one selected as the most natural is at least passable at a first glance. I think it's an improvement on the original but it's still pretty poor.

The rainbow version will never work, though. Rainbows are only created by strong light and they're a reflection phenomenon so you would have to be shooting directly away from the sun. That means that you could only see a rainbow in the background if the church were illuminated head-on by strong sunlight — and it clearly isn't.
clicknimagine Avatar
lovely explanation...
Thank you I cant wait to try something new.

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