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Replacement Therapy: the Sky's the Limit

"Sky replacement" seems to be the rage now that Adobe added it to Photoshop 2021. With just a few clicks, you can trade-in the dull, boring sky you shot for a better one. But just because you can swap skies doesn't mean you should. Be careful not to become addicted.

If you haven't tried it out yet, you can find Photoshop's hot new feature under Edit >> Sky Replacement. When selected, the Sky Replacement dialog will open. Select the sky you like from one of the included options or pick your own. Tweak a few sliders and click the "OK" button, and you're done. If you've ever attempted manual replacement of a sky, you'll be pleased to know you can skip the tedious process of selecting and masking the sky. It only takes a few sliders and controls to manipulate the sky area and blend it into the foreground. Enable the "Preview" option, and you can see the changes as you work. And when you get things just right, Photoshop lets you save the result as a new layer for possible further fine-tuning.

Some third-party software had a version of Sky Replacement before Adobe made it famous. The first I'm aware of with wide usage was Skylum Luminar. But by this point, a definite trend seems to have developed. Everyone wants in on sky replacement.

Now, I'm a firm believer that a good sky can lead to great picture taking. With a magnificent sky as backdrop, almost any foreground can become promising subject matter, well worth exploring. You could create a compelling image from nearly anything with the right sky for drama. When I see a beautiful sunset or eyecatching cloudscapes, I start running around in circles, madly searching for a makeshift subject, an excuse to photograph the show. But that's not the same thing as shooting the same scene any old time and worrying later about the sky. Maybe it's just me, but it just doesn't seem to hold the same potential for satisfaction. The joy of photography comes from seeking out such winning vistas and from having the skill to capture an image of them. Just seems like it takes all the fun out of it if the sky no longer needs to matter.

I admit there are times I get back from shooting to discover the skies in my images are less dramatic than I remembered. Try as I might, it's not always possible to restore the appearance to what I saw in my mind. We all tend to see the best in things, yet the camera doesn't lie. Whereas I saw an incredible sunset, the camera recorded a more mundane version. Or more often, I marveled at a once in a lifetime sunset while my camera recorded a burned-out, nearly white mess. Hate it when that happens. I'd love a tool to help go beyond the capture limitations that may have been present. HDR and other multi-shot techniques provide us with modern miracles that extend the possible. Your camera isn't capable of recording such a wide range of brightness (or perhaps focus distance)? No worries. Software to the rescue. If you provide enough raw inputs, software can construct a photograph no camera today could take.

Perhaps I'd see sky "replacement " differently had Adobe called the feature something less surgically extreme. In their naming and their marketing, they almost seem to encourage creating images that never were. Or, at best, images that are obviously faked. I've found perhaps the best technique is to blend the new sky in rather than replacing the old completely. Moderation is key.

Back in the pre-digital era, it used to be common practice to "augment" skies with "sunset filters." Such filters were made of colored resin or glass, pale orange at one end, graduated to more intensely saturated orange on the other. By positioning the transition along the horizon, one could intensify a sunset or even create one when none existed. You could get similar color effects filters in various graduated or striped configurations. Beyond a camera and basic set of lenses, one of the first big purchases I remember making was for a whole stack of Cokin filters. I had been led to believe they were the secret to getting the really good images, and I wanted nothing but the best.

Once noticed, certain telltale signs were obvious markers that a sunset filter played a significant role. A filter affects everything equally, but objects in the frame aren't all the same. Objects at sunset appear that glorious warm hue because they are lit by the sun, so anything obviously in shadows should appear a cooler color temperature. Even more than the inappropriate banding that afflicts many graduated filter images in general, the curiously warm shadow lighting ruins more than a few sunset filter shots. Not everyone will notice the incongruity of illumination, but it becomes impossible to ignore once one does.

I've noticed a similar phenomenon with some sky replacement images today. Some people seem addicted to them and are in need of therapy. There's a lesson they haven't learned yet. Not every sky could possibly work with every foreground despite how cool it would be if it did. It's just so easy and tempting to replace the sky for a better one. The result of such exuberance always has a telltale giveaway. The lighting is all wrong. The shadows and sunlit areas don't obey any laws of whatever science it is they're supposed to obey. You know, that sort of thing. They've left pure photography by the wayside and have ventured into photographic art. They're creating images derived from photography but not strictly limited by it. But again, maybe it's just me. It just doesn't seem to hold the same potential for satisfaction.

People are always looking for the secret to creating cool images, ways to make their photos look the very best. Even today, we have our equivalent of colored graduated filters. Mind you: all these tools can be useful when used with restraint. It's just that it's so darned easy to go overboard with them. It's easy to get addicted.

Needless to say, the secret to getting really good images is actually to learn how to take them. Or in my humble opinion, that way is surely the most fun.

Date posted: January 31, 2021


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Related articles:
Why I Don't Like Sunset Filters
The Slippery Slope of Digital Editing Addiction
Skynet Merges with Photoshop: The Future is Calling

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