Creating Dramatic Skies in Photoshop
Taking pictures of landscapes is one of my favorite forms of photography as it allows me to take my time to compose the shot and study the scene in order to create the best image I possibly can. Sometimes, as photographers, we can be lucky enough to be presented with amazing skies that can become the focus point of the photograph itself, rather than a backdrop to mountain or a lake in the foreground.
A sunny day can provide us with a very photogenic blue sky and white clouds which are just crying out to be photographed – so get out there and start snapping! I have a great way to enhance those skies in Adobe Photoshop that will really make them “pop” and give them that little something extra to make them stand out amongst the crowd.
First of all, you will need to import the file from your camera to your computer and work from there. If it is a RAW file, open it in your RAW converter before then taking it into Photoshop. If you shoot in JPEG, you can open it straight away. After importing the file, it is a good idea to convert it to a “Smart Object”. This effectively means that any changes we make to the image in Photoshop do not directly affect the original image. Think of it as adding an adjustment layer to the image and working on that. It is very simple to do; you can either right-click on the layer in the palette and select “convert to smart object” or head up to the menu and choose:
Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object.
Afterwards, rename your project it and save it straight away as a PSD. For this tutorial I am using a shot I took on an island in Mozambique last year. I am also using the most recent CS5 version of Photoshop, but the techniques I outline here can be used in versions CS2-4 as well.
Apply a Gradient
The next step is to apply a gradient filter to the image. If you have never done this before, there really is nothing to it and Gradient is a great little tool to have in your box, once you get to know it.
The simplest way to apply it is to go down to the bottom-right of the layers palette and look for a little circle that is half black and half white. Click on this and you will be presented with a list of options for creating a new fill or adjustment layer. Find “Gradient” near the top of the list – be careful not to choose the “Gradient Map” option near the bottom – that is not the one we want this time!
Adjust the Gradient
After applying the new gradient, you will be faced with a “Gradient Fill” dialogue. The first thing to do is click on the little “Reverse” box so the black part of the gradient flips around to the top of the image. Don’t worry if your photo disappears at this point! Next, click on the rectangular strip of white-to-black color next to the word, “Gradient” and up will pop another dialogue. In this second box, make sure that the preset is set to “Foreground to Transparent” before clicking “Ok” to close both boxes.
Select Blending Mode
The last step in creating your dramatic sky is to change the blend mode. At the top of the layers palette, click on the word “Normal” and you should be presented with a list of blending modes. Select “Overlay” and watch what happens!
You should notice straight away a dramatic difference in your image as the blue in the sky becomes richer and darker at the top, tapering down towards the horizon and the bottom of the image. Any clouds in the picture will be accentuated and contrast improved, making them pop nicely out against the sky.
Every photograph is different and this technique, although simple enough, can require some adjusting. Thankfully, as we applied the gradient as a separate layer, all we need to do to fine-tune the image is click on the little image of the black to white gradient on the “Gradient Fill 1” layer in the layers palette and you can experiment. Try changing the preset to “Foreground to Background” and see what happens. If the effect is too strong, you can change the blend more from “Overlay” to “Soft Light” as well as adjusting the opacity and fill sliders.
You can also drag the sliders to adjust the parameters of the gradient, as well as grabbing the brush tool and painting over or “erasing” parts of the image that have been affected by the gradient.
So dig out a few of your favorite landscape or sky shots and give this technique a try. Don’t be afraid to experiment, just make sure that you apply your adjustments to a new layer to avoid damaging your original image. Enjoy!