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Creating Dramatic Skies in Photoshop

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.

Importing

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.

Converting your image into a Smart Object means that you can make continual non-destructive adjustments

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.

Apply your gradient to the image

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.

Once the gradient is in place, reverse it and change to "Foreground to Transparent"

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!

Adjusting the blending mode reveals the final effect of this technique!

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.

Tinker!

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!

3 Comments

  1. A Question: I have just received Photoshop cs5 of which I only have an iterest in Photoshop. But up till now I have done a lot of work on Elements and in order to try to get into the new software have gotten on Lynda.com but Deke is great but he leaves me in the dust. Anything you would suggest to help me get more of a handle on PScs5?

    By the way, the tip was simple and very useable. I really appreciate it.

  2. Hi John, thanks a lot for your comment and I’m glad that you found my tip useful and easy to follow.

    Photoshop is a very in-depth program that would take months to cover fully, so don’t be too daunted by it! Lynda.com is a great place to start and I have used them before myself. I would suggest taking it slowly at first as it can be very easy to become overwhelmed with all the features and tools available. Take a single tool or technique like I have demonstrated here and practice it over and over until you have it off by heart. Then try another technique and nail that one before going on to the next one. Every photogrtapher is different with their own style, so you may not need a large fraction of what CS5 can offer.

    If you are more of a landscape photographer, for example, then my tip on creating dramatic skies will be of more benefit to you than how to improve portraits. So focus on the tips and techniques that are the most helpful to your own style of photography and go from there. Keep http://www.photographytips.net bookmarked and check back for more of my tips and tutorials, and, as always, I welcome your comments.

    Thanks John and good luck!

  3. Please sign me up for the newsletter.

    Also, do you know anything about combining two jpgs in Photoshop CS5 to import clouds from one pic to another?

    thanks

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