Dealing With Skies

One of the constant challenges for landscape photography is dealing with skies that are much brighter than the landscape itself. The problem is that we can see great color in detail in both places, yet the camera has serious limitations in dealing with such a contrast range.
A solution to this is to shoot two exposures that get the best possible color and tonality in both sky and ground. HDR (high dynamic range) photography can be used, but this can give undesired effects because it is affecting the entire image rather than optimizing the ground and sky separately. You might be able to expose for the sky and brighten the ground, but the problem there is that noise will increase in the ground, plus you will have less than optimum color and tonality from the landscape itself. A graduated filter can also help, but with it, you are restricted to one placement of the change between sky and ground.
I was up in Northern California helping my daughter move to her new home in Arcata (she has her first “real” job at Humboldt State) when I shot these yellow lupine. The sky was really cool, but the lupine were in the shade of a cloud. There was no good exposure that would work overall to give the best color and tonality in both flowers and sky. I was shooting more casually with my Canon G11 because it had been raining and I was with my wife and daughter.
I quickly shot two images, one exposed for the sky, one exposed for the ground and flowers. I lined up the shots the best I could, but I was not using a tripod.
In Lightroom, I adjusted each image optimally for the key elements of each exposure so that I ended up with one image with great sky, one with excellent flowers. I sent both images over to Photoshop to be used in layers. I then lined up the photos (this is easy to do with Auto Align in Photoshop CS, but it can be done manually in Photoshop Elements by making the top layer somewhat translucent as it is moved around). I cropped the resultant image to get rid of places the photos did not match.
Then I added a layer mask to the top layer (it really doesn’t matter which is the top, though I often find it best to have the sky layer on top). I painted in black in that layer mask to remove the “bad” part of the top image and reveal the better version underneath (in this case, I removed the too dark flowers from the sky photo so that the properly exposed flowers would be revealed below). Photoshop Elements has layer masks so this can be done there, too. For earlier versions of Photoshop Elements (or if you want an easy way to do this without dealing with layer masks), you can use a soft-edged eraser to remove the unwanted parts of a layer. The advantage of a layer mask is more control (you can add or subtract what is seen by changing the brush between black and white).
It is curious to me that there are still some photographers and publications that consider this technique “bad” and not “true” to nature. That is puzzling. I have to ask what is more important, nature as it really is (i.e., seeing both flowers and sky) or nature as it is restricted by the limitations of a camera. I suspect this has a lot to do with baby boomers (like me) who are not totally comfortable with the tools of the computer and do not really think this through.
My landscape app for the iPad is now available. Find it at the App Store under Rob Sheppard’s Digital Landscape.