The Sky Solution

Using Photoshop to repair problem skies when the light is too contrasty for your film or sensor to record properly
The Sky Solution

One of the great challenges I find with photography is the inability to capture the full range of tones and colors I see in a scene. My camera just isn’t capable of doing that. This Photoshop technique allows you to repair an image that didn’t record the original scene correctly, turning a throwaway shot into a photo suitable for framing.

Machu Picchu is one of the world’s extraordinary photographic locations—the ruins of an Aztec village rest on top of very steep mountains in central Peru. The ruins were only discovered about 100 years ago, due to the fact that they’re located in a remote area and because the lush, almost jungle-like vegetation had covered them.

The Sky SolutionSunset is a magical time at Machu Picchu, though you never can predict the conditions. There was golden light coming from the sunset in the image shown here, but the contrast range was too great for my camera. I knew I could get either the bright sky or the ruins properly exposed, so I went for the ruins.

I’ve always liked this shot, but the bright sky at the upper left disappointed me. That certainly wasn’t what I saw at Machu Picchu. To repair an image that didn’t record the scene properly, follow these Photoshop steps.

1 Prep the image as best you can from the start. I set my blacks, did little to the whites (they were already blown out in the sky), adjusted midtones for the best detail, corrected color and so forth. The result is seen in the "before" photo (before the sky is fixed).

The Sky Solution2 Choose a color for the sky. Open the Color Picker by double-clicking the foreground color (the top color square at the bottom of the Toolbox bar), then move the dialog box so the active color is visually near something lit by the late sun—this is shown in the detail shot where the Color Picker sits near the llamas. I wanted the color I picked to make sense—that it could cast the light seen on the llamas. Pick the color needed by moving the sliders on the central color spectrum, then drag the circle in the large color area to the color you want.

The Sky Solution
Add an empty layer (Layer > New > Layer) to the photo and select the sky you want to affect. I used the Magic Wand for the selection. You also can add to a selection by holding the Shift key while selecting and remove part of the selection by holding the Alt/Option key.

4 Fill that selected sky area with the picked color (Edit > Fill > Foreground Color) and deselect the selection (Ctrl/Cmd D). Look carefully at the edges. They’ll be too sharp—ignore that. Look for gaps—you may have to return to the History palette before the selection is finished, refine your selection and repeat the fill.

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5 Soften the edge of the filled sky. I like softening the edge because it gives more immediate control; use Gaussian Blur (Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur) and change the amount until it starts to blend. The color now will be too strong.

The Sky Solution6 Reduce the opacity of the layer. How much to reduce is subjective. Since this is on a layer, you can always go back and readjust the opacity to match later work.

It’s starting to look like the sky belongs there. The problem is the blend where the clouds start in the photo; in reality, the clouds went farther to the left. I needed to make them blend with the bright yellow light.

The Sky Solution7 Add another layer and select part of the sky to limit the changes.
I selected over the area of clouds and yellow color so I could restrict changes to the sky. You can rename layers by double-clicking the name in Photoshop CS and CS2.


The Sky Solution8 Clone texture into the selected sky area.
I randomly cloned the clouds at the right side of the sky. Use a moderate-sized brush for the Clone tool, select Sample All Layers in the Brush Options bar, and change your clone-from locations as you go so the cloned area isn’t a duplicate of the original area. Deselect the area.

The Sky Solution
Blend the new clouds. I added a layer mask (Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All) to the layer, then used a very large black brush with a moderate opacity of 40 percent to gently blend the left edge of the new clouds. I also used a smaller brush to blend the right edge (which still needed more work because the clouds looked uneven).


10 Clone again to a new layer to blend edges. I cloned from the old sky over the blended edge where old met new. The sky was looking good, but the transition still didn’t quite work right. It needed more clouds and a color blend.

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Add more clouds. Using the same techniques, I built more clouds to the left. I find it easier to deal with this sort of work if the cloud layers are merged into one (select all layers, then use the drop-down menu for the Layer palette to merge them). How strong to make the clouds is a subjective choice. I liked adding a little darkness along the top of the frame with the clouds.

12 Add color to the clouds. Add another new layer, select the new clouds by Ctrl/Cmd-clicking on the cloud layer (that selects any pixels there) and then fill the selection with the original color. I deselected the area and reduced opacity.

The Sky Solution13 Blend the color so it looks more natural. In this case, I wanted the color to drop off toward the right. I added a layer mask, then used a gradient tool to blend the color from left to right.

Again, all of this is subjective. I like the final image, but there are other adjustments that could be made:
>> Make the clouds solid to the large peak in the center.
>> Add a slight warm beam of light through mountains. The existing beam could be enhanced by selecting the area it goes through, adding the yellow color to that selection on a new layer and then reducing opacity and softening the edges.

All in all, the image has a much better feel to it than the original shot. The blank sky (which wasn’t blank in reality, so the original photo isn’t a true representation of it) now has some color, tone and texture. It more accurately reflects the scene at Machu Picchu.





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