Story and photography by F.M. Kearney
A featureless white sky is the bane of nature photography. It can take a carefully crafted photograph and reduce it to what looks like a hastily grabbed snapshot destined for the trash heap. Of course, the lighting provided by white skies is highly sought after for capturing rich-toned, evenly lit images. But, aside from a few artistic purposes, white skies themselves are something most photographers try to avoid.
Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said than done. The best way to avoid white skies is to simply exclude them from your shot. If that’s not possible, a graduated neutral density filter might help. But, what if you don’t have a “clean” horizon? Any trees or buildings that jut up into the sky are going to be unnaturally darkened by the filter, thus ruining the effect.
You could try burning the sky in, but that may not work if it’s completely overcast and devoid of any cloud detail. Any attempts to burn in details that don’t actually exist will only result in a series of ugly, dark gray “burn marks.”
Having been a film shooter for most of my life, I’m constantly amazed by the myriad of options the digital world offers to easily solve what were once insurmountable problems. Nowadays, if an ugly white sky is the problem, you can simply replace it with a different one. I’ve gotten into the habit of taking pictures of interesting looking skies whenever I see them. I shoot most of these images right outside my bedroom window where I have a great view of the northwestern sky. This gives me the opportunity to quickly capture everything from stunning sunsets to dramatic spans of cumulous clouds.
Originally, my intent was to use these images as stand-alone photos, but over time, I started using them in a slightly different application. Comprised of nothing but sky, and no other distracting objects, they work perfectly as “backdrops” for images with less than stellar skies.
The opening photo of this article is a winter scene I shot in New York’s Central Park. I’d like to say that I specifically chose it to provide a bit of relief from the summer heat. In reality, it was the best image I had to illustrate this technique. I first mentioned this method in 2015 in my “Nature to the Rescue” article (https://nanpa.org/field-technique-nature-to-the-rescue/). Basically, I explained how I combined images of nature with city scenes to create unusual special effects. Here, I’m using the same technique to improve a lackluster sky.
I shot a number of images in Central Park during and after a fairly heavy snowstorm. The sky was devoid of detail as shown.
I shot the clouds several months prior, just before a summer storm, and I used that image to replace the white sky in the Central Park photo.
Combining the images is simple. Imagine placing one image (the primary) directly on top of another image (the background), then gradually erasing portions of the primary image to reveal the background image below. In this case, the park photo serves as the primary and the sky as the background.
In Photoshop, go to the top toolbar and click File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack. The images will be stacked on top of each other with their thumbnails appearing in the filter panel. Make sure the primary image is on top and highlighted. If not, click and drag it into place. If the two images aren’t exactly the same size, use the cropping tool to cut off the excess.
The next steps involve making the images editable for this technique. Again, on the top toolbar, click Filter>Convert for Smart Filters. Now, add a layer mask to the main image thumbnail by clicking the white triangle icon at the bottom of the filter panel. The top image should still be highlighted with a white layer mask next to the thumbnail. Click on the mask (not the thumbnail) to select it. Finally, select the brush tool and set your foreground color to black.
At this point, I’m now ready to begin “fixing” the sky. After selecting it with the Magic Wand tool, I set the brush to a fairly large size and to a low opacity of around 15 percent. I moved the brush back and forth over the sky several times. Each new pass gradually replaced its featureless white tone with the dramatic storm clouds beneath. The low opacity allowed me to gradually build up to a density of my liking. As you can see, the sky in the final image is considerably lighter than the original. All I wanted to do was to create a hint of detail, not an overwhelmingly dark (and unrealistic-looking) sky. However, had I chosen to do that, this technique gives me full control over the final result.
This technique produces a global effect. If you start to reveal the background image without specifying exactly where you want it to appear, it will cover the entire primary image — producing a double-exposure effect. Taking the time to select the sky prevented the storm clouds from being superimposed on top of the buildings. Of course, as I illustrated in my 2015 article, that can be done deliberately to create some pretty interesting special effects. In this case, however, I wanted a “normal-looking” image.
The next time you see an interesting sky, shoot some photos of it (both horizontals and verticals). You never know when they might come in handy to add some drama to a lifeless image.
NOTE: This technique should be used for creative purposes only, and NOT for capturing an accurate documentation of a scene. To maintain truth in captioning, images of this nature should be labeled as “Photo Illustrations.”
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with the NYPD and the FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. As an award-winning photographer, his images have been licensed on many products and published in numerous publications, as well as exhibited in galleries in the United States and abroad. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. Kearney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.