One of the biggest frustrations in photography is the fact that our cameras are not able to fully capture the light and the dark tones that we can normally see with our eyes, which is known as “dynamic range”. How many times have you seen situations when the sky is blue and beautiful, but it comes out very pale or gray in your photographs? There are other cases, when the sky is not blue at all, but you still want it to be blue in your picture. Gladly, the problem can be easily fixed in Lightroom, as long as the rest of the picture is fine.
In this tutorial, I will show you how you can transform the sky from light-blue/gray:
To darker blue:
1) Graduated Filter Tool
In the past, if you wanted to fix the sky in a photograph, you had to open it in Photoshop, then work with it through layers and masks. With the introduction of Lightroom 2, Adobe provided plenty of great functions within Lightroom without having to use Photoshop. These new functions truly save a lot of time, because you can copy-paste the same settings from one picture to another, especially when working with panoramas.
The best tool to fix the sky in Lightroom, without a doubt, is the “Graduated Filter” tool inside the “Develop” module. The only dilemma with the Graduated Filter is the fact that it works just like a regular Graduated Filter that is used in front of the lens while taking a picture, so if you have other objects such as trees and buildings mixed with the sky, those objects will also get affected.
While the picture is selected, click the “Develop” shortcut from the top right screen or simply press “D”. Once you are in the Develop module, expand the right menu and find the “Graduated Filter” icon inside a panel that is right underneath “Histogram”:
Click the icon or press “M” on your keyboard and your mouse cursor will transform into a large “+” sign. You will also see a new panel appear right under the icon with such settings as Exposure and Brightness. This means that you can now drag an area that needs to be fixed. Before we do this, we first need to identify what exactly needs to be done. In this case, we will first try to simply decrease the exposure of the sky to see if we can make it bluer. This will only work if the sky already has some blue in it. Go to “Exposure” and either drag the exposure to the left or type it on the right hand side where it shows “0”. I typically start with “-1” and see how it affects the sky:
Nothing is supposed to happen yet, because you have not yet identified the area that you want to apply this to. Let’s go ahead and do it now. Start from the very top of the image (I start outside the top boundary of the image) and while holding the left mouse button, drag the graduated filter all the way until the sky ends. If you want the gradient tool to come down straight, simply hold the “Shift” button on your keyboard while dragging with your mouse and you will see that the graduated filter is coming down straight. If you have an angled sky with a building or some other object occupying a left/right side of the frame, you can also drag the graduated filter at an angle from the left/right corners.
As you move down, you should see the effect of the filter immediately. The sky should automatically darken, but might not necessarily be what you are looking for just yet. Once you reach the end of the sky, release the mouse button to keep the graduated filter in place. If you are not getting enough blue, click on the try to decrease the exposure to “-1.5” or even “-2”. I do not recommend going past “-2”, because if you are not able to bring out the color at minus two stops, then your sky is either completely overexposed, or you have a gray sky. If you are seeing that the sky is getting more gray instead, then changing exposure will not help.
In the above image example, when I tried to decrease the exposure to “-1”, the sky got a little bluer, but not the true blue color I was looking for. In addition, as I pointed out above, if you do not have a straight horizon and have other objects in the frame, decreasing exposure will also darken those objects and might not necessarily yield a good overall effect. If you have a similar situation, try the next steps.
With the graduated filter selected (which shows up as a dot on the image), go to your “Exposure” setting and change it to “0” or something small like “-0.5”. Next, click the square right next to “Color”, which will bring up a new window like this:
Start out with the darkest tone of blue at 100%, so click on the blue area and then move the pointer all the way to 100%, as shown in the above picture. Once you are done selecting the color, close out of this screen and see how your image has changed. To see the before and after comparison, click the little switch located to the left of “Reset” and “Close” text, which turn the graduated filter on and off. Click on it multiple times to see the effect and note the changes. If the sky appears too blue, go back to “Color” and move the pointer from 100% to 50% or less, depending on how blue you want the sky to be. Experiment between patterns of blue and exposure to get the best effect.
Here is how mine came out after the above changes:
Definitely much better than what it was before!
2) Adjustment Brush
The second method is to use an “Adjustment Brush” tool within the Develop module of Lightroom. I recommend using this tool to fix the sky only when you have objects sticking out that you do not want touched. Take a look at this picture, for example:
If I used the Graduated Filter to fix the sky in this image, I would end up with the top portion of the rock painted in blue – definitely not something I want to do. Another option would be to only apply graduated filter on the top of the image, but then the rest of the sky would still remain with the same color.
In situations like this, the Adjustment Brush (keyboard shortcut is “K”) works very well. It is located right next to the Graduated Filter in the Develop menu:
Many of the settings are the same, except there is one more “Brush” section that lets you pick a brush that you will be using to paint the sky. Choose the same exposure/color settings as I have shown in Graduated Filters, then go to Brush settings.
Here is what each of the settings does:
- Size – controls the size of the brush
- Feather – controls how far out the brush will start to fade for smoother transition. I typically leave this at 100 and lower it when working carefully around the edges.
- Flow – controls the rate of flow of the brush. I typically have it set to 100. If you changed the number to 50, the effect would be reduced in half with a single stroke. If you applied a second stroke on the same area, it would be the same as using 100 in the beginning.
- Auto Mask – will automatically avoid painting areas that do not match in color. Leave this checked.
- Density – this is just like “opacity” in Photoshop. Leave it at 100.
Once you click on the Adjustment Brush icon or press “K” on your keyboard, the mouse cursor will change to a circle with another circle inside and a dot with “+” sign in the center. The inner circle is the brush itself and the outer circle is the brush feather. Change the feather and you will see that the outer circle gets smaller or bigger, depending on the number.
Start with the image zoomed in at 100% view. Use the brush to draw from top to bottom and paint all of the sky that you see in the image. If you accidentally brush over other areas, do not worry, because it is very easy to remove them later. Once you paint the sky, inspect the outer edges of your objects and make sure that they did not get painted. If you see some paint around those edges, simply press the “Alt” button and paint over those areas. You will see that your brush will be converted to a circle with a minus sign in the middle, which works as an eraser.
Here is how the above image looks after using I used the Adjustment Brush on it:
When using the Adjustment Brush tool, be careful with the edges. If you do not do it right, you might get a halo effect, where a visible outer boundary will show up around your objects.
Whether you use the Graduated Filter or the Adjustment Brush, just make sure that you do not overdo it. There might be cases where these tools will not work and make your sky even uglier, so use these carefully and see what looks the best to your eye.
Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.