A blown-out sky is rarely pleasing in a color photograph. Although you may try every exposure trick in the book, it can be hard to avoid. In this tutorial, we’ll show you a cool technique for adding color and tonality back into an otherwise washed-out, lifeless sky. And you don’t have to make a precise mask. We’ll finish with a look at how the same technique can be used to create a spilt-toning effect similar to the one in Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.
If you’d like to download the images used in this tutorial to practice these techniques, just click here. All files are for personal use only.
Fixing a Blown-out Sky
1 ADD A CURVES ADJUSTMENT LAYER
Click the Create New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel and choose Curves from the list. In the Curves dialog, click on the Display Detailed Grid icon to display a 10×10 grid. Open the Channel pop-up menu and choose Red. Move the point at the top-right corner down along the right side about one and a half grid boxes. This will add cyan, the opposite of red. Most of the change will affect the lighter areas of the image (the sky). Other tonal regions will be affected, which we’ll fix in a later step.
2 CHANGE THE GREEN CURVE
Now choose Green from the Channel menu. Move the highlight point of the Green channel curve down the right side the same distance as you did with the Red curve. You can also take note of what the Output value was for the Red adjustment and simply enter that for the Output value in the Green curve (in this case, it was 216). Depending on the image, you may also choose to slightly lower the highlight section of the main RGB curve to darken the sky area a bit. Click OK to apply the Curves adjustment layer.
3 MODIFY THE BLEND IF SLIDERS
The sky looks much better, but the rest of the image is also affected by the blue color cast from the Curves layer. Double-click to the right of the layer name in the Layers panel to open the Layer Style dialog. We’ll be working with the Blend If sliders in the lower part of this dialog. Click on the shadow slider (on the left) for This Layer and move it to the right until the first number is at about 140. This prevents the curves adjustment from affecting any tonal value of 140 or lower.
4 SPLIT THE BLEND IF SLIDER
The transition edge of the new sky tone is much too rough and obvious in the lower-left part of the image. To soften this and create a more natural transition, hold down the Option key (PC: Alt key) and click on the shadow slider to split it into two halves. Move the right half until the second number above the sliders reads about 170. This creates a feathering effect: No values below 140 are affected, then they’re gradually affected more until value 170, when the curve affects the image at full strength. Click OK.
5 FINE-TUNE WITH A LAYER MASK
This effect works very well in an image where the sky is lighter than anything else in the shot. On some images, you might need to modify the Curves layer mask if there are areas that are still affected by the blue tone that was added. If you see any areas like this on the back of the boat, press D then X to set your Foreground color to black and use the Brush tool (B) to paint on the layer mask to prevent the blue curves adjustment from affecting those areas.
6 FINE-TUNE THE HORIZON LINE
For this particular image, we painted on the layer mask with a large, soft-edged brush to further fine-tune the horizon line on the left side. Using just the top edge of the brush, we painted with black to slightly fade back the blue effect just above the distant hills. This looks more natural because the sky is often a bit lighter near the horizon than it is higher up. We also lowered the Opacity of the Curves 1 layer to 80%.
7 WRAP UP
For a surprising number of photographs that suffer from a blown-out sky, this effect works remarkably well without having to delve into the intricacies of creating a precise layer mask to control where the sky tone is visible. Just be aware that if any other tonal regions in the image are similar to the blown-out sky, then you’ll have to edit the Curves layer mask.
Using the Blend If Sliders for Split Toning
1 ADD A HUE/SATURATION LAYER
In addition to controlled layer blending for fixing blown-out skies, the Blend If sliders can also approximate a toning effect that’s similar to the Split Toning controls in Lightroom and Camera Raw. Begin with an image that’s in Grayscale mode or that has had a grayscale effect applied. If it’s in Grayscale mode, choose Image>Mode>RGB Color. Choose Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Hue/Saturation and click OK. In the Hue/Saturation dialog, turn on the Colorize checkbox, adjust the Hue slider to 38, and the Saturation to 15. This adds a sepia tone to the entire photo. Click OK.
2 CREATE SPLIT TONE WITH BLEND IF SLIDERS
Double-click to the right of the Hue/Saturation layer name in the Layers panel to open the Layer Style dialog. As in Steps 3 and 4 above, move the shadow slider for This Layer to the right, then Option-click (PC: Alt-click) to split the slider to create a softer feathering of the toning effect. The values we used for this example are 120 and 160. This creates a split between the original grayscale tonal values (below 160) and the sepia tone (above 160).
3 ADD A SECOND TONE
To add another tone, add another Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Click the Colorize checkbox and move the Hue slider to find a tone you like (we used a Hue value of 220 and a Saturation of 12 for a cool-blue tone). Click OK and then adjust the Blend If sliders to only apply this tone to the darker areas. Do this by moving the highlight slider (on the right) for This Layer to the left and then split it as shown in the previous steps. Our highlight slider values are 70 and 130 for this image.
ALL IMAGES BY SEÁN DUGGAN UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED