Sky Replacement

Apr 04, 2021

Have you ever seen a photo that had an incredible sky and wish you could capture it too? Well, you can easily get almost any sky you want now. Last year, Photoshop released an update to their software called sky replacement. (There is also other software out there that does the same thing and have been around longer, but I'm just highlighting Photoshop right now). It does just what you think it would do. It replaces your boring sky with a more colorful or dramatic sky. You can also use a sky from a previous image of yours and insert it into your boring photo. It's quite simple to use. With just the click of a button, you can transform your boring image, into a work of art. No longer do you have to be in the right place at the right time, or come back to the same location multiple times in hopes to capture that perfect moment. No longer do you have to look at the weather forecast and determine if the sky will light up at sunset. No longer do you have to actually take a photo of the Milky Way, sky replacement does all the work! -----(Extreme sarcasm)-----

Just look at this sky from one of my images from Chicago a few years ago!

Now look at this "boring" image I took.

It's the same image. The top one just had a sky replacement. Adding the sky took just a couple of seconds. As you can see, the software did a pretty good job.

However, not every image may look so seamless. Also each image requires a different sky to compliment the scene, so there is some skill in using the software. Here's an example. This is the original edited image.

Now, here's the same image with the sky replaced.

To my eye, it just feels "off." While it may look okay to the general public, I can tell that it has been altered and not just because I did it myself. If you look closely, you can actually see a cloud on the roof of the shelter house. The snowy roof shouldn't be that pink. While that can be fixed in post, it's something I've noticed in images from photographers that have used sky replacement.

While I find the software to be quite impressive in terms of the technical side, I think using the software can be harmful in landscape photography. That being said, there is a time and place for sky replacements. First, I'll talk about how sky replacement software can be a good thing. It can be quite useful for real estate photographers since their job is to help sell the home. Often times the sky may be a dull grey or clear blue, both of which can make the images look less appealing. By inserting a pretty sky, you can make the property look a bit nicer which can then help sell the house. I've photographed a few houses and businesses in the past with a dull grey sky. At the time, I didn't use the software, but I think I might use it selectively for similar shoots if needed. If you are a graphic designer or using the photo for commercial purposes, and need to change the sky, I think that's perfectly fine too. Or if you are a digital artist and want to create a scene using different layers and elements, I don't have an issue with that.

However, in terms of landscape photography, I do not like using sky replacement software. As a landscape photographer, what I love most about the field is the chase for that perfect moment or the perfect light. You don't get that every day, so when everything does line up, it makes those moments even better. I can't tell you how many times I've gone out to certain location in hopes to capture the light, only to come back home empty handed. So when I see images that have used sky replacements, it feels like slap in the face to every hard working landscape photographer who has dedicated their life to capturing those perfect moments. Sometimes those moments may last a 1/2 hour, while other times the moment may last just last a few seconds. So being being able capture the single moment is a big part of landscape photography.

While any professional photographer can probably tell when an image has a fake sky, the general public may not be able to tell the difference. And this brings me to my biggest issue with the sky replacement software. It's the lack of transparency. I just wish those that used the software would be a bit more transparent to the general public about when they use it. Because if they use the software a few times, how do we know what it real and what it fake? The photographer is essentially showing a fake representation of the day.

It can be tempting to insert a different sky. There have been multiple times that I wish I had a different sky or different light. If I were to insert a different sky and didn't tell the viewers, I feel like I would have cheated you all because I would know it wasn't real. I try to be as transparent as possible in my photography. I like to have my images reflect what I saw or felt during that moment I took the image. Does that mean I don't manipulate my images in any way? Of course not. I use Lightroom on every image I take, but tend to make more basic edits, both globally and locally to help enhance the image. I don't want to go in too much detail about how I edit my images since that could be a topic for a future post, but I'm just stating that I am 100% for your basic or even advanced post processing techniques.

Here's an image I took last summer as a storm was rolling through La Crosse.

This image reflects exactly that moment. There was a smaller band of rain moving north to south along the river. I had my camera set up and just waited until the band of rain was in the center of the frame. During this time the sun was behind the storm as well, which helped illuminate the rain, giving it a nice warm glow.

Now if i told you if I replaced this sky with a default sky from Photoshop, would you feel the same way about the image? I guess that's up for the view to decide, but I would feel like a fraud if I didn't at least tell you up front.

You can also make the point that a good image just isn't about having a dramatic sky. Some images may not even have a sky at all. While a dramatic sky is always nice to look at, it doesn't always make a quality image. The sky should be there to compliment the image, not just be there to look pretty.

Here's an example:

I took this photo four summers ago. While I really like the cloud in the image, there really isn't much else to the photo. The foreground is nonexistent and the power lines are distraction. The photo isn't really saying anything. It's just a photo of a big puffy cloud.

Now, here's an image I took of cloud a couple years ago.

Both images feature big puffy clouds, but the second one has a much better composition and story. The road acts as leading line straight towards the cloud. While both images feature power lines, the ones in the second image aren't a distraction since they actually guide you through the scene. As a result, the image is much quieter and contemplative. To me, it kind of feels like the gates of heaven are opening up.

While I do think the sky replacement technology is really impressive, it can be very damaging to a landscape photographer that wants to stay pure. In world where society is glued to social media, likes are the determination of a good image, and influencers are posting "banger" shots, it can be difficult to stand out amongst the rest. While sky replacement software might be able to get me few more likes on Instagram, I will never be using it in my landscape images. It defeats the entire purpose of what landscape photography is.

I don't intend on sharing many negative posts in this blog, but this is one that I felt needed to be shared. Not only to tell you about my feelings toward the software, but more importantly, to let you know my images will stay true to the scene.

Thanks for reading my rant.

Make sure to come back next week for my new post.

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