Pale Sky

Terry writes,

My digital pictures tend to have washed out pale sky much like the sample at the upper right of your homepage. The software that came with my Lumix doesn’t seem to help. Do I need to use a filter, different software, or do something else?

Photographs that include the sky are often problematic because the sky is usually brighter than anything else in the image, and in many cases it isn’t that blue colour we’re looking for.  Here are a few solutions…

I’m going to make the assumption that your images are correctly exposed for the main subject, and that you’ve set the levels correctly on the image.  In other words, the non-sky part of the image is fine, but the sky appears overexposed.

The most common way of improving the sky is a circular polarizing filter.  This filter is most effective when used at a ninety degree angle to the sun, and when adjusted (by rotating them), the filter increases the contrast between clouds and the sky.  In the process, the sky is darkened about 2 stops.  Assuming the sky is blue, this results in a darker more saturated blue sky.  Circular polarizing filters can also be used to control reflections off water and other non-metallic surfaces.

If you’re shooting landscapes (as in the image on the right of the banner), a polarizing filter may or may not do the trick.  The problem in that particular image is that the sand dunes are so much darker than the sky that you either shoot with a washed out sky or the dunes become shadows.  One solution is to use a graduated neutral density filter.  You’ll need to put the camera on a tripod, attach the filter, and then move the filter up and down in front of the lens to the point that it is darkening the sky, but not the horizon.  It’s much simpler than it sounds because one end of the filter is quite dark, and then it gently fades to clear.  Another solution is to shoot two images, one exposed for the ground, the other exposed for the sky, and combine them digitally on your PC.

While you can do a lot of great stuff with Photoshop and other image editing software, I try to shoot it "right" in the first place.  However, sometimes that just doesn’t happen, and there are ways to fix it in software.  There are several ways to do it, but the two most common are burning in the sky and the use of a gradient.

Back in the darkroom days, we’d use a cardboard mask or other similar tool and simply expose the sky more than the rest of the image, resulting in a darker image on the print.  This process is called "burning" or "burning in" and many editing tools have a "burn" tool.  I use the burn tool in Photoshop quite a bit — you have to play with it to get the feel, but in summary you set how much you want it to change the image (I use around 10%), and drag the tool across the parts of the image you want to darken.  It’s a trial and error approach at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it.

The second solution is to create a blue gradient and mix it with your image.  This is a bit more complicated, but in summary you create a new layer, and use the gradient tool to create a blue gradient on the new layer.  If you’re using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, set the channel mixing to "multiply" and the software will blend the gradient into your image.

I don’t know what software came with your Lumix, so I can’t tell you if it has what you need to use some of the more sophisticated techniques.  Adobe Photoshop Elements has what you need, and you can download a free trial from http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshopelwin/

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