Repair burnt out skies: Photoshop tutorial

How to repair a burnt out sky: use Layer masks to perfect your landscape photos

Photoshop tutorial: A dramatic sky brings a landscape photograph to life, and although the colour-filled skies of dawn and dusk are perfect for awe-inspiring landscape shots, fluffy clouds and deep blue skies of midday can produce equally striking scenes. The midday sun presents a few technical problems though, especially if you need to shoot into or in the rough direction of the sun, the result of which can be a complete burnout of the sky or a steep gradient from white to dark blue. So if your perfect scenic shot is ruined by lens flare or bleaching, don’t panic, get the shot you want and rescue the sky in Photoshop later. Follow the simple steps in this tutorial to learn about layering techniques, how to increase tone and give your landscape photography punch.

1. Select the sky

Open the file named landscape_before.jpg. The position of the sun, just out of shot, has caused the left-hand side of the sky to completely burn out. To start the repairs, grab the Quck Selection tool from the Tools palette and drag the cursor across the sky to select it. Click Refine Edge in the top options bar.



2. Darken the colour.

In the Refine Edge options boxes, set Smooth to 0, Feather to 2 and Expand to 3. Click OK. Go to Layer>NewAdjustmentLayer>Levels and set the three sliders to 50, 1.00 and 255 to darken the blues in the sky. Go to Layer>New>Layer. Select the Eyedropper tool and click into the dark blue patch of sky.


3. Create a gradient

Click the arrow next to the colour swatches in the Tools palette to swap the foreground and background colours. Click into a light blue area of sky. Hold down Ctrl. Click into the Levels layer’s mask to reselect the sky. Select Gradient tool. Hold down Shift. Drag the cursor from the bottom of the sky to the top.


4. Reveal the clourds

Go to Levels>NewAdjustmentLayer>Levels. Drag the Levels layer below the Sky Image layer. Holding down Alt, hover the cursor between the two layers until it changes shape; left-click. This clips the Adjustment Layer to the image layer. Now select a soft-edged black bruch with an Opacity of 20% and Size of 700px.


5. Create a cloud

Use the brush to reveal the cloud on the right. Select the top Sky image layer. Hold down Shift. Click on the bottom layer so all the layers are selected. Hold down Shift+Ctrl+Alt+E to merge the selected layers into a new layer, then use the standard Lasso tool to select the small cloud to the top left of the tree.


6. Match the sky

In the same layer, go to Edit>Copy and then Edit>Paste to create a new cloud layer. Use the Move tool to position the new cloud in the upper centre of the image. Before blending the cloud, go to Enhance>AdjustLighting>Levels and increase the Shadows to 40 to roughly match the sky.


7. Blend the cloud

Create a new Levels Adjustment Layer. Move it below the image layer in the Layers palette. Clip it to the new cloud layer using the technique described in step 4. Select a soft black brush, size 300px, Opacity 20%. Click into the Layer Mask. Paint around the edges of the cloud to blend it seamlessly with the sky.



8. Using the mask

Click onto the merged layer and select the Lasso tool. Select the cloud cluster to the left of the tree, including a little bit of the hilltop. Copy (Ctrl+C) and then Paste (Ctrl+V) the clouds into a new layer. Making sure that the new layer is selected, go to Image>Rotate>FlipLayerHorizontal, then select the Move tool.


9. Manipulate the clouds

Grab one of the corner anchor points; increase the size slightly. This will help to make the clouds look significantly different from the originals. Move the clouds over to the left of the image. Open the Levels window (Ctrl + L) and adjust the midtones to 0.85 to match the blue in the clouds with the sky beneath.



10. Blend with the sky

Create a new Levels Adjustment Layer. Clip it to the bottom of the sky layer as in step 4. Reduce the Opacity to 70%. Use a black brush to remove any sky that covers the hill, reducing the size of the brush as needed to get an accurate blend. Once finished, set the Opacity of the cloud layer back to 100%.



11. Improve the tones

To improve the image contrast, make sure you have the top layer selected, then create a new Levels Adjustment Layer. Adjust the Shadows to 5 and Highlights to 225 and click OK. Click on the Layers palette options and select Flatten Image. This will flatten all of the adjustments down onto one layer.



12. Boost the colours

The colour could do with a boost, so create a new Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and increase the Saturation to 5. There are also a few warm colours in the foreground rock that can be enhanced by using the Edit drop-down. Select Red and increase the value to 50. Use Ctrl+E to merge the layers.



13. Burn in the shadows

You can now use the Dodge and Burn tools to life the detail within the image. Select the Burn tool and a soft brush with a diameter of 700px and an Exposure of 5%. Set Range to Shadows, then start by painting over the rock, foreground grass and tree to darken the shadows.



14. Highlight the grass

Once you’ve finished with the Burn tool, left-click and hold on the tool icon to select the Dodge tool. Set the Range to Highlights and use the same values as you did with the Burn tool. Now carefully paint over the grass and rock in the foreground to help lift the highlights from the image.



15. Sharpen up

It’s good to sharpen the image before applying a vignette, because this will help to avoid any noise being introduced to the sky. Make sure that you have zoomed the image to 100% by using the Ctrl and + keys to zoom in, then go to Enhance>AdjustSharpness. Again, make sure the preview is at 100%.


16. Adjust the sharpness

Click and hold the left mouse button in the preview window and drag the image to a point of interest – for this image, the rock in the foreground. Now move the Amount slider to 100% and Radius to 1.5. You’ll instantly see the detail in the rock increase in contrast and lose some of the detail. 


17. Fine-tuning

Reduce the Radius slider to 0.5 – this will bring back the finer detail – then reduce the Amount slider to 50%. You want a good balance between the two adjustments that avoids haloing, a sign of over-sharpening. You can check the results before and after by clicking on the preview to see the original image.



18. Add a vignette

The sky looks better, but the uniformity of the gradient looks a little unnatural. To give a more natural effect, go to Filter>CorrectCameraDistortion and reduce the Vignette Amount to -30. You’ll see the corners darken slightly. Click on the layer options menu and choose Flatten Image.