I am pretty cheap when it comes to photographing our family camping excursions. My Cannon point-and-shoot is a decent camera, but when it comes to shooting in low light conditions, or my biggest challenge – shooting good landscapes, the limitations of this kind of camera are clearly evident in the marginal pictures it produces (not me, of course – the camera!).This photo of Upper Yosemite Falls is typical of the problems I face, with a washed-out gray sky that turns an otherwise interesting picture into something rather normal and boring. Fortunately, I have Photoshop Elements, which is a $60 version of the full-fledged Photoshop, with a limited feature-set that is still plenty powerful for the type of image editing that I do.
I have been using various version of Photoshop Elements for many years. I am definitely not a “power user” and probably do not make use of even half of what this program is capable of. As a blogger and the unofficial family photographer, however, it’s one of my most-used software applications.Photoshop Elements makes novice users, like me, look respectable by offering a number of built-in functions. The one I use the most is Auto Smart Fix, which performs some kind of voodoo magic on the image and just makes it look better (most of the time). You can see in the two images above, that Auto Smart Fix did not drastically alter the photo, but it did improve the color and contrast of the rock-face and brighten the foreground trees. Now, to fix the sky.
Creating new background layers in Multiply mode darkens the contrast, which makes it easier to select the washed-out sky from the now darkened terrain. I used three Multiply layers, here, in order to get the contrast high enough. Don’t worry, we will turn these layers off once we drop-in the new blue sky.
Here is where things start to heat up. I create a Levels Adjustment Layer above the top background layer and accept the default levels in the resulting dialog box. Now I open my handy blue sky photo – I keep several images of the sky stored, just for these occasions.
Dragging the blue sky image on top of my Yosemite Falls image creates a new layer above the Levels Adjustment Layer (Layers box in the lower-right corner). Next, just move the blue sky around until it completely covers all of the washed-out sky in the original photo.
Now group the new blue sky layer with the Levels Adjustment Layer, created above. This creates what Photoshop calls a Clipping Group – in laymen’s terms it will apply the blue sky in this layer, to sections of the original photo that we carve-out in the next step.
Up to this point, I have a darkened image with a big blue box over the top of it. The last step before replacing the washed-out sky with my new blue sky is to invert the white background on the Levels Adjustment Layer to black, by selecting it in the Layers box and hitting Ctrl I (Invert).
Once I invert the Adjustment Layer, the blue sky layer disappears, revealing the darkened Yosemite Falls layer, below. Now I can use the Magic Wand tool to select as much of the washed-out sky that I can. I cannot get every little bit of it, because of the intricate tree branches, but hopefully enough so that the final image will look realistic.
Here is where all the Adjustment Layer and inverting comes into play; select the Adjustment Layer in the Layer box and use the Paint Bucket tool to fill the washed-out sky with white – poof! The washed-out sky instantly disappears to reveal the blue sky layer.
With the blue sky in place, the original background image is restored by turning off (clicking the “eye” next to each Multiply layer in the Layer box) the various Multiply Layers.
The end result is a much better picture and, in this case, one that is a much better representation of the cold, clear day that we spent in Yosemite. This photo just might find itself on this year’s Christmas Calendar!