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Better Blue Sky with the Gradient Tool
There I was, on my knees at ground level, taking a closeup of some Texas Bluebonnets while the girls were working out in the field clearing brush & burning deadwood. The boom box was playing in the background, Willie Nelson & the boys at their best. I looked up and saw something special - my wife was teaching our daughter how to dance the Texas Two-Step. I tilted the camera up and squeezed off a snapshot.
I loved the picture ... I only wished that the sky looked as blue as it did in real life. But that's what frequently happens with outdoor photography. If the foreground is exposed properly, the sky becomes faded, gray, or white from overexposure.
Nikon Coolpix 4500 snapshot
Put the blue back into the sky with a simple two step process.
(Below) Here's the same picture with a natural looking blue sky, achieved with a relatively simple two step process in Adobe Photoshop. Note that the blue is darker at the top, fading away as it reaches ground level, just the way Mother Nature does it.
First step - The Magic Wand Tool.
- Click on the Magic Wand Tool in Photoshop's Toolbar.
- Set the Tolerance to 30.
- Uncheck the Contiguous box. This allows the Magic Wand to pick up the sky within tree limbs, leaves, telephone poles or other obstructions in the sky. Note: It doesn't matter if the Magic Wand picks up other areas in the lower part of the picture, what's important is that the entire sky gets selected.
- Uncheck the Anti-aliased box. Otherwise the gradient will tint the edges on objects within the sky.
- Uncheck the Use All layers box.
- Click the magic wand tool on the sky. If there are clouds present, click the sky, not the clouds. If some of the sky doesn't get picked up on the first click, hold the Shift Key down while you do some more clicks on the unselected areas until the whole sky is selected.
- Now feather the selection 10 pixels.
This will smooth the sky to edges transition areas.
Second step - The Gradient Tool.
- Click on the Gradient Tool in Photoshop's Toolbar.
- Select Foreground to Transparent. Clicking on the little down arrow on the right side of the box shown below the "Image Layer Select" part of the Photoshop menu bar will drop down the field of choices. (Click the down arrow again to retract it.)
- Check the Reverse box (makes it go from transparent to colored.)
- Check the Dither box (makes the fade smoother & more natural looking.)
- Check the Transparency box (retains a natural look so it doesn't look painted-on.)
- Set the Opacity at 25% to 50%. Higher percentages produce bluer skies, but can look too stiff. Start out with 25% and see how that works first.
Next pick a natural blue sky-like color to use for the Gradient.
- Click on the foreground color box (the top one of the twin color boxes) located in the bottom section of the toolbar, the Color Picker will pop up on your screen. Slide the slider to the blue range and click on a foreground color that is rich-blue-skylike. (Example shown below.)
- Tip: If you like the way a particular blue setting works for your skies, you can manually enter the code numbers & letters in the box at the bottom of the Color Picker screen. (1A56B1 is my blue for a sky Gradient.)
Just replace the existing code numbers & letters in the box when you open the Color Picker. You'll get the same color every time.
Apply the Gradient.
- Click on the Gradient Tool again, put the mouse cursor on the bottom of the sky, hold the mouse button down as you drag the cursor to the top of the sky, then release the mouse button. Sometimes a slight angle as you drag your mouse (like the one shown below) will produce an even more natural look. Take one pass only.
- If you want more or less blue intensity, there's an easy way to do it. Click on Edit, then click on Fade in the Photoshop Menu Bar. The Fade screen will pop up with its adjustment slider set at the Gradient percentage you initially chose. Move the slider left to decrease the intensity, move the slider right to increase the intensity. Then click OK.
- Then Deselect the sky (Select / Deselect in the dropdown menu).
- Done. Save it as a different file name to you retain your original. Make sure your computer is backed up with a good CMMS system so you never lose any of the work you've done.
- If you're printing the picture, try a stronger opacity percentage of Gradient fill. A rich blue sky is especially dramatic in print.