Dealing with overly bright skies is a challenge photographers of all stripes must deal with on a regular basis. We’ve all been there: on vacation, in a great spot, just a few hours to photograph but sunrise and sunset are not an option. So we photograph our subjects when the sun is overhead, showering everything in blue light. Skies suffer the worst sometimes, with areas that are partially blue and others partially blown out or too bright. The shot below exemplifies this.
The good news is, there’s as easy fix if you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to perform a lot of raw processing or retouching. Photoshop Multiply Mode (blend mode to be precise) to the rescue!
First, duplicate your Background Layer by right-clicking above the layer’s name and choosing Duplicate Layer. In the dialog box that pops up, choose a name and make sure the same image is selected in your Destination menu (this is the default but it can’t hurt to check). When you’re done click OK.
Next, use the Quick Selection tool or whichever you prefer to select everything but the skies. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly perfect; just get it close so that we can shore things up with the Refine Mask feature.
Now click the New Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel (third from left); it should generate a new layer mask to accompany your new Multiply layer. From there, open the Properties panel (Photoshop CS6 only — use the Masks panel in CS5) and click the Invert button. This will flip your mask so that only the skies will be affected by the Multiply effect.
In most cases you’ll then need to soften the boundary between your selected sky region (remember: layer masks are just another way to look at a selection), and the rest of the photo. In some cases you may need to expand or contract the mask slightly. To accomplish these tasks keep the Properties (or Masks) panel open and click the Mask Edge button. This will open the Refine Mask dialog box. Select a View Mode that suits you, in order to preview the mask effect as you make changes. I often choose On White (W) or On Black (B). This makes it easier to see soft selection edges.
Next, use the Feather and Shift Edge settings to make sure the selection / mask extends as far as you need it to, and that there is a soft transition. This will avoid creating any halo-like effects or harsh edges when we apply our changes to the layer. Click OK when you’re done.
Now all you need to do is switch the Blend Mode of the new layer to Multiply, and adjust the Opacity to taste! I’ve also added a Vibrance layer for fun. However I didn’t want to over-saturate the sky so I “borrowed” the same layer mask I used for the sky layer, and inverted it that so that only the ground is effected. The best news of all is, when you use this technique in real time it should take substantially less time than it took you to read this tip!
If you’d like to learn more about some of my favorite selection and blending techniques, as well as image adjustments, and new retouching tools like Content-Aware Move, you may be interested in my 3 hour Photoshop CS6 training course (in HD, straight to your computer or mobile device), designed to benefit photographers of all levels.