Fixing Dull Skies in Photoshop with Gradient & Color Overlays

This post began as a response to a post in the Linked In Adobe Software Users Group. Rich Harrington had posted a tutorial on fixing blown-out skies, in which he selected the sky using select by color range and then replaced the original sky with another image of sky. But what if you want to keep the original sky, but improve its color? Another user mentioned using curves and advocated working in LAB, which certainly opens up some interesting possibilities. But the discussion made me think of one of my favorite tricks for improving color in skies, which I also just mentioned in my Photoshop class last night: I often use color and gradient overlays.

This trick works in some situations when Curves or other adjustment tools might not. Think of a completely white or gray sky, like portions of the sky in the image below. There is simply no color there to work with. Curves can’t add color when there is no color there; it can only improve existing color. But a gradient or color overlay can add the needed color.

Sample image using masked gradient and color overlays to correct a washed-out sky. Click the image to download the full layered PSD to see how it was done. (People in foreground have been intentionally obscured.)

 Steps

  1. Make your selection. While a number of tools may be useful, your washed out sky will often be mostly white or gray, making “Color Range” in the Select Menu a very good choice. Use the shift key to add color ranges from your image to the selection, and alt/option click to remove color ranges; adjust the fuzziness slider to extend the edges of the selection (similar to tolerance for the magic wand tool).
  2. With your selection active, create your adjustment layer. The selection will be automatically applied as a mask for that layer. Depending on your needs, create either a solid color or a gradient overlay; when blending into a horizon I usually use gradients fading into transparency to get a more subtle look; for patches of sky surrounded by clouds, I might use a solid color (with a feathered mask).
  3. For your colors, be sure to use sky blues, not cyans. Sky blues are true blues that might be lighter and less saturated, but they are not greenish. Some photoshoppers are tempted when looking at the color picker to choose a cyan color for their sky; don’t. Use a true blue and desaturate/make it lighter as needed.
  4. Once you’ve edited your color or gradient, you need to make the overlay blend in with the image behind it. You will NEVER use the “Normal” blending mode for this, as it will obscure the detail. I usually experiment with various modes until I find the one that works best for that image; The sample image in this post uses “Color Burn,” but I’ve used others as well.

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