Make a Dramatically Blue Sky

You might have noticed that the sky in your digital photos is washed out and little pale most of the time. It's not your fault--but it's not really your camera's fault, either. A better camera won't solve the problem.

In most photos, the most important element in the scene is the foreground, so your camera's automatic exposure system tries to ensure that the foreground looks good. Because the sky is usually a lot brighter than your subject, it ends up getting overexposed and drained of color. The alternative, of course, is to get a beautiful, vibrant, blue sky--with a dark and underexposed subject.

Sky Improvement Strategies

There are a couple of ways to deal with this problem. You can use your camera's exposure controls to intentionally underexpose the scene, which will help to draw out the vibrant blues of the sky. This ends up reducing color and detail down on the ground, though.

Here's another option: If you like to plan ahead, you could take some photos of a clear blue sky and save them for a rainy day. If you compose your pictures so there's nothing but sky in the frame, you can get some great images that are perfectly exposed. Then you use one of your beautiful blue skies to replace an underexposed sky in a regular photo. Just delete the washed-out sky, open one of your better sky shots and copy the whole thing, then paste it in your original photo. In order to delete the old sky, you'll need to select it first--so check out "Master Your Photo Editor's Selection Tools" for tips on how to do that.

Devious? You bet. But you can get some great results this way.

Or you can try a little trick I call "multiplying" the sky. You won't need to take any extra photos or change the exposure when you take the shot--the entire fix happens in your favorite photo editing program.

Here's how it works: Open a photo, select the sky, and copy it the clipboard. Then paste another layer of sky into the picture, using a blending mode to multiply the colors in the layer to produce a deeper, darker hue. If there's even a hint of blue in your sky to begin with, I guarantee that you'll be impressed with the result.

Multiplying Your Sky

Let's give it a shot. Find a picture with a pale blue sky and open it in Adobe Photoshop Elements. If you want to, you can use the sample image to the left.

Next, select the sky. The easiest way to do that is using the Magic Wand tool, seventh from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. In the Options Palette at the top of the screen, set the Tolerance to about 30 and click the Add to Selection mode button. Each time you click in the sky, the individual selections will be joined together.

Now click somewhere in the middle of the sky. You should see selection marks appear around a big blotch. To capture the entire area, click a few more times until you've selected the whole sky, being careful not to also grab any unrelated parts of the picture. Copy the selected sky to the clipboard by choosing Edit, Copy from the menu.

Next, choose Edit, Paste, and a second copy of the sky will appear in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen. We're ready to try the multiply effect. In the Layer Palette, set the Blend Mode (which is usually set to Normal) to Multiply, as you see here.

You should see the colors in your sky deepen. If that wasn't enough of a change to suit you, don't worry. Here's where your artistic judgment comes in: Because the sky is already copied into your clipboard, you can continue to paste new layers into your image until you get the deep and colorful effect you're looking for. If the sky is too dark, you can use the opacity slider to reduce the effect. Click this thumbnail for my final version based on the sample photo.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Lightning Storm," by Tom Barclay, Lisbon, Connecticut

Tom writes: "I took this photo in South Africa in my sister's backyard during one of the nightly thunderstorms. Having no tripod with me, I had to lean against a post to help steady the camera. The exposure time was approximately 8 seconds (I left the shutter open while waiting for the lightning flash). I added the water afterwards in Photoshop using the Flaming Pear Flood filter."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Spring Grove," by Jeff Hopkins, Cincinnati

Jeff took this vibrant photo at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati using a Canon Rebel XTi.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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