From Gray Skies to Sunshine

Smog, haze, heavy clouds, gray skies and stormy weather can kill an otherwise interesting photograph. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to change a boring picture with a nondescript background and turn it into a dramatic composition, digitally.

There are various ways that can be done with an image-editing program like Adobe Photoshop or Ulead PhotoImpact. The first step is generally image optimization. If there’s any shadow definition in the original image at all, the brightness/contrast adjustment can kick the brightness up to make the image look more dramatic, while contrast can be increased so that the shadows become better defined.

Optimization techniques work well enough as a starting point, but they’re generally not enough. Photo compositing–combining multiple images into one photograph–is frequently required. By replacing the sky, rather than just optimizing it, it’s possible to instill drama into the image that wasn’t there before.

That’s what was done with the series of shots of the adobe wall. The original shot was taken with an older digital camera, one that only had a one-megapixel resolution, The shot was actually taken on a pretty nice day in San Diego. The sun was out, and the sky was light blue. But the camera had a tendency to capture images a little flat and just slightly off color.

Fortunately, it didn’t take much computer work to optimize it. Just punching the contrast and brightness up made it considerably better. Adding a well-defined sky made it publishable, Replacing the blue sky with a blustery sky changed the overall mood of the picture. The version of the shot with a bright blue sky and billowing clouds is certainly more dramatic than the original. Any number of skies can be tried.

There are two ways to come up with usable skies. The first is to find a photograph of yours that has a good-looking sky in it. If it’s still in a print format, the shot has to be digitized. When working in Photoshop, once the image is in the computer, select the entire sky and copy it. Then open up a new image, which will automatically be the size of the clipped sky, and paste the sky into it.

Then select the sky in the original photo and inverse the selection. Selecting a washed out sky is usually easier than trying to select the various other elements in the photograph. Inversing the selection will define all the elements except for the sky. The defined area can be copied and pasted into the newly created image with the sky in it.

The other way of replacing the sky is by buying a CD with stock sky shots on it. There are all sorts of sky stock shots available on CD. While the selected sky shot doesn’t have to be the exact same size of the original image, it should be approximately the same size.

The stock shot would be opened first, and saved to a different file The part of the original composition is then pasted into the composition. The advantage to using a stock photo is that the sky will fit better into the final composition, since it covers the entire frame, The disadvantage is that stock shots cost money.

Photographers just starting out with photo composition frequently lock themselves into techniques that they’ve been taught or those that had worked well for them in the past. But experimenting is part of the fun of creating photo compositions, and breaking the rules is part of experimentation. One way of experimenting is through playing with scale and image orientation.

Scale and image orientation can be used as creative elements in a composition, particularly when working with clouds. For example, it’s easy to get that forlorn effect that instills a certain “New Mexico reservation” feeling for the wall shot by reducing the size of the main object in the composition while keeping the dramatic sky large.

The main subject in the example photograph, the adobe wall, dominates the frame in the full-sized horizontal shot. It can be turned into a design element when its size is reduced and placed in a vertical composition. What used to be most important becomes secondary to the overall scene.

Obviously the vertical shot of the wall with the red clouds in the background wouldn’t be the same without the wall. But it wouldn’t be the same without the clouds either. Both elements in the composition are essential for the shot to work,

Sometimes, to make a shot work, a little extra manipulation is required. For example, in order for the wall to work so small in the composition, it had to be extended across the bottom of the frame. Neither of the wall extensions at the sides of the main building were in the original composition. They were created in the computer.

Opening up background space with clouds not only changes the overall composition, but it also makes it possible to add text or other graphic elements to a composition. Once completed, photo-composites can be used for newsletter covers, advertisements or other material to be published.

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