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The Importance of Selecting the Proper Sky for a Sky Replacement

Published: 04/11/2020

Recently, PFRE published an article about one of the more interesting and exciting new features in the latest version of Photoshop: the Sky Replacement Tool. It’s a welcome addition for all real estate shooters. Until now, doing a sky replacement meant we had to: (a) manually insert a replacement sky using any of the myriad sky-selection techniques currently available on YouTube and the Adobe Channel; or (b) pay for an additional plug-in to do this automatically--namely, the Luminar 4 plugin, from Skylum Software.

Being able to do a great sky replacement can distinguish real estate photographers and can certainly lend credence to the agent when s/he tells their homeowner clients that they’re doing everything they can to market their home. Indeed, I believe a proper sky replacement for a shot that originally had a dull white/great sky, can have a beneficial impact on the prospective home buyer who may be viewing that photo. It might be a stretch but given that buying a house is often an emotional decision, the potential home buyers might be inclined to associate the attractiveness garnered from a great sky replacement, with the house being listed.

So yes, it’s a great thing that the new "artificial intelligence" (AI) technology driving these new tools from Photoshop and Luminar can replace a sky in a few seconds. More than this, it’s immensely helpful that for the most part, they avoid the fringing/haloing issues that so frequently have plagued photographers when doing manual sky replacements. However, what these new tools don’t offer is the capacity to choose the sky that best “fits” the scene. Yes, these new tools offer a small catalogue of skies that you can use--and some of them are spectacular. However, just because you can insert a stunning, dramatic sky into a photo, doesn’t mean you should!

Making the right choice is something that still rests with the photographer and I’d wager that all of us have seen real estate photos where the photographer has used a sky that was shot at mid-day on a bright, cloudless day, to replace the sky in a shot that was taken on a dark rainy day. When this happens, that exterior shot of the home is negatively impacted. Put simply, the shot just doesn’t look right.

So, what are the key variables at play when selecting the right sky? I’d like to suggest at least three: light direction, color temperature, and brightness. I know there are more considerations and I hope that folks will chime in with additional suggestions in the comments section. To highlight the importance of the three considerations I’ve mentioned, I’d like to offer a couple of images to hit the points home... and, yes, I'm going to use an inappropriate sky to more vividly make my points.

Below, we see the original sky on the left and the replacement on the right. While the replacement sky here is lovely, it gives evidence of how ignoring light direction, color temperature and brightness in the replacement process can negatively impact the shot.

First, let’s talk about light direction. As evidenced by the “hard” shadows on the house, as well as their almost vertical orientation, we know that the house was being hit with full sun, pretty much at mid-day. In the photo on the right, the light is much softer, of course, but more to the point, it’s coming toward the camera on a relatively flat plane, given that the sky was captured around sunset. As such, those vertically oriented shadows make zero sense when combined with that sky. Next, we see that the replacement sky is much darker and yet, the façade of the house in the sunset shot is still very bright indicating that the sky should be brighter, too. The variable that I think is not given the weight it deserves when making a sky replacement is color temperature. The sky on the right is oozing warmth and yet, the temperature of the house is very cool. All told, there is a lack of fit.

As for the original photo on the left, while I'm not sure I would do a sky replacement for it, let's say that I'm going to be delivering the photos to an agent-client who keeps telling me how much she loves them. So, in the interest of customer service, let's oblige her and use a sky replacement that better matches the three variables that I've just discussed. Something along the lines of this:

Here we see the relative brightness and color temperature in both skies is virtually identical. We can also visualize that, in the sky on the right, the wispiness and separation between the clouds would not affect the strength of the sun hitting the house and as such, would still cause those hard shadows. So all-in-all, the sky replacement in this shot fits much better than in the previous one. 

As I said earlier, other variables need to be considered that I haven't discussed here (i.e., considering where the horizon ought to be placed--especially when replacing a sky in a twilight shot). There is also the importance of taking the time to shoot and catalogue your own sky photos so that you have a healthy selection available to you, if/when you decide to do a sky replacement. Both Luminar 4 and the new Photoshop sky replacement tool give you the option of selecting your own skies, rather than forcing you to use skies from their small catalogue of replacement skies.

In any case, I hope this post has been helpful to you and certainly, if you have other ideas that you’d like to share on how to do a good sky replacement, then please leave your suggestions in the comments section. Thanks!