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Correcting the sky with Curves

From: Enhancing a Travel Photo with Photoshop and Lightroom

Video: Correcting the sky with Curves

Now let's work on bringing out more of the tone and color in the sky using adjustment layers and masks. We'll start by isolating the sky with a quick selection. I'll get the Quick Selection tool in the toolbar, and with a small brush tip, I'll click and drag over the sky to get a pretty good initial selection. To remove this steeple from the sky, I am going to zoom in a bit. I'll go up to the options bar for the Quick Selection tool, and get the Subtract from Selection icon, and then I'll click and drag over that steeple.

Correcting the sky with Curves

Now let's work on bringing out more of the tone and color in the sky using adjustment layers and masks. We'll start by isolating the sky with a quick selection. I'll get the Quick Selection tool in the toolbar, and with a small brush tip, I'll click and drag over the sky to get a pretty good initial selection. To remove this steeple from the sky, I am going to zoom in a bit. I'll go up to the options bar for the Quick Selection tool, and get the Subtract from Selection icon, and then I'll click and drag over that steeple.

I'll do the same here, and over here. I can refine the selection edge a bit further by going up to the options bar, and clicking Refine Edge, and that opens the Refine Edge dialog. I've set the View menu to On White, and with the Refine Radius tool, I'll move into the image, I'll make my brush a bit bigger by pressing the Right Bracket key a couple of times, and I'm going to click on some of these steeples to get a better selection edge around them.

I'll do the same over here, and along the tops of these trees, right where the sun is setting, which you can see right there, and then I'll click OK. Now let's add a Curves adjustment Layer. To do that, I'll click on the topmost layer in the Layers panel, and then I'll go up to the Adjustments panel, and I'll click this Curves icon. That converts our selection of the sky into a mask on this adjustment layer, and where that mask is white, the curves adjustment we're about to make will show through. Where the mask is black, that will hide the Curves adjustment.

This ability to isolate a Curves adjustment with a mask is one of the things that makes curves in Photoshop more useful for local adjustments than the global tone curve in Lightroom. Now, I know that some photographers shy away from curves, because they haven't had the best of luck with them, but there are a couple of things that will help you to use curves. One of those is the menu of defaults here at the top of the Curves controls in the Properties panel, which by the way, I just moved over to the left, so there is more room to see the sky. From that menu, I am going to choose the Darker preset, because I want to start off by darkening the entire sky.

If you take a look at the curve, you can understand why the sky is now darker. The diagonal line represents the baseline, and where the curve is lower than that diagonal line, the corresponding tones in the image are darker, so that includes all the tones, in this case. Now I'd like to add another curves adjustment layer, which is another advantage of using curves in Photoshop over using curves in Lightroom: you can have more than one. To add an additional adjustment layer, I'll go back to the Adjustments panel, and I'll click the Curves icon again. Rather than start again making a selection, I am just going to copy the layer mask on the Curves 1 layer up to the Curves 2 layer.

To do that, I'll hold the Option key, or the Alt key on a PC, and I'll click on the mask on Curves 1, and drag it up to Curves 2, and release, and then I'll click Yes. Now, to see the controls for the Curves 2 adjustment layer over in the Properties panel, I click the Adjustment icon on the Curves 2 layer. Over in the Curves panel, I don't need those presets now, so I am just going to scroll down in the Curves panel, so I can see more of the Curves controls. Another Curves feature that can make things easier for you is the Targeted Adjustment tool, which you can activate by clicking this little hand icon on the left side of the Curves controls.

With that tool, I am going to move into the image. I'll hold the Spacebar, so that I can drag over to the left, so I can see more of the photo, and I'm going to click on this little bright area of the photo that I'd like to keep this bright. That sets an anchor point representing those tones here on the curve. Next, still using that Targeted Adjustment tool, I'll click on a darker area, maybe right here, and I'm going to drag down in order to increase contrast in the sky, and at the same time, I'm darkening the sky a bit, and adding more color.

That's because Curves adjustments do affect color, as well as tone. Now if you take a look at this curve, you can see that we've increased the steepness of the curve here, and that's what increases contrast in the sky. I am going to double-click on the hand tool in the toolbar, so we can see the entire image again. I like that look, but if you think that we have bumped up the contrast in color too much, you can reduce the Opacity of either of these Curves adjustment layers. So, with the Curves 2 layer selected in the Layers panel, I'll try pressing the number 8 on my keyboard, and you'll see that that reduces the Opacity of that Curves adjustment to 80%.

There is one more thing I want to change about the color in the sky, and that's this bright blue corner up here, which looks a bit out of balance with the other softer colors in the sky. To tone it down, let's add one more Adjustment layer; this time, a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, which I'll add by clicking the Hue/Saturation icon in the Adjustments panel. I'll go over to the Properties panel, which is now showing the Hue/Saturation controls, and it has its own Targeted Adjustment tool, which I'll activate by clicking this hand icon. And then I'd come up to that bright blue corner, and I'll click and I'll drag to the left to tone down the saturation of that bright blue part of the sky.

Now, that adjustment is affecting all of the blues in the image, because as of now, there is no black paint on that layer mask. So, I'm going to fill the layer mask completely with black, and then just paint in where I want this adjustment. To fill with black, I'll set my foreground color to black by pressing X on my keyboard, and then I'll use one of my favorite shortcuts, which is the shortcut for filling with the foreground color. That's Option+Delete on the Mac, or Alt+Backspace on the PC. Now that that entire mask is black, I'll get my Brush tool, I'll switch my foreground color to white by pressing X on the keyboard, and with a large soft brush, I am just going to paint in with white on the layer mask over that bright blue area of the sky to balance out the colors a little more, and then I'll close the Properties panel.

Now that we've got the sky looking just about the way I remember it as the sun was going down over this scene, I am going to save to save these adjustments back to the TIF that we've been managing in Lightroom's Library. That's Command+S on the Mac, or Ctrl+S on the PC. Now, if you're following along on this photo, keep in mind what I've done with these adjustment layers is really subjective, and it's certainly not the only way to adjust this sky. Feel free to make the sky look however you like it by experimenting with the controls for any of these adjustment layers, and adding others if you like.

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Enhancing a Travel Photo with Photoshop and Lightroom

12 video lessons · 5781 viewers

Jan Kabili
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