Moody Skies with Color Range and Blending Modes

As a landscape photographer, I am frequently looking for a way to give my images a bit of extra "pop," without going crazy with color or saturation.  Adding some contrast can help an image significantly, but there are times when the landscape has subtle tones and gradations that I do not want to destroy by pumping up the contrast overall.  Since I primarily shoot when the sky is cloudy, however, if I spend some time in Adobe Photoshop on that area of the image, I can create that sense of dimension I am looking for without messing up the actual landscape.

The technique I like to call my "moody sky" trick revolves around a few key tools.  I will not be going into elaborate detail as to how these tools work in this article, but I will be explaining how these tools relate to the technique at hand.  The first step is acquiring an image that has a sky with some clouds, preferably a mix of light and dark tones.  The image I have selected was made in Cape Cod, and has just the kind of sky I am looking for.  As the image stands now, the sky does have some contrast, and I could easily add a layer of contrast with a curve or level.  However, that would affect the entire sky and not give me any selective control.  Contrast is simply the relationship of one tone to another, how bright something is in relation to what is next to it.  

To create the truly "moody" sky that I am looking for, a combination of tools must be used.  After opening my image in Adobe Photoshop CS4, I have an unedited file.  Be sure that you are working on the background (and only) layer.  Go to Select (on the top menu bar) then click on Color Range (found about halfway down the menu).  The color range tool works by selecting a range of similar colors, controlled with the "fuzziness" slider.  You will notice that the tool gives you an eyedropper, use this to click on some of the darker tones in the clouds.  With the "Selection Preview" menu at the bottom of the Color Range dialogue box set to "None," you can use the small black and white preview within the dialogue box to see what is being selected.  Any area that is white represents what the Color Range tool will select.  

The CR Dialogue Box.jpg
"The Color Range tool.  This allows you to use an eyedropper tool to select colors and tones within an image that are similar.  The Color Range tool is essential for the "moody skies" technique." 

There will be two Color Range selections made for this process to be most effective, one of the dark tones in the clouds and one of the brighter ones.  Keep that in mind when making the first Color Range selection.  Do not worry if the selection encroaches on other areas of the picture, we will be fixing this later on.  The most important thing is that the dark tones in the sky are selected.  Click OK and you will have a selection.  

In the Layers palette, create a new curves adjustment layer.  We will not be editing the actual curve, but the layer serves as a place holder for the selection we just created.  When you create a new adjustment layer with a selection currently active, Photoshop automatically turns that selection into a mask and puts it on the layer.  What you should have now looks exactly the same, but having that curves layer with the color range slecttion is key.  The mask (shown by holding the "alt" key and clicking on the mask) should look something like this:

Resulting Mask after CR.jpg
"The initial mask after making my first Color Range selection of the dark clouds and clicking OK.  If there are any white areas in the foreground, simply take a black paint brush and paint them away."

Click on the background layer again, and repeat the Color Range process, this time selecting the bright areas of clouds.  Remember, it is OK if parts of the selection end up in the foreground, since the odds are good that there will be similar tones in the foreground and the sky, and the Color Range tool will not know the difference.  Once you have your two curves layers, one with a mask of the dark tones in the sky, and one with a mask of the bright tones, I like to label each layer so I know which is which.  

The next step is where we make actual, visual changes to the image.  With the first curves layer active, change the blending mode from Normal to Multiply.  You will notice that the darker areas of the sky get extremely dark.  Set the Opacity of the layer to about 20%.  The opacity is flexible, be sure to play around to find a number that works for you.  Now go to the curves layer with the bright areas of sky and set it to Screen blending mode.  Set the Opacity of this layer to around 20% as well.  If you are new to blending modes, be sure to read my previous article on Steve's Digicams describing their uses here: Link

What this technique does is simply darken the dark parts of the sky, and lighten the brighter parts.  The mask that color range gives you allows for very selective control over those specific areas of the sky.  If the Color Range selection also picked up some parts of the foreground, simply grab a big black paintbrush and brush out the foreground on the mask.  

Image with Layers no blending.jpg
"The resulting image, with no blending modes yet assigned, but both Color Range selections applied to their respective layers and labeled."  

By combining the Color Range tool, and deftly applied blending modes with small amounts of opacity, you can give landscape images with cloudy skies that extra punch everyone looks for in their photographers.  By experimenting with this technique and its infinite variations, you can imagine how it would apply to other parts of your images.  Keep in mind that any mask made with any tool in Adobe Photoshop can be easily modified with a few strokes of the brush tool, so do not be disappointed if the Color Range mask does not come out perfect at first.  And remember to ALWAYS make the Color Range selection from the Background layer, if you try to make it while you are on an adjustment layer, nothing will happen!

Final Image.jpg
"The final result, after using the Color Range tool to select both the dark parts of the clouds and the light parts, and blending modes to selectively and precisely increase the contrast within them"  

jf.gifJoshua Lehrer | Website
Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant.  He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer.  He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.