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What is the best way to handle overexposed sky in post-processing?

I know, a photographer should generally try to not shoot against the light and take care of proper exposure. Still, as an amateur I frequently end up with "white skies", where there is no color detail at all in the sky. This can be because of shooting against the light, simply chosing the wrong moment, position or any other reason.

Yet, given such a result, which is better avoided then cured, what is the best way to post process such a scenario? A full image exposure correction (I shoot in RAW) darkens the foreground too much, so it seems selective exposure correction is the way to go. That however can be very tedious in complex images (imagine a complex tree on a white background) and I've found results to be unnatural.

Is there a better way to filter / postprocess these white skies?


If the sky is truly blown out and has no detail, you can add some blue to it so that it's not so bright, and looks like a realistic blue sky.

  • Select the sky. Given it is blown out this would be easy using Select > Color Range, and pick "Highlights" from the drop down options. Feather by a few pixels and use that as a mask to start. An alternate way is to create a white mask, then with the mask selected, go to Image > Apply Image and that will put a greyscale copy of the image into the mask - the sky being white, your adjustments will then be applied to the sky. You can use levels to bring the greys to black.

  • Then add a cooling filter and select a nice blue, or add a blue solid color adjustment layer and lower opacity.

  • with trees, it can look unrealistic. You can try the blend if trick below or use refine edge to expand/contract the mask to remove halo effects.

If there is a little bit of detail in the sky but it is very light, try this:

  • from Camera Raw, click shift to open in photoshop as an object
  • make copy of the layer with New Smart Object via Copy
  • double click on thumbnail of the copy to open in Camera Raw
  • use recovery slider and exposure until the sky looks good, click OK
  • double click on the layer, not on the thumbnail, to bring up layer styles
  • use the "blend if" sliders at the bottom to blend in just the skies.

For example, here I have the version with lighter skies on top. I've selected "blend this layer if" the values are between 196 and 255. This lets the darker version of the image bleed through where the lighter version has light pixels in the sky. So in the result you see the darker sky but the lighter foreground subject.

enter image description here

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  • Your answer is simply awesome and gives me a lot to chew on. I'm experimenting with all your tips. A totally blown out sky is still hard to get natural but I hope that with practice I improve that skill. A partially blown out sky is quite easy to improve using your tips, very useful. I had no idea about the "blend if" setting, thanks for educating me. Finally, I'm also trying to create copies of the same image in lightroom with different exposures and then merging them into a HDR in Photoshop. I have the basics working but I don't fully understand the photoshop dialog. – Fer Dec 30 '11 at 22:22
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    You'll notice I didn't show one with a tree. It is hard. You usually end up losing lots of detail in the tree(s) in order to not have halos in the sky. Usually can't tell unless you see the before and after. The Apply Image is a weird (to me) command that you don't see mentioned very often, but a quick way to get a mask. You can choose from red, blue or green channel too (very useful in touching up portraits, by using the red channel you can get a good mask for skin) – MikeW Dec 30 '11 at 22:44

The short answer to this is that you can probably retrieve a small amount of detail in the sky but probably not much. The problem you have is that the sky is what is referred to as blown out which means that area of the sensor was completely saturated with charge when you took the shot and produced data of a uniform value rather than capturing any detail. This is why its important to get the exposure right when taking a shot in situations like this because you have effectively lost most of the detail in the sky. If you cannot get good results from using the recovery setting in your RAW processing software than try an HDR technique that I have had success with in the past. First create two versions of the image. One with the exposure pulled right back so that the sky looks OK. Then use some HDR processing software to blend the under and original over exposed images together so that any detail in the sky that you have managed to get back is preserved.

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  • Great tip, experimenting with the HRD approach right now. By the way, how would you go about properly exposing a situation in which you shoot against the light? The simple answer would be "don't". Sometimes I don't have a choice though. I may be travelling to wildlife and have no ability to return or position myself in a better light condition. Would it be best to underexpose in that case? Even if that makes the foreground too dark? – Fer Dec 30 '11 at 22:25
  • If you are fortunate to have a tripod and non-moving subjects, you can simply bracket the shot widely. That will give you some less exposed shots to use for the sky portion. This is what HDR does. – Skaperen Dec 31 '11 at 2:21

If you're wanting to post-process the color in, then using a gradient blend results in the most realistic skies. Mask off the foreground, and draw a blend so it's the lightest closest to the natural light source.

As you pointed out in your question, the masking part can be tedious. Either change your exposure in-camera so the sky isn't washed out, or compose so that a white sky isn't a major detractor. I find the last two options more enjoyable than hours with Photoshop.

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  • Fully agreed that avoiding is better than curing. What would be your advise though on in-camera exposure with a bright sky and a dark foreground? Other than coming back the next day :) – Fer Dec 30 '11 at 23:01

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