Is Sky Replacement Ethical in Landscape Photography?

Sky replacement has been a method used in landscape photography for years but recently it has become much more accessible with AI assisted features in programs such as Photoshop and Luminar. That accessibility has ignited debates within the photography community raising the question whether or not manipulating an image in such a way is ethical.

The only thing more debated in the photography world is what camera is best at any given time. Every person has a different view and outlook on what they expect from a photographer and the digital age has overwhelmed many of us with images that appear so perfect that they can't be real.

That brings up the question, is photography strictly intended to show what is only real in that moment? Is the medium not allowed to evolve as our world changes? These are all wonderful questions that I'll try to tackle here but please remember these are all my opinions and how I personally feel about the medium that is photography. There is no right or wrong answer but I would encourage everyone to be open-minded to others as it fuels healthier discussion (I'm looking at you, comment section).

The Nat Geo Rule

The purest of the photography world follow what I call the "Nat Geo Rule" where photos shouldn't be manipulated more than basic adjustments such as exposure or contrast. This viewpoint stems from the idea that if you're capturing moments as a photojournalist then you shouldn't change the "truth" of what is happening at that moment by manipulating a photo in any way. Personally, I agree with this ideal when it comes to photojournalism but I also think there is a distinct difference between someone claiming to be a photojournalist and a photographer. 

A Florida cypress during sunrise with very little editing

Every photojournalist is a photographer but not every photographer is a photojournalist. National Geographic has had a long-standing rule that photos published and submitted must not be manipulated outside of basic adjustments, hence why I call this the "Nat Geo Rule." This applies to all forms of photojournalism but National Geographic covering nature and landscapes sets a precedent for many other publications that focus on similar genres. It goes without saying that nearly every nature photographer dreams of being published in National Geographic someday which puts some emphasis on approaching all their photography in the purest form. This entire mindset and idea are what drives many people to think photos shouldn't be manipulated at all and in my experience, many everyday people that are not involved in photography somewhat expect this and are always surprised at what people can do within an edit. Steve McCurry of the "Afghan Girl" fame was found manipulating photos a few years ago and the backlash was not quiet. 

The question comes down to whether you should hold the standard of photojournalism to that of a landscape photographer or any type of photography for that matter?

Ansel Adams

Many people have different lines of what's okay and what isn't when it comes to manipulation. They don't mind if a photo has been altered in small ways but they all have a limit of what is too much. Whenever the topics of exposure blending, luminosity masking, or dodging/burning get brought up, many reference that the father of landscape photography, Ansel Adams, used dodging and burning in a dark room to manipulate his photos. By using those we hold to the highest standards and arguably one of the most famous photographers of all time it helps justify manipulating a photo to enhance its appeal.

These techniques have gotten much easier in today's world, such as sky replacement. With the advancement in technology, many times the images we capture aren't even a good representation of the actual scene. Modern cameras take flat images with very little contrast, desaturated colors, soft edges, and distorted angles. What if the intention of manipulation is to create a more honest representation of a scene than what can be captured in a single exposure?

A perfect example is this image I took a few years back in New Zealand. I edited this photo in many ways but specifically look at the size of Mt. Cook in the frame. Many would say this amount of manipulation is too much but in reality, the first image is not how the mountain looks in person. Shooting at such a wide-angle distorts the frame heavily with objects in the distance appearing much smaller than they actually are, thus I spent time trying to better represent the actual scene. 

Photography Is Art

A composite image using an image I took of a waterfall in Iceland combined with an Aurora taken by Evan Campbell

Where I find myself in this discussion is that photography is art and you get to do whatever you want within that medium that makes you satisfied. Above is an image I wrote about years ago that was a fun learning experience taking my photo and combining it with someone else's into a composite. At some point, you merge digital art with photography but I'm not quite certain when that line gets crossed. If you're upfront and sincere with whomever it is you are presenting your work to, I see nothing wrong with any level of manipulation. I do think it's very important to be upfront though otherwise, we as photographers can find ourselves feeling a bit lost in a sea of perfect images. This happens in more than just landscape photography. Take the entire beauty industry as an example and reflect on the impact of perfecting skin, zero blemishes, and immaculate body features to create an unrealistic expectation of beauty in society. 

That same concept can happen within any form of photography and you can find yourself wondering why your work doesn't look nearly as good as others. While we can all grow into better photographers it's also important we are honest to our audiences and ourselves. I realize not everyone follows these principles and that's their decision; morally and ethically for my own work I try to be upfront about how every image was captured and edited. 


So is sky replacement ethical? I presume the answer to that question depends on where you fall within the spectrum of opinions outlined here. The discussion of ethics in any subject is deep enough to need a college degree to fully comprehend. At the end of it all, it's our decision as individuals to enjoy, consume, or even purchase based on the qualification we see as ethical within photography as a medium. Thanks for reading and I hope to see some civil discussion in the comment about your opinion on the subject!

Alex Armitage's picture

Alex Armitage has traveled the world to photograph and film some of the most beautiful places it has to offer. No matter the location, perfecting it's presentation to those absent in the moment is always the goal; hopefully to transmute the feeling of being there into a visual medium.

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The test is simple: would someone looking at a nice big print on a wall be disappointed to learn that the sky was fake?

Let the flames begin.

There's always going to be someone that that finds your artwork disappointing. Make the artwork you want to make. Damn the critics.

I never really cared weather people liked my photos, only if I did. I would never be happy with it, but then again, im never really happy with any of them anyway.

I never really cared for "weather people" either.

Those pesky meteorologists!


I'm pretty sure the clouds are fake on that oil painting hanging on my wall... 😉

But somehow that feels different.

I don't think that I would do it myself, a sky-replacement, but if someone else does it and at least uses a sky that could have been there in reality and if the result looks good, well, it's the honesty that counts in the end.

Well the thing is nobody is going to be able to create a 'standard' or universal ethical approach to this i don't think.

The most vapid rationale is probably "i can sell more if my photo looks 'better'", but I appreciate the photographers out there who are more robust in their thinking and practice than that.

I think what matters is representation of an artist\photographer's work, why they're doing what they do, and what the purpose of their landscape photography craft is. Nobody gives two shits about authenticity when we think of the iconic binary sun-set on tatooine - because we know we're walking into a fictional universe. On the contrary, something like that can elevate the experience.

Do you attempt to represent your work that has been more heavily modified\composited as actual places on earth, where one can see with their own eyes? Is it a narrative of your own journey or meant to take me on a visual journey? Is it a representation of your imagination, a blending of what really is and isn't?

these are some of the questions that i think about, and that individual artists hopefully think about in deciding whether they're willing to use things like sky replacement or not, and ultimately how honest they are willing to be regarding their methods.

It's certainly a conversation and debate that I don't think has a "right" answer which I find quite fascinating. Good take JR

Sky replacement and dodging and burning are not even on the same level. Sky replacement is for wannabe photographers who think that it is a shortcut to taking a great photograph. Elia, before he went over to the dark side, would wait for a week to get the right sky. His sky replacement photographs look fake. It takes more effort than replacing a sky to make it look genuine. Location and direction also matter.

Photos are just another art form and as such are not constrained by the notion of truth.
Every portrait subject I have ever shot looks better in my photo than they do in real life. Every building I have photographed looks more heroic, the women more slim and beautiful, the men more intelligent looking, the dogs friendlier.

We are either making art for ourselves or for a client. Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder.

I will say if every shot you've ever taken makes everything look good then you are absolutely killing it! Haha. Some of my photos never do a good job at presenting the beauty I'm trying to capture but I'm always trying!!

Not every shot is good, but I have enough experience to get to a point where the subject looks about as good as they are going to get. Photoshop does the rest.
The real key in deliverables is making sure your trash is not delivered.

I am not alone in this area. Many more talented people than myself exert themselves in an effort to get the best image possible of a subject. A classic example is Ansel Adams' use of filters to dramatically darken skies or even dodging and burning to dramatize a composition.
It is generally believed that had PS been available to the classic landscape photographers they would have embraced it with gusto.

Landscape photography today is so frequently limited to some arcane Kabuki of rules that some frowsy old fossils deem to be "correct".

Many pros are constrained in their efforts by the limitation of time and budget. Some subjects cannot really be saved.
The photographer who chooses not to embellish their images will find their clients losing their phone number.

Composite images of photography have to be labeled as Art Work, Period, No Lines just that if it's a composite, that makes it Art! Who likes it is subjective, Who is willing to buy it and hang it on the wall is all one can ask for, for confirmation, if it's a image that is liked.

Exactly. If you didn't see the sky it is a composite. If you changed a mountain to be bigger than the single capture made it look it is a composite. Nothing wrong with that at all until somebody tries to sell it as a photo. I already know Alex sees this differently and rationalizes what he believes he saw but if you look at the raw image or the film and you don't see that sky or you don't see that mountain in that scale it is a composite.

From a technical perspective this might be true but that doesn't mean much - i think there should be consideration as to why you use compositing and post processing as a tool (and i would add that being honest about that matters too) - is it to make something look MORE like it actually seems in real life to the human eye, or is to emphasize some other attribute that maybe isn't as glamorous without some help.

Portrait photographers don't seem to have this discussion when using wide aperture lens to 'unnaturally' blur the background of a subject, does that make it more 'real' just because the lens did it and it was a single exposure? Not that you are doing this, but in general If we're using the word composite as a substitute for 'not real', then i think that can be quite shortsighted.

You are rationalizing. How am I to know that your idea of what you think you was was correct? Nobody can know. You can't know. You just want to make your creation look better in your view of things. What is the problem with disclosing it if you think you are being honest?

Do you consider it a composite if it's an exposure-blend or focus-blend?

Yes and I disclose them.

I am an old photographer that started in 1970 and have made a decent living shooting commercial work while also shooting a lot of fine art images (gotta call them images, not pictures) while in grad school.
The frantic need to create "rules" about photography that makes one picture art and another "not art" is silly.
Screaming at people about what they should do with pictures they are making is the height of bossiness.

A couple of things. I agree with the "Nat Geo Rule", and I don't agree that Ansel Adams "manipulated" his photographs. Indeed, in strictest sense, Adams follows the "Nat Geo Rule" as all the burning and dodging he did was simply creative contrast control. It is the height of sophistry to invoke his name to justify manipulations such as what was done in that Mt. Cook photo above.

There is photography and there is graphic arts. Let us not confuse the two. Gursky's Rhein II, is a piece of fine art, but it is *not* a photograph in the sense of all of Adams' work as it was heavily digitally edited (i.e. that scene doesn't actually exist, without the buildings and people on the sidewalks etc.). There is a difference. Why do graphic artists insist on calling their work "photography"? It is nonsensical.

Well it brings up the question. If I exposure blended an image, which is essentially dodging and burning - would that be allowed in Nat Geo?

You'd be using two images to produce one, though--even if the images of the scene were captured a split second apart.

What if I let the camera take an HDR photo giving me a 32bit image that's all handled in camera?

That question is not taking care of the fact, that the human eye and a good sensor cover a dynamic range of about 15 EV while a LCD screen displays about 10 EV and photographic paper about 7 EV. It has nothing to do with the bit width of the image data! The greater bit width "just" helps with (colour) gradients.

I generally don't replace skies in my own images. But if I'm going to do it, the rules:

1) it should be done only when a dead sky detracts from a photo, not to make a good sky "the best" sky
2) it must be done well, seamlessly, convincingly
3) it must be from my own sky library
4) the fact of sky replacement should be shared publicly, no matter the context

Obviously that's me. You do you. Just do it well.

I think your rules 3 and 4 are most important. Nothing wrong with trying to enhance a photograph as long as the process is disclosed and the effort still falls on the photographer, rather than using presets

Totally agree, i would rather know if skies have been replaced, even if done skillfully. So many are done badly though.
And surely if the sky has been replaced it becomes a false representation of what was there when the photo was originally taken.

If I take a portrait of a woman who has had breast implants, who is the liar the woman or the photographer because in both cases reality has been manipulated. But then again who really cares.

Most likely you wouldn't think about adding teeth to someone who has lost some or add a leg. In both case that's the way the person is at the moment you take the shot, the rest has no relevance in regard to the photograph.

Does not matter if the sky is real or part of a composite, if you are a man, your landscape photos are body shaming women because it is nothing more than a "male gaze".*

If you are man who is assumed to be not a person of color than your photos are racist.**

*Think I am making this nonsense up, web crawler it.
** See first footnote.

Whit all due respect, what does this have to do with anything? I think you meant portrait?

Cut and paste makes a collage. It's a form of art not a photo. It is a boob job to a photo.

Ye photography is art... but not all art is photography.

Honestly if you are swapping the sky and blending focal lenght you are cosnstructing an image, you aren't taking photos anymore.
And do you have to actually shoot the sky or just pick it from a library? Or do you use one generated from a modern AI software?
At that point what stops you from just rendering the whole thing on a 3d program? And don't say that it's not a photo because it's not real, because a landscape with swapped sky and warped perspective doesn't exist either.

Crappy editors who use the crappy software to fix their mostly crappy photos.

It makes sense: crappy software is for crappy photographers.

Probably the simplicity of it now.

Mostly accessibility.

Ethical? That is the wrong word. It should rather be: allowed or permissible. For me, the answer is yes. But I don't like it.

cgi people call their images photos, but they are captures of something that simply does not exist in reality. One can make a copy of an oil painting, it's called copy work, not a photo because we carefully make a difference. In reality, it is a photo of something that really exist, the painting. We have always made that distinction and it was always accepted. Sky replacement is not about altering a picture with curves, turning it monochrome or adding grain, it is about creating a composite from a capture. Is it okay, is it not, I don't think that's the issue, the issue is when people refuse to accept that their image is a composite, no longer a photo.

This is just my opinion. I don't live in a location known for its majestic sweeping landscapes unlike some that have 24 hours a day 7 days a week to capture their landscapes at different times a day and seasons. Like many I have to travel for my photography. Being a first responder, I can travel typically a couple times a year at 1 or 2 weeks at a time. Within that limited timeframe, sunsets, sunrises, weather, etc., doesn't always cooperate even with extreme planning. Also in that short time frame Im trying to get in as much itinerary as possible leaving little time to visit locations multiple times. So because of this reason if I can make good photos into great photos by changing the sky, Im absolutely for it. Anyway this wouldn't be quite the debate in the film photography era.

Of course it wouldn't, not that replacing was impossible on an enlarger. Movies did this from early days, it just was not a popular thing to do and for the same reason we debate this today.

If the you don’t like the sky as is, wait until you do.

I have no problem with replacing a sky. Ethically, I even go so far as to use the word "composite" in the title. I'm retired, not trying to sell anything anymore, just a pretty-pictures guy who favors an interesting sky. I really love the new sky replacement feature in Photoshop (CC 2021) because it works wonderfully well, but before it, I did many, many sky replacements the "hard way" and what would I have done without the Refine Edge Brush?

Since I was in school halfway down the last century I have been in the habit of collecting "cloud negatives." I don't want to use the canned skies Photoshop includes despite the fact that some are pretty cool. I stick with skies I personally have photographed, and I prefer to use the sky that was there, just not where I wanted it. I was shooting Sandhill cranes at sunrise but the birds were never where the sunrise was. I just shot lots of the sunrise, lots of cranes, and composited them to get the pictures I had wanted. I shot all the pictures at the same time in the same place. I disclose the facts. I see nothing unethical so long as I disclose it. Cranes don't take direction and the sun doesn't care either.

Thank goodness there is someone on this thread with some common sense. Totally agree with you. I do the very same. I have a very similar shot as yours though geese not cranes..... though there are also cranes in the shot though not the bird variety! ;-)

It's an interesting subject to say the least. I recently wrote a blog post with my own thoughts on sky replacement - not the ethics, but the aesthetics. Some here might find it interesting:

You could have added reflections and time of day into your blog advice for people who do sky replacements. Something doesn't look right because the sunset sky is not reflected in the colors of the water. Something doesn't look right because the time of day is obviously off between the sky and the shot. Directionality of light...I think you mentioned that. I'm not sure everyone pays attention to that. It's sometimes hard to get things just right.

Thanks - I'll probably do that. Although I sort of feel like I'm writing a guide for committing the perfect crime.

I'd also like to say something about how in the end, it probably isn't worh the effort.

Good blog post.

They have done Sky Replacement for over 100 yaers! So this is not a new thing! when will people learn!

What? Who?

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