Is Sky Replacement Photography or Something Else Entirely?

Sky replacement is one of the biggest trends in photography right now, with major editing applications offering automatic or semi-automatic sky replacement capabilities, making it easier than ever to completely change an image. Is it photography, though? Or have we moved into something else entirely? This thoughtful video essay discusses the topic and where photography is headed. 

Coming to you from Mike Smith, this thought-provoking video discusses the topic of sky replacement and where it fits in photography. Sky replacement is nothing new, but the reason the topic has become so debated recently is the increasing prevalence of automated tools that make it very quick and straightforward to swap out a sky in any photo, a task that used to be tedious enough to keep its overall usage down a bit. Personally, I see a lot of potential in these automated tools, particularly for photographers for whom second chances are nonexistent or impractical. For example, a wedding photographer could improve a couple's portraits if they are unlucky and have a gray wedding day, and I'm sure many couples would be thankful to have something a bit more representative of what they dreamed their wedding day would be. Check out the video above for Smith's full thoughts. 

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Timothy Roper's picture

It's called composite photography, and is nothing new at all.

MC G's picture

Automation is fully here and you better get with it or be left behind.

jothagraphy's picture

I do it from time to time and have no bad feelings about it. It's part of the postprocessing for me, as long as I
1) only use my own skies and 2) don't change the story of the picture. I wouldn't replace the sky for the skies purpose (Milky way, Northern lights), but I change a dull sky in a portrait shoot with something more appaling.
So I see it like every other edit: As long as the picture tells the same story afterwards, it's OK.
Plus: Denying or hiding an edit is a nogo.

Simon Forsyth's picture

Sky replacement has been around in photography since the near the beginning of photography.
Early emulsions were overly sensitive to blue light so when taking a scene with the correct exposure for the land the sky would be totally blown out! Notable scenic photographers such as the Burton Bros in New Zealand had a selection of correctly exposed skies that they used in place of the blown out ones!
Painters only paint what they want from a scene and don't include powerlines etc. No one criticises them for doing that!
Ansel Adams dodged and burnt on his images to get a result as near as possible to what he visualized and hardly anyone criticised him for that, yet in the digital age we have people criticising due to the mere fact that an image has had dodging and burning applied to it.
A sky replacement is just another thing that people have been doing for over a century but now people are calling it out!
It's the same as people saying that they don't process their digital images as they want it as it came out of the camera with no manipulation! Even in the film days there was manipulation and processing! A film had to be developed before it could be seen. The result was conditional on the type of film, the type of developer, the length of time of the developing etc etc. Then when printing the look of the print was dependent on the paper, the developer the processing time, the toning etc etc.
Sky replacement is just like HDR, and the fuss over it will die down over time!

M C's picture

I think it's a deception to the viewer.

Lee Christiansen's picture

All photography is a deception. We choose to show what we want the viewer to see, and hide the rest.

We do it with posing
We do it with framing
We do it with lighting
We do it with any sort of image manipulation.

To the muppet who said "the camera never lies," I reply with "my camera lies all the time". (It's just you may not notice it, if I've done my job properly).

And who said good images should be about truth all he time anyway? If I relied on that, I'd never have had a commercial career at all. :)

Mike Ditz's picture

The camera may not lie but the photographer? That's another story ;^)

Stuart C's picture

Not something ill ever do, ill prefer to just work with whatever conditions are in front of me.

Each to their own though.

Warwick Cairns's picture

I see it as a different thing to photography. There’s a place in the world for digital artists who replace skies, or add in celebrities, or swap backgrounds so subjects are on the moon or in volcanoes. It’s an art that needs its own name, though.

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Dunno where to draw the line exactly, but for sure sky replacement is beyond that line!