The Debate Continues: Is Sky Replacement a Valid Technique or a Photographic Cheat?

The Debate Continues: Is Sky Replacement a Valid Technique or a Photographic Cheat?

Now that sky replacement has become more effective and ubiquitous in photo-editing software, more and more photographers may feel tempted to give it a try, but is it a valid photographic tool or just a lazy way to save a subpar image?

I’ll admit, I’m a purist in my photo editing. Like many photographers, I have two sets of self-defined criteria that I adhere to when working on an image. For my personal work, like landscapes and travel images, I endeavor to return the image to the look and feel of the moment in which it was shot. I don’t add things that weren’t there, and I don’t remove things that change the meaning of the image. The integrity of the moment and place are the most important to me as I edit. For my client work, sure, I’m trying to paint clients, products, and locations in the best light. I’ll employ a more intensive level of retouching, merging multiple exposures for real estate, beautifying subjects for portraits, and removing unsightly distractions for commercial work. The guidelines I’ve set for myself are standards about which I feel comfortable. 

Sometimes, you get lucky, and all of the elements are there for a great photograph.

In most situations, I’m not comfortable with the idea of swapping skies. I teach whole lessons in my travel photography classes specifically on how to make the best of a boring sky or less than ideal lighting conditions. Tricks like adjustments in framing and perspective, opting for longer exposures to emphasize movement, and searching for the attractive or compelling components in a seemingly flat or lifeless scene are important skills for a photographer to develop. Rather than resorting to swapping out a sky, I challenge myself and my students to push harder creatively and find a shot that does work.

This sunrise had great atmosphere below the horizon, but the sky was flat. I decided the softness of the empty sky still worked for me. If I had replaced the sky with a spectacular and colorful sunrise, it would have competed too much with the fog in the foreground.

Plenty of photographers disagree with my feelings on sky replacement; if they didn’t, then companies like Adobe and Skylum wouldn’t put so much effort into the development and refinement of these tools. I’m always interested in hearing what photographers think, so I combed through some comments on recent Fstoppers articles about sky replacement and posed this question to my social media circles:

Do you or would you swap skies in an image? Why or why not?

The responses were surprisingly varied and well reasoned,

In Favor of Sky Replacement

“Yes, absolutely. The sky can make a huge difference to the look and feel of an image, and I want to make sure clients are happy with the result. For my own work, I tend not to, but for client work, it's definitely an option for me.”

“Yes, I do! Makes the image way more dramatic! [I do it] for my clients, my artistic soul, and my portfolio!”

“I would usually say no, but I just swapped the sky on an image from AZ last weekend. The sun was in the photo and was (of course) blown out. I like it much better without the huge hot spot. I personally consider it a last resort. I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for swapping skies, but for me, that’s more 'digital art' than photography. Even in the shot I swapped, I replaced it with basically the same sky and clouds, just without the blown-out sun.”

“Hell yes. I’m not a journalist, and it’s not my job to make my photos represent reality. If it’s prettier, then why not?”

“Yes, but very selectively. You have to know what you're doing and pay attention to make it work, such as the direction of light, defocus of clouds. I am not a purist, and it can be used as an artistic expression.”

“In an extreme situation, I might — if you travel a long way for a shot or it’s a one-time location (say on vacation), and bad luck gives you a dead sky, let’s say. I may use something that is a natural match, not something dramatically or artificially different.”

“Guys. It’s not blasphemy. It’s not the death of photography. It’s just a piece of software for image enhancement. Like any other tool, in the hands of someone without talent or taste, it’ll produce some unfortunate results. In the hands of a pro who understands what a client might be looking for and can use some restraint with the sliders, it’ll produce perfectly usable and attractive results.”

Opposed to Sky Replacement

“I personally don’t do any photo editing other than the typical cropping, boosts in contrast, saturation, brightness. Anything else in my opinion is cheating. But I’m old school.”

“I don’t, mainly because I tried it once and I sucked at it, lol. In all seriousness, I do as little manipulation to my photos as possible. I make the usual adjustments. Maybe apply a radial or graduated filter, depending on the photo. But I want the photo to be an accurate representation of what I saw.”

“I'm just a normal person who takes photos of my kid, but I find this sky-swapping function creepy? I guess because I'm a dinosaur who feels creeped out by how many ways we can make a real-looking photograph tell lies.”

“No. Because I think a photo should represent the effort that was involved in being there for the right natural sky.”

“I don’t and wouldn’t. Landscapes are my jam, and part of the challenge and fun is waiting for and getting the perfect light. But also, switching the sky probably means the light wasn’t great and a new sky won’t match the sun angles, color, or brightness of the foreground. Not for me in my own stuff and I don’t really care for images that used the technique, plus I wonder how many photographers use their own other sky shots to swap in or just grab assets from someone else?”

“Usually not. Wait for clouds. It's like fishing: sometimes, it's amazing; sometimes, it's not.”

“No. Part of taking a photo, for me, is the effort to get a good shot with the correct light and an epic sky. It would be like fishing out of a stocked tank instead of a lake or ocean. It’s such a thrill to get a great shot with all elements just right. Swapping in a better sky is just not satisfying. But then, I’m mostly just taking photos for myself, and I’ll know it’s a fake.”

“As a technology geek, I find this fascinating, but as a photographer, I’m quite appalled and insulted. This current obsession with sky replacement reminds me of the over-the-top, garish HDR fad years ago. I’m not at all interested in using it, but if it makes you happy, have at it.”

“The photographic equivalent of lip-syncing. And if you didn't even shoot that sky yourself, you're lip-syncing someone else's track.”

“Sky replacement. Why not drop photography and use an algorithm replacing the sky, people, surroundings to people's calculated liking. Fake everything! I think there should be a clear distinction between fake smear and photos. This is not painting with light; it is just computational lies posing as photography.”

Not every sky needs to be hyper-textured, brightly colored, or filled with intrigue.

In a world that feels scary and upside-down, I can understand wanting to create a perfectly beautiful image, whether it happened in one exposure or via sky replacement, but like all technological advancements, the lasting ramifications have to be considered. I have read many responses to and philosophies about these types of photo manipulation questions in the past, but sky replacement seems to be a new boundary that is causing quite a lot of debate in the photographic community, perhaps more so than any other photo manipulation technique.

I think the polarized response has a lot to do with the fact that as technology improves, it’s much harder to judge authenticity by appearance. If we were talking about something that was obviously more manipulated, like the crunchy HDR techniques of 10 years ago, then you either love it or hate it, but it’s a relatively benign, non-threatening pursuit. Deepfake videos, a president who declares things to be “fake news” on the regular (whether you agree with him or not), and improved AI technology resulting in more convincing photo manipulation, all have one thing in common: it's getting harder and harder for us to know what’s real. As I read headlines and product announcements about new AI advancements and techniques like sky replacement, I keep coming back to one of my favorite lines in the best and original Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

What are your thoughts? Do you replace skies, or does it freak you out? Let’s keep the debate going in the comments!

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66 Comments

jim hughes's picture

There's a third point of view: it just looks fake, period. The light never really matches, and your brain picks that up at some level.

Scott Wardwell's picture

I was impressed with a head-on image of a hawk in-flight with a perfect sky in the background. You are right, the brain starts to pick-up on inconsistencies. In this case, the billowing clouds in the distance were as tack sharp as the bird. The trailing edge of the feathers also had artifacts from the layering. Impossible depth-of-field on a moving bird in flight.

Kenneth Muhlestein's picture

It's hilarious how common that mistake is, to not match the depth of field in the original photo with the replacement. I see it way too often. Even though I'm just an average composite artist, it's the first thing i see in a bad composite. Here's a 3 image composite i did where the depth of field was done right. I'm pleased with this outcome.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Anything looks fake when done badly. But done well... that's a different story.

Scott Wardwell's picture

This lends just more credence to the accusation that you "Photoshopped" the image. Pure unadulterated fraud.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

I have debated this in another thread, I noticed that you quoted me from that one.

I think reality should play a significant role in photography; there should be some criterias to define something as a photography. And lo and behold, there is already parameters to hold high, as you say.

When I worked as copywriter long time ago, I always chose premium photographers to do the pictorial work on campaigns and like. I told them what the story was, what feelings I wanted the target group to be left with after seing the ad, gave them the copy and ilustrations from the AD. Then I gave them my idea for a shoot, what kind of models we could use, and their job was to criticize my and the AD’s suggestions. Then we agreed how to do it. And we discussed it with the client. I put a lot of effort into getting the right photo with the right connotations.

The photographers would go as far as using filters on a grey and rainy day. The point was to carefully craft the photo before it was taken. I didn’t want this american glossy stockphoto alike (which was the then fake images). I wanted the real thing, real ppl., real clouds. And it worked very well. The clients trusted our evaluation: If the photo was natural and looked real, the message would reflect on the trustworthyness of their products.

There are clients and there are clients. I remember one that wanted lots of sun, vivid colors and retouching, because «people must WANT to go there on their holidays». So what do the customer think when it definitely doesn’t look like a colorful wet dream? «Then they have already spent their money». Not sustainable business, I would say. It was a lie.

To me it’s a warning when you get a tool for replacing sky. The adjustments become industrialized fake. That will be even more available in the recent future. A patchwork of photos and AI replaced streams, mountains, falls, people. Then it is even further away from photography, that still vouch for the real thing to most ppl. And thats not fine by me, because a photo needs to be trusted, even if the artistry in photo should be recognized.

The logical thing is to draw a line between photography and this fake pathwork that is «illustration». I’m not old fashioned. I think the more photographers indulge in manipulation, give in to clients which often have little knowledge about marketing, the less photographers they become. They are computergraphical illustrators.

Holger Genenger's picture

The current development of the AI emphasizes, a fact that has always been part of photography: a photograph is a subjective work. And this work is received subjectively.

Through the current technical possibilities, photography is returning more to the forms of expression of painting.

The photographer determines what and how the representation is in his work. Naturalism is only one of many possibilities here.

A combination of different elements, with the aim of creating a romantic, idealistic landscape, is another.

Both may find its audience. Does it make sense to define only one genre as the true one?

Therefore, everyone uses the technique according to his taste and goals.

Timothy Roper's picture

It makes the work a composite, and there's nothing wrong with composites per se, but they should be identified as such, and not passed-off as a single photo. However, it's pretty low on the list of problems in the world right now, and most people probably don't care at all about this issue.

Ed C's picture

The debate is irrelevant to most of the world. If you are a journalist or entering a PHOTOGRAPHY contest it isn't OK. Personally if I were to replace a sky I would say I replaced it and would limit that to sky photos I have taken. Replacing a sky with a sky you never saw, much less photographed is plagiarism in my opinion.

Paul Laubach's picture

Iʻd never replace a sky personally, but you do you. I think such alterations to an image should be disclosed to viewers though.

Eric Robinson's picture

As others have said, debate, what debate? Issues like this just provide an opportunity for squeaky clean pompous photographers to demonstrate just how sanctimonious they are by announcing to the world that the images they produce are pure and true!.....well good for them.

Bryn Watkins's picture

We live in the post truth age so artistically there is no argument. But for me the values of our stories are their true heart. Perhaps thats why I sense an ever widening philosophical divide from our adult children for whom the politically correct point of view rules.

Susan Egan's picture

Once an image has faked parts, it’s no longer a photograph. Instead, it’s a picture or other art form. Pretty to look at but not real.

Foto Toad's picture

But what about fashion photography which the majority of which has been heavily retouched and manipulated?
Is using a beauty dish cheating? We could go on and on...
These hardline definitions are only useful in our own minds.

Let's take it to the extreme: Is a person no longer a person once they've had plastic surgery?

Susan Egan's picture

I’ve seen debate about this as well. Overly manipulated photos make “ordinary” people feel inferior and make those with normal bodies feel fat. Society as a whole doesn’t benefit from this.

OTOH using creative lighting isn’t cheating. And, for that matter, a photo of someone who’s had plastic surgery isn’t cheating. It’s when the photographer goes overboard that s/he’s cheating.

Timothy Roper's picture

What about black and white photos? There's nothing "real" about them (at least for humans and their vision), making them completely fake, too. And then there's infrared film...

Benoit Pigeon's picture

That's your point of view. Color blind people may desagree. Not that they see in black and white but what ever they see are stil pictures.

Susan Egan's picture

B&W these days is done mainly as an artistic and/or retro venture...but is still photography.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Exactly my point too.

Chaz Foote's picture

Should we decry Ansel Adams' work?

He didn't have a program like Photoshop to replace the sky; he made alterations to clouds, and other parts of his photos, through extensive darkroom work. I don't replace the sky but I don't have a problem with post-processing the contrast in areas of pictures to make them more dramatic.

Normund Greenberg's picture

A technique that is absolutely acceptable and has been used also back in the days of film, not just today. The only type of photography where everything should be left exactly as it was is press photography.

Andy Work's picture

I suppose that any image that is not SOOC could be called fake.

Chaz Foote's picture

Maybe, but I don't always see what the viewfinder shows and if I can't get my camera to give me a coinciding view, I have to rely on post-processing.

So as not to put myself in Ansel Adams league, what do I do with a view that a wire spoiling it, one that I cannot position myself to avoid having it in view? Do I leave it in the final image or do I remove it before printing? I tend to go along with Adams: "You don't just take a photograph, you make it." And occasionally, I am successful.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Your camera can already apply all sorts of filters and processing to the image before writing the jpeg. If it comes out of the camera black and white with purple highlights, is that real or fake?

Keith Meinhold's picture

SOOC .jpg images are manipulated by an algorithm written by an engineer that applies generic filters that ignore the actual scene.

Timothy Roper's picture

Actual SOOC images are the unconverted raw files, which aren't easy to view, since cameras and things like Adobe all use a RAW converter to manipulate the file's data. But I've read software like DCRAW can help you out here. The files won't be much to look at, but they will be real and unadulterated by fakery.

MC G's picture

Clients don't care.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Exactly. But somebody should care about the concept of photography.

Lee Christiansen's picture

There is no universal concept of photography. It is a medium that offers so many interpretations and so many techniques.

Make a colour world black & white - fake.
Use a filter - fake
Burn or dodge - fake
Tweak a pixel - fake
Composites - all fake
Long exposure - fake
Cheating DoF - fake
Not showing the whole view - fake
Colour correcting - fake
Choosing different profiles - fake
Choosing different film - fake
Choosing different print paper - fake

Or... just a thought... all are valid, all are relevant, and all have their place.

Otherwise we'd better all get pinhole cameras and agree on only one brand of negative.

Pressing the button is just the start of what can be a long and hard earned journey.

Nick B's picture

Those things are usually to attract the attention of the viewer towards something, and to remove something unwanted. With B&W, often you wanna show textures, shapes. A boring blue sky becomes oil black, and the viewer can focus on the rest. Same with a polarizer : you remove the reflections from wet rocks, and let the viewer focus on something else. You use photoshop to remove distracting objects, films to reveal certain colors, etc... But adding birds in the sky, swapping skies, that's just not the same thing, that's creating something that isn't there, not reducing the photo to its essential components. It certainly doesn't make it illegal, but it's just not very artistic if you do it because the sky in your original photo sucked...

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