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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Previous comments
RT Simon's picture

Meanwhile Skylum spams the world with endless promises of magic AI tech that will make millions of would-be photographers who are too lazy to wake early and catch beautiful morning light, think they are better photographers than they will ever be.

bbetc's picture

La Photographie n'est pas l'Art" (Photography is not Art), a first edition, 37-page essay by Man Ray (1890-1976) is being auctioned along with a large number of books from the John Teti Rare Photography Book Collection (New Hampshire Institute of Art) documenting the history of photography as an art form throughout the 20th century.

Note: I have absolutely no connection with this collection or the auction; I simply thought with all the argument going on in this discussion that there might be an interest. The estimated auction price range is $1000-$1500. The auction begins today and goes through November 12.

Man Ray, who considered himself an artist, was a significant contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements but was best known for his photography. The auction begins today and has a number of other works on photography (Stiechen, Stieglitz), first editions of noted literary works, and manuscripts, historical documents, maps dating back to the 1700s.

Andrew Adams's picture

I do macro photography and spend a lot of time focus stacking. These photos are all composites and are totally fake, but they present the subject as I see it at the time. I really don't see much difference between that kind of image manipulation and swapping in a sky. I swap in many photos to get the DOF I want. I even pick the best background from the set. I guess the difference is that no one really notices.

Scott Wardwell's picture

Focus stacking is not fake as you are not introducing elements that were not present when you did the captures.

bbetc's picture

Isn't the final question, "What is photography, what you see or what the camera sees?"

Scott Wardwell's picture

What I saw. Then I have to reconcile my vision with what the camera records in post.

Keith Meinhold's picture

I personally would never replace a sky. I have fixed dust specks on the lens/sensor - that might be taking it too far for some. As always it is a matter of personal taste.

RT Simon's picture

I want an AI assistant in my Capture One software that will run my database. It would be much more helpful than endless manipulation tools to be able to give vocal commands to an AI assistant that would manage meta-data and search parameters. When having databases with 10K plus images that span many years and may contain very specific images of people and events. Facial recognition within a database would be amazing.

Michelle Maani's picture

My feeling is that when replace the sky, unless I replace it with a sky whose picture I took, it's not 100 per cent my work. It becomes a composite of my work and someone else's photography.

Scott Wardwell's picture

Why do we go on and on about "Image Quality" when taking about camers or lens but seem to think it is ok to change out a sky in post? A tad hypocritical; don't you think?

Kirk Darling's picture

Umm. No. Nothing hypocritical about that. Clouds aren't sharp anyway, so a desire for a sharp lens has nothing to do with the sky.

bbetc's picture

While clouds may not be sharp, their appearance can be improved by altering contrast without replacing the entire sky. This is simply a picture where I applied Nik Silver Efex Pro (Full Contrast and Structure) to half of it. Obviously, one can control to amount that is applied and one could also select just the cloud or part of it but I think this shows a way of handling clouds.

Kirk Darling's picture

And sometimes the sky has no clouds. Where I live, much of the time the sky has no clouds, and when it does, they're utterly non-photogenic.

Scott Wardwell's picture

You missed my point. We spend serious debate time and eventually big money trying to secure the ultimate image quality as it relates to our gear but we are not concerned to that same extent when it comes to our use of sky replacement software. Working your sliders with the sky you actually captured that morning is not a cheat. It shows expertise instead.

Kirk Darling's picture

Sky replacement software is pretty new, but I'm sure we'll get to the point where we'll be arguing which editor has the best sky replacement software.