Sky Replacement Is All the Rage: Is It Acceptable?

Sky replacement has been a thing for a long time now, but new tools that automate what used to be a tedious process have made the practice explode in usage. Should we be really doing it, though? This great video debate discusses the topic. 

Coming to you from Gary Gough, this interesting video discusses the topic of sky replacement, particularly in regards to landscape photography. Personally, I think (easily automated) sky replacement might end up being a real boon to our industry and a tool for a range of professionals. There is absolutely something to be said for a purer form of photography in which planning skills (and a little bit of luck) go into capturing an image naturally, and there is nothing wrong with embracing that philosophy. On the other hand, there are other genres in which we do not get the luxury of choosing the shoot date and there are no second chances. Wedding photographers, for example, are simply out of luck if the big day offers gray and uninteresting skies, and there are many couples out there who would prefer a photo that better captures the essence of the big day rather than one that is entirely realistic. Check out the video above for the full rundown. 

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38 Comments
Matt Edwards's picture

Might as well use CG for the entire image then, or collage it all in photoshop. At that point no need to even go to a place and take photos, or own a camera. Just take some images from google and collage away.

Personally I won't use this stuff, its just cheating in my mind and never looks natural anyways. The lighting on the subjects doesn't ever match the fake inserted sky because, well it's fake!

Leon Kolenda's picture

Then your not an Artist, your just a purist, I Guarantee you, if Ansel Adams was in the digital world of today, he would be taking his own sky shots and adding them to his other images to bring out the best of what he wants to create!

Matt Edwards's picture

That is a pretty bold statement. You don't address the fact that the sky in the image then is completely independent of the rest of the image. The light as it actually fell on the landscape is disparate from that of the sky image brought in. It never looks natural, it will always be faux

I suppose you can insult me and say I'm not an artist because of my opinion on this, but I use photography as a way to capture what is as that is its the inherent strength of the media. I use watercolor and graphite sketches if I want to create something that is an expression of what is, or my feelings towards it.

People will continue to use these and other methods of drastic photographic manipulation, and that is fine but it should really be labeled as digital art, not photography. No one used to call collages "photography", so why should we now just because it is digital instead of analog?

Leon Kolenda's picture

Like I said, only a Photographic purists cares about what in their opinion is the correct way to capture an image, and with today's digital tools, more and more Purists will change or dip their toe in the water. Resistance is futile! You will be assimilated! LOL! Good-Luck!

PS. Photography is not anymore, it is Digital Imagery, It's a marriage of Digital Post-Processing and Photography, Long ago there use to be the negative tone of Oh, was that done in PS? But Not anymore, now more and more people are accepting and embracing digital Imaging, because there are so many tools to create with. Remember, you still have to choose what PP software tool and how to use it and how much of it to use in creating an image. That's why I'm not a Photographer, I'm an Artographer! And so are you, Unless you are shooting old film.

Matt Edwards's picture

As a matter of fact I do shoot film! As I said, this is not "post processing", it is collage. It is taking 2 images taken at entirely different times and places and combining them.

If you want to make digital collages and hang them on your wall or sell them, I could care less! Just please don't claim it is photography. It is digital art. It is collage.

If you look at the history of photography and development of film, of course manipulation of color, contrast, tones, exposure, were integral to film as art.

Collage is an entirely different realm, and that is what you are doing when you swap skies digitally now. Collage in and of itself has an interesting history and worth the time to read up on

Bert McLendon's picture

Definitely depends on what you shoot. As an event photographer, you can't create or wait for the exact right time or engineer the perfect sunset/lighting during any given event. Having the option to add a little bit of drama to an otherwise boring scene (clear sky golf outings) is really nice.

Dan Umberger's picture

The sky replacement genie is definitely out of the bottle. Too late to stop it.

Matt Edwards's picture

Sure people will keep using it and that is there choice, but its pretty darn easy to tell when it has been used and rarely does it look good.

Until the software gets to the point where it not only changes the sky, but changes the lighting on all the objects, landscape, etc. in the image to match what would be produced by the sky being inputted, it will always be gimmicky.

Richard Tack's picture

It is fine for things like real estate shots. advertising, etc. Besides, I doubt that you can pick out more than a third of the fakes in a set of random images that contain real and added.

Matt Edwards's picture

I think the run of the mill viewer will not, but anyone with any experience in photography, photoshop, or the like will probably recognize all but the best fakes.

I work in architecture and create renderings for new projects regularly, which are of course a combination of rendering software, photoshop, etc. I have seen a lifetimes worth of skies swapped into images at this point.

Again it is so noticeable that the light depicted in the sky has no relation to the image it is being swapped into. The only way this works in rendering is when a sky box is used, which is a 3d dome in a model that has a 360 degree sky image applied to it so that the light from the sky image accurately impacts the model, including direct, indirect, spectral, and diffuse lighting, reflections, color, etc. etc.

Until this software gets to the point where it can apply lighting to the objects in the photo that corresponds with the the sky being swapped in, it will always look fake

Leon Kolenda's picture

Fake to you and maybe a few other Digital Artists, but that's not who buys the images! Now if your a Hobby Purist, then enjoy identifying fakes. I and many others will proceed with sky changes as long as they Sell!

Jaap Venhovens's picture

I am thinking how long it will take for either cameras or software to 3D analyse a picture so you can add realistic looking lighting later. Imagine shooting a model and adding multiple lights from any directtion with modifier of choice in post.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

And to answer the question; Should people use it? (sky replacement etc.). People WILL use it.

Felix C's picture

Elia Locardi waited a week with Patrick and Lee to get the perfect sky. Then he got corrupted and started posting images using sky replacement software. The result was horrific. For most people, it looked good. Too bad he did not do proper research and realize the image he posted would never occur in real life. The subject was due north and he had the sun also setting due north. Most people would never had caught that. Now when I see an image he has posted, I always ask real or fake. He screwed up his brand.

Leon Kolenda's picture

Not all of someones imagery needs to occur in real life! 90% of people don't care about the technicalities of an image! The Bottom Line for a person viewing an image should be, "Would I Hang it on a Wall" What a person sees and likes is all that is important! Sorry, but in today's digital creative world creativity is even more expanded than ever! How many people look at a piece furniture and say, Oh I like the way he used the router to create that scrolling, or he took his time using dove-tail joints on the drawers. Hell no, there going to buy it because they like the way it looks!

Judge images for what you see, not for what or how it was created, that has blinders on! I have a number of images I have created that are complete multi layered composites, that hang on my walls, and everyone that sees them, says Wow, those or that is awesome! That's what counts for me! I'm not a Photographer!
I'm an Artographer, using the world and physical tools to create!

Christian Möhrle's picture

You know, not everyone can spend a week in just one spot to get the perfect conditions for a photo. Let people edit their images the way they want. There are no rules.

Leon Kolenda's picture

Hey! You just proved a point, your dead correct!

JR Martinez's picture

This is quickly becoming an oversaturated question among this community, i don't think our positions in this debate has any bearing on what people will do with their digital images or what developers will do with their tools. If sky replacement is acceptable to you (and why or why not) is really what this is about, other than that who cares at this point.

I'm more interested in hearing WHEN people use sky replacement, how they decide if it meets their vision, are there images that feel dishonest to replace the sky vs other photos, etc. Those are more nuanced perspectives and i'm sure there are some fstoppers members out there who think about those things.

Stuart C's picture

“Rage” being the most important word in that title ;)

Cameron Hanks's picture

Where I love how far technology and software is progressing I know one thing for sure (me personally)

"If" I was ever to use a sky replacement it would be for these reasons.

1. I was bored at the time.
2. I had visited a place that's not easily accessible that I may not be able to return to and for some reason I hugely stuffed up my exposure during shooting.

That being said, if I was to produce an image with a sky replacement that was to then be sold or shared publicly, there would be a full disclosure of it, the details and a reason behind it.

Yes its a form of art, everyone has a different perception but when you make a major change like that to a photograph I believe its no longer a say "landscape image" but rather a "landscape composite art"

that's my 2c anyway :D

Leon Kolenda's picture

Disclosure serves No purpose to the end user. Unless the end user asks if it has been manipulated. And of course, there are the purists that want to tell everyone it was manipulated. Photography and Digital Processing have blurred the lines between themselves, and it's only going to get more blurred to the point of Photography will be a part of History. Digital Imaging will be the norm, with disclaimers not required.

Never Mind's picture

This topic.... Again??? Has it not been discussed boringly enough?

Robert Teague's picture

For me, it is never acceptable.

Leon Kolenda's picture

Old Blinders on.

Robert Teague's picture

Your opinion.

jim blair's picture

The unreal graphics engine will make everything fake in the future, software changes everything. If the purists want to sit in the desert or mountain top for weeks waiting on the perfect shot, go ahead. What's next you'll stop going to movies where CGI was used? These creative abilities are inevitable.

Matt Edwards's picture

There is a reason that there has been a significant revival in analog mediums. It is a counterpoint to the "I want it perfect and I want it now" crowd. For me, and many, photography is just as much about the process and the act of going out to a remote place and experiencing it, it's not about a "perfect" shot.

I will happily sit on my mountaintop for a week, and if I am blessed with a nice sunrise or sunset to photograph, all the better

Jim Doughty's picture

This debate is made to seem more vital than it is by people's insistence that there can be only one answer. The real question is: What are you setting out to do? Are you an art photographer or a journalistic/documentary photographer? And what claims are you making when you present your finished work?

An art photographer's claim is: "This looks good (/pleasing/compelling/etc.)."
A journo or documentary photographer's claim is: "This is real."

You may as well ask a writer if it's okay to make up quotes. The answer depends a great deal on whether the writer you're talking to is a novelist, a PR flak, or a newspaper reporter. Lots of very different disciplines, with different ethical assumptions, fall under the heading "writer." So it is with the broad term "photographer."

In my own photography I fall into the "I'll never do it" camp. But that's because I came into this via newspaper work. I'm never going to sell a print or book a gallery showing. I shoot now as a hobby, and my objective is technical: Get the shot. Solve the puzzle of form and light. Please an audience of one, or maybe my wife too if something turns out really cool.

Just remember that if you do engage in sky replacement, IMHO you've taken a step out past "editing." Because that sky you plugged in isn't an effect. It isn't a filter. It's *someone*else's*photograph* and you're using it as "your" art.

Matt Edwards's picture

Very well put, and I agree with you across the board.

My sticking point is disclosure. The "photography" world is becoming saturated with digital art being passed off as photography. People are not disclosing that they swapped the sky digitally, enhanced the scale of the mountains, photoshopped in the birds flying through the evening sky.

To the average viewer they are taking this as real, as true, that this exact moment was captured as it is in the image shown, and the "artist" is doing nothing to correct them of this believe. This in my opinion is dishonest, and it is decaying the meaning of photography as an art form by diluting it with digital art.

It becomes very similar in a way to the fact that we are now beginning to rebel against the over manipulation of models in marketing images. People are beginning to realize what they are being told is real is not, that it is forming unrealistic expectations, and that the imperfection of reality has value in its flaws and its honesty.

Cameron Hanks's picture

Well put mate!

Richard Tack's picture

I use it to help restore vintage B&W photos that have a completely blown out sky.

Bill Metallinos's picture

For Sky-Replace just stop using Luminar "Dramatic Sunset 1" it's all over the place.
-Also some Photoshop Sunsets are starting to get over and over again.
-Try to use your Images so that you can have Unique Images, not the some Sky over the Internet all the time.

Leon Kolenda's picture

I purchased a Fuji X100V camera that I carry around, just to shoot sky's and interesting backgrounds, and textures, that I collect for future work.

Lawrence Huber's picture

If you cannot get it in camera then you do not get it. Swapping skies is the greatest form of cheating unless you put on the photos itself that the sky was a separate photo added to the photo being seen and does not represent what was shot in any way.
I took 4 weeks of trying to get the sunrise and sky. Some days the clouds obscured everything, others none were present other days all was fog. Then finally after 4 weeks and a worry that the sun would move too far south to get the effect it came together. The crane was NOT added either.

Leon Kolenda's picture

Does that increase the value of your shot! I don't think so,

Jim Doughty's picture

First you need to ask Lawrence to define what "the value of his shot" means in *his* terms. Then you ask the question above.

To hang on a wall for oohs and aahs? Sure. To tell a magazine editor "this is what I saw at this time and place"? Different question, different answer. Neither, in its context, incorrect.

Lawrence Huber's picture

The shot is invaluable.
Can never be duplicated .
And I see jealousy in the responses.

Jim Doughty's picture

Which is to say: You've articulated its value, just as I posited above. Works for me.

(But if you're calling me jealous of your getting a moment like that *with* a bird in flight to boot... guilty!)