Fountain in the downtown park in Honesdale, PA, on the afternoon of 15 July 2012.

It’s been hot and I haven’t been out shooting images the way I should be.  Which means I’ve been bored, so to compensate I’ve been messing around in Photoshop more than I usually would.  My relationship with Photoshop is actually pretty minimal, as I do most of my editing in ACR and usually stick to simple things like dodging, burning, curves, and of course my logo frames in PS itself.  In fact, most of the time I’m just scratching the surface of what PS can do.  (I’d almost switch to Lightroom, except for those times when I really need a feature of PS.)

Anyway, I started playing with this photo from a jaunt over the mountain to Honesdale, PA, last weekend.  We went over mostly for something to do, just to check it out.  Stopped in Honesdale, stopped in Hawley, and also at a seemingly-random wildlife preserve out there that’s probably worth going back to sometime.  This photo was in the town park and, honestly, it’s nothing amazing.  If I hadn’t gotten the urge to mess around in black & white, I probably would have deleted it – but it seemed a likely candidate for the conversion.

This is the original image, taken straight from RAW.  As you can see, it’s nothing special.  High contrast, mid-day lighting, the sky is half-way blown out and the scene itself just isn’t all that interesting.  It was a photo taken just for the sake of taking a photo.  We all do that sometimes.

I opened the image in ACR, did my B&W conversion with my VSCO Film presets, and adjusted everything in favor of the foreground/fountain.  Which left the sky as a mostly whited-out empty space.  Ugly.  So I made a duplicate copy of the RAW file and went back into ACR and changed dumped the exposure down to about -2, made a few contrast and black point adjustments, and opened it in PS as well.  Since the two images are identical except for their exposure, it’s easy to combine them – I copied the sky version and pasted it to a new layer on top of the foreground version.

From there, I used CS5s improved Quick Selection tool (which is much, much better than previous magic wand tool, which I once heard Scott Kelby refer to as the “tragic wand”) to select the sky – and note that we’re still using the sky version as our active layer.  With my basic selection in place, I used the Refine Edge button to clean things up.  Push the Edge Selection Radius slider to the middle of its range, because that’s what I read in a book once, and check off “Smart Radius.”  Then painted the entire tree to the left and the horizon line with the brush.

The resulting selection is good, so I inverted the selection (so that the ground, trees, etc are selected instead of the sky) and used the eraser to clear all that out.  Now the sky layer contains only the sky elements, and the foreground layer shows through for the rest of it.  I made a few tweaks to the opacity of the sky layer, fading it out just a little so that it wasn’t quite so glaring, then flattened the layers, hit them with a slight Curves adjustment, some selective dodging & burning, and called it a day.

It’ still not a great photo and knowing what I did to it, I can’t look at it without the feeling that something is wrong, that the sky shouldn’t have that range of tones given the lighting on the foreground.  But I don’t know, maybe someone who didn’t know all this would look at it and think it looked just great.  I could have done the same thing in-camera with a strong enough graduated ND filter, so it isn’t entirely improbable.

At any rate, I hope this was useful to someone out there – the steps are pretty much the same any time you want to merge two different exposure versions of the same image file.  And with the Refine Edges toolbox, it really isn’t hard to select and swap out a sky these days.  You could even switch in the sky from an entirely different photo if you really wanted to…although I’ve never done it, as it crosses an ethical line for my own images and preferences.

Ah, the power of Photoshop – entertaining the bored since 19-something.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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