The Sky Is The Limit

I was sitting on my back porch yesterday, thinking about possible photography projects. My mind was blank. Most anything I could think of doing involved travel, eating at restaurants and staying in hotels. I’ve eliminated the idea of eating at restaurants and staying in hotels due to the massive increase of COVID-19 restrictions, which I’m assuming will continue for the next six months or so at the very least. That essentially limits my photography projects to simple travel. That means day trips or local outings.

This time of year, most of the available photography subjects in my world are bighorn sheep, bison, deer, and birds, with some oddball wildlife or landscapes added to the mix in the process. I need a change of pace. The hunkering down is seriously limiting my photographic activity and I need to find something new to get me through what is sure to be a long, cold and boring Winter.

As I sat on my porch, I noticed that the clear blue sky above me had turned into white puffy clouds. White puffy clouds that I couldn’t really take photos of in my back yard due to the fact that I had a number of obstructions around the horizon from trees and houses. I thought, perhaps, I should jump in the car and drive out to a more open area near the house and see if I could maybe get a few sky photos from a better location. I didn’t do anything as I was still in my sweats and wasn’t prepared to gather my camera gear, get dressed and jump in the car. Too damn lazy in other words.

To pass the time during the pandemic, I’ve browsed all my photo catalogs for sky photos to use as replacement skies in Photoshop. I’ve managed to gather about 50 usable sky photos by sifting through my archives from the past 15 years or so, but many of those photographs are fairly old and taken with lower resolution cameras. Seeing how my current cameras are all at least 24 megapixel bodies or higher, I can’t really make good use of the older and lower resolution images. Add to it the constraint of not reusing sky photos, it’s becoming obvious that I need more and the only way to get more is to get out there and photograph the sky when the opportunity presents itself.

We’re lucky here in Colorado. From a statistical standpoint, Colorado has over 300 sunny days a year. Interesting sunrises and sunsets and puffy skies and dramatic skies are almost always available. All I have to do is change my mindset and be prepared to hop in a car and drive a couple of miles to get them. It meets all my requirements for working during the pandemic. All I have to do is prepare myself and my gear to drop what I’m doing and drive a couple of miles for an hour or two. The sky is always there. It’s just a question of what it is and how quickly I can respond.

But it hit me. Here’s my project for the Winter. Sky photos.

Sky shots are a great project I concluded. Not exciting or exotic, but quite useful. So there it was, laying on the table so to speak. A perfect project to get me through the Winter. Sky photography. All I have to do is be prepared to jump in the car and drive a few miles on short notice. It’s not like I’ll be doing much else.

I can’t stop thinking there though. What else do I need to consider? Firstly, I’ll use my Nikon D850. 45 megapixel sky photos have more than enough resolution to be used in any image. I’ll shoot from a tripod at ISO 100 to keep the camera noise below perceptible levels. I’ll use two different lenses. The 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/4. Both lenses are sharp and versatile. I’ll concentrate on getting photos at all the available focal lengths from 24-200mm. This will give me a good variety of sky images that will fit the most common landscape photography focal lengths I use. I’m figuring I’ll need a lot of sky shots too. Since I don’t want to reuse a sky shot if I can avoid it, it’s more or less the same thing as photographing other scenes. I don’t normally take more than a few shots of any given scene, so I’ll treat my sky images the same way as I would treat any other landscape photo. Each one will be unique. I’ll set a goal of accumulating a couple hundred images for the project. That should be enough to last me a while. And, there will always be targets of opportunity, after all, the sky is always there.

The sky is the limit.

Photography Stuff

The San Juan Range near Last Dollar Road.

I’ve installed the latest Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop updates on all my computers. I’m fairly impressed with the new Photoshop feature for sky replacement. This is going to give me a lot of stock photography wiggle room on photos that otherwise would not have been used. Today’s photo was taken in the Autumn of 2011 and I had never edited it before because the sky was dull and grey. Quickly fixed in Photoshop. A new stock photo too.

DXO Labs has released DXO PhotoLab Elite 4, which I’ve also updated. The new release improves on what may be the industry benchmark for removing noise from images, as well as a few other enhancements which I’ll get around to playing with. My initial tests on the new DeepPRIME noise reduction is encouraging. Comparing the original Prime noise reduction to the new AI based algorithm, DeepPRIME shows a definite improvement on what was already pretty darn good noise reduction.

From my tests, the new DXO PhotoLab 4 works well on ISO 6400 test images from my Nikon DSLR Bodies.

Here is a 100% crop sample at ISO 6400 image taken on my Nikon D750.

The first image is no noise reduction, the second is with the new DeepPRIME noise reduction.

No complaints.

Sky Editing With Photoshop AI Update

I’ve been reading about the upcoming updates from Adobe to Lightroom and Photoshop. The new Photoshop 22.0.0 feature for sky replacement has been the feature I’ve been eagerly waiting to see.

My first attempt is encouraging. I have a number of landscape photographs that were taken on what we call “bald sky” days. The last two years of Autumn foliage trips have been ripe with bald sky days. I don’t let it stop me but I’d prefer to have something more interesting in the sky. Photoshop has solved the problem and from the looks of it, quite well.

Here’s a look at my very first attempt to fix a bald sky photo. Nothing complicated. The change isn’t drastic. I wanted to show a sky with simple cloud patterns rather than totally blue.

First shot the original raw file developed with a neutral preset. Nikon D750

Original neutral preset raw file.

Now, here’s the same image with an artificial AI sky inserted by Photoshop.

Photoshop AI sky generated image.

I don’t know about you, but the image with clouds looks better than the bald sky photo. Now, is the “fixed” image all that great an image? Well, I wouldn’t call it a work of art, but it does have some functionality from my view of the road.

This is a canned effect too. The flexibility of Photoshop will allow you to create skies from your own images and reuse them with the new sky tool as well. Plus the fine tuning aspect of the tool give you plenty of legroom to manipulate your sky image to a more refined look.

I have a butt-load of photos with bald skies that I have never edited and quite a few I have used in my stock photo portfolio. As stock photos, they don’t sell that well, but from time to time, somebody will buy one. Now, I can fix those bald sky shots and probably improve the sales of these types of generic shots, simply because they don’t have bald skies.

I dove down to the pixel level and the edges look very good, which if you’ve ever tried to edit a sky manually, those jagged mountain peaks and trees against a sky are darn right tedious to get looking nicely. Way too much work for me, I don’t normally dink around with the skies in my post processing beyond making minor contrast adjustments and/or adding a gradient filter. This photo at 100% magnification looks far better than anything I would have ever accomplished manually. It works.

Here’s a 100% crop of the mountain ridge in the right-center portion of the screen.

100% crop of the resulting AI render.

That passes muster.

So, I’m sure there are some photographers out there who think that creating a fake sky is cheating. If you are one of them, fine by me. To me though, there is no cheating in photography unless you’ve agreed to not create a fake sky for your client or constituents and do it anyway. When it comes to good photographic art, there are no rules. There are only good photographs. (my Ansel Adams quote, paraphrased)

As for the software update, it’s about time Adobe got back in the game. There’s been a lot of competing software hitting the market over the past couple of years and I was very close to buying one or two just to get the new features. Adobe has stepped up and created a very useful tool for those of us who aren’t afraid to cheat, err, sell more photos.