Brightening Gray Skies in Photoshop CS6

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It’s really hot in Arizona right now. So hot that the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory for the Valley of the Sun. I would think that the heat advisory would be implied, since it’s a) mid-August; and b) it’s the Phoenix metropolitan area. It sort of goes without saying that the temperature is going to be in the triple-digits.

When it’s too hot to go exploring with my camera, such as it is today, I tend to turn to my collection of photography-related books, or to the internet, to learn new skills or discover new ideas. Today’s enforced indoor state caused me to crack open my copy of The Adobe Photoshop CS6 Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby. I opened up to the chapter “Fixing Common Problems” and read up on his method for “Fixing Shots with a Dull Gray Sky”. I immediately thought of how I could apply this method to my own photos.

We were in Maine back in June, and we visited the Pemaquid Point lighthouse on a very gray day. I loved the shots that I took but knew they would have been even better with a brighter sky. And now I can fix them!

Here is the original shot:

A pretty enough picture, but the gray sky really washes out the whole scene. After opening the image in Adobe Photoshop CS6, the Quick Selection tool is used to “select” the entire sky. You can find it by clicking on the paintbrush-looking icon on the toolbar, or by pressing “W” on your keyboard.


With the Quick Selection tool active, I simply placed the cursor at the top left of the sky, and dragged to the right and down to the bottom right corner of the sky. The tool also selected a part of the ocean, which I did not want selected. To remove a portion of the selection simply hold down the “Alt” key, then click on the area you don’t want selected and drag upward until it is no longer part of the selection. Click on the image below to see a larger version, where you can see the dotted line of the selected area.


Now, open up a photo that has the sky color that you’d desire for this photo. In my case, I chose this one:

We’re going to set the Foreground color to the darkest blue of the sky in this photo, and the Background color to the lightest blue of the sky. We’ll accomplish this using the eyedropper tool, which can be found on the toolbar or by pressing the letter “I” on the keyboard.


With the Eyedropper tool active, hover over the brightest area of blue sky and click. Next press “X” on your keyboard to switch the Foreground and Background colors, hover over the darkest area of blue, and click. You will see the result in the color palette on the toolbar.


Now go back to your original image, which should still have the sky selected. Click on the “Create a New Layer” icon at the bottom of the right-hand panel (second from the right, looks like a little piece of paper with the corner folded up).


Activate the Gradient tool by pressing “G” on your keyboard. Click and drag the Gradient line from the top of the sky to the bottom. I performed this click-and-drag in the far right side of the photo, as it presented the deepest area of skyline. As you can see here, the new Foreground and Background colors are represented in the gradient, with the darker blue at the top and the lighter blue at the bottom (click to enlarge).


In order to put the texture of the clouds back into the photo, press Ctrl-D to “deselect” the sky. Play with the layer by changing the blend. First I went from “Normal” to “Color” (click to enlarge):


I didn’t quite like that look, so I changed the blend to “Overlay”. This was the result:

Just for comparison, here is the original photo again:

The effect is subtle, and would be more dramatic if the clouds in the sky were less of a solid blanket. Nevertheless, I believe it improved the overall look and was worth the brief effort it took to achieve.

I hope you found this tutorial useful! Please share your thoughts or photos with us on our Facebook Page, Google Plus Community, and our Flickr Group.

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  • Craig Mullenbach

    Cool. Have you tried the NIK Software collection? Their structure slider does wonders on flat clouds.

  • Jay

    “Lick on the “Create a New Layer” icon”

    I’d like to see you do that. ;)

  • tljoyce

    Hahaha. Fixed!

  • Green Solution Collective

    Beautiful photos. I really like you took the photo and how you show us the effects that you used for these photos. Thank you.