Clouds are one of nature’s most breathtaking and awe-inspiring displays. They come in all shapes and sizes, and their constantly changing forms can make for some truly stunning scenery. If you’re a photographer, artist, or designer, incorporating clouds into your work can add a touch of drama and beauty that is hard to match. However, capturing the perfect cloud formation can be a tricky task, especially if you don’t have access to the right equipment or weather conditions. Luckily, with Adobe Photoshop, you can create clouds by combining images. In this tutorial, we’ll guide you through the steps you need to follow to add stunning clouds in Photoshop.
This tutorial is for the SLR Lounge Cloud Pack, a collection of over 400 cloud images designed to help photographers add interest to the skies of their images.
In this 2 part tutorial, we’ll first review some Tips for Adding Realistic Clouds with Photoshop. We’ll then teach you how to Insert Clouds with Basic Layer Masking.
Part 1 | Tips for Adding Realistic Clouds with Photoshop
When adding clouds to a scene, we have five tips that will be helpful for you to keep in mind in order to create seamless, natural looking images. Follow them and you’ll be off to a great start every single time you begin to blend your images together.
1. Match The Mood And Post Processing
Anytime you combine two photos, the post-processing needs to match as closely as possible. Even the most subtle differences in color, brightness, or contrast will make your final image look unnatural. So, when you are merging a beautiful, cloud-filled sky with your foreground, always remember to adjust each source layer for color, tone, and contrast separately (we will explore this further in the following tutorials).
2. Match Your Horizons
One thing that is rarely mentioned in other Photoshop tutorials is that it is preferable to make the horizons in both images line up with each other. We’ve provided all of our Cloud Pack images with horizons present within the image so that this is possible with any scene you choose to integrate into your own. If your primary image doesn’t have a clear horizon, you have a lot more wiggle room in selecting the clouds you would like to use.
3. Match the Focal Lengths
Another thing to pay attention to is the approximate focal lengths of the images that are being combined. If you have a beautiful stock image of a sky that was photographed at 24mm or 16mm, it may look out of place if you try to put it on a telephoto image, shot at 85mm or greater. Try to match source and target images roughly in these four categories:
4. Match the Time of Day and Weather
Pay attention to the approximate time of the day your images were captured, because it is very difficult to seamlessly combine images from completely different parts of the day. For example, placing clouds from a sunset on top of a noon-day photo is difficult to do without it looking unnatural.
Also, try your best to match the “weather” of a scene. For example, placing a flat grey overcast sky to a scene that has sunlight would also look unnatural.
5. Match the Direction of Sun
This is similar to the guidelines above, but it acts as one final check to ensure a realistic composite. Always look at the shadows in your image and take note if their directionality is very obvious. If the sunlight is coming from the right of your image, make sure the clouds you select are also lit from the right. The same rule applies for all directions, including backlit and front-lit scenes. If you’re not sure which direction your clouds should be facing, but you know you want a dramatic, shadowy look, try flipping your clouds horizontally to see which direction of light which looks better and more natural.
Part 2 | Insert Clouds with Basic Layer Masking
In this section, we are going to demonstrate basic techniques for combining two different images as layers in Photoshop. When performing this task, there are always two things we try to avoid: 1) destructive editing and 2) time-consuming intricate selections or brushwork. Thankfully, Photoshop tools are advanced enough that almost everything overly tedious or destructive can be avoided!
First, start in Lightroom with your workflow arranged similar to how we described in our previous tutorial: one folder that contains all your tool (like these clouds and other textures you may have) and other folders that contain your photos. Remember the five tips we discussed in the previous chapter. For this particular image, we are going to need the horizons to match since the photo was shot at a low angle and the sunset in the final image is going to need to remain in the same general place it is now.
Step 1: Open both Images in Photoshop
Each image here has already received good color correction so, go ahead and open them both in Photoshop as layers.
Remember: Photoshop can be a destructive editor if you’re not careful. To avoid over-editing either of these images, we’re going to try and always use layer masks and adjustment curve layers that can easily be reversed or deleted. It is best to never simply “erase” a layer, or try to cut and paste certain parts of it.
Step 2: Hide the Top (Clouds) Layer
Since we are selecting the skies to be replaced from the image with our subjects, hide the layer with the clouds so that you only see the layer that includes the subjects.
Step 3: Use the Quick Selection Tool
Semi-automatic selection tools like the Magic Wand and the Quick Selection Tool work by selecting areas that have similar tones.
The Quick Selection Tool is often the best tool for selecting an empty, cloudless sky. If you have a more complicated image, i.e. an image in which the subjects and the background blend together, you may want to also use the Magic Wand tool and fine-tune the selection using the Magnetic Lasso. But we almost always start with the Quick Selection Tool first.
In the case of our sample image, the selection is almost perfect with a single brush stroke! Just click on the two additional spaces in between the couple. Every edge (except hair) should be nearly perfect, however watch out for the empty space in the sky that was caused by rotation correction.
Step 4: Fine Tune
To fine-tune the area around the subject’s hair, hold down Alt/Option so that the Quick Selection Tool changes from a plus sign to a minus sign. This means that any area clicked will be subtracted from the selection. Select areas of the hair to be de-selected until you’re satisfied with the blend.
Step 5: Add a Feather
After fine-tuning the mask, if necessary, you may want to add a faint feather to the selection before turning it into a mask. A feather creates a more gradual, soft transition for that selection, instead of being an abrupt, hard edge. Usually no more than a 1-2 pixel feather is useful.
Step 6: Unhide the Top (Cloud) Layer and Create a Layer Mask
Un-hide your top cloud layer by clicking the eye icon. Then select the top layer and click the “Add Layer Mask” Icon to see how the results look. The selection will automatically turn into a mask that reveals the correct areas. If the feathering and/or the mask looks “close but not quite”, you may want to expand the selection by 1-2 pixels before turning it into a mask.
Step 7: Adjust the Position of the Clouds
Unlink the mask by clicking on the little chain icon between the cloud layer and its mask, select the cloud layer (instead of the mask!) and adjust the position of the clouds so that the sun is in (approximately) the same place in both images.
Step 8: Fine Tune the Mask Around the Subjects
If needed, click on the mask and use a black or white brush to reveal or conceal more of the underlying image.
Step 9: Fine Tune the Mask In the Scene
Once the mask outline is good around the subjects, zoom out and look at the rest of the rest of the scene. Fine-tune the horizon and other edges using your black and white brushes directly on the layer mask. Work very gently with your Brush Tool’s Opacity or have the Flow set very low to 10-20%.
Also, consider some extremely large, very faint brush strokes over any dark areas that don’t quite match up to the brightness of the foreground and subject.
That’s it! You should see the final image!
In conclusion, creating clouds in Photoshop can be a fun and rewarding experience for anyone looking to add a touch of beauty and drama to their photos or digital artwork. While it may take some practice to perfect your cloud-making skills, the end result can be truly breathtaking. With the techniques and tips outlined in this tutorial, you’ll be able to create realistic and stunning cloud formations that will bring your designs to life. So don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things, and enjoy the process of creating beautiful clouds in Photoshop!
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