In this tutorial, we’re going to go through a start to finish demonstration of how to use the SLR Lounge Cloud Pack. By now, we hope you’ve read through the previous tutorials and you’re familiar with all of the blending techniques we’ve used as well as the fine-tuning adjustments we typically make.
For this tutorial, if you’ve purchased the SLR Lounge Cloud Pack, you’ll find the related exercise files in the following location:
Folder: Clouds – Sunset – No Sun
Cloud Pack File Name: SLR-Lounge-Cloud-Pack-126.jpg
Sample Image Name: 09-SLR-Lounge-Cloud-Pack-Samples.tif
We’re going to be combining the left and middle image to create the final image that you see on the right.
Note: While the SLR Lounge premium membership includes the exercise file(s) pertaining each particular tutorial in the Cloud Pack, it does NOT include full download to the Cloud Pack. This addon can be purchased in our store here.
STEP 1: SELECT YOUR IMAGES
When selecting your image, remember the 5 Tips For Adding Realistic Clouds that we covered in previous tutorials.
In addition, always remember that cloud images can be flipped horizontally for added versatility / options. If the image you’re working on has obvious directionality to its shadows, then the lighting of your clouds must reflect that.
Sharping and Resizing Considerations: Whenever two images are being blended together, consider any editing that may already be applied to the image layers, such as resizing and sharpening. Whenever possible, avoid sharpening or resizing an image twice, because this will degrade the image quality and limit how it can be printed. Also, try to always resize first and sharpen last; this helps to maintain the highest possible print quality. Lastly, avoid clipping any highlights or shadows in pre-production as well; preserve image detail until after you’ve blended new layers onto a scene, then perform final adjustments to color or contrast etc. last. Basically, whenever possible, bring together two images that are neutrally post-produced and then finalize them when the two images are combined.
STEP 2: OPEN IMAGES AS SMART OBJECTS
Remember from our previous tutorials to open all of your images, whether they’re RAWs, TIFFs, NEFs or JPEGS, as Smart Objects in Photoshop. This allows you to revisit the raw processing of the smart object, or to use the familiar non-destructive environment of camera raw to tweak your JPG and TIF layers, for any major editing you need to do separately to a layer.
Tip: A quick and easy way to preserve the integrity of smart objects when combining them into layers of a single PSD is to simply drag-and-drop the entire layer from one image to another.
STEP 3: LINE UP THE HORIZONS
To quickly line up the horizons for the most realistic appearance of clouds in the image, lower the opacity of the cloud image temporarily to see both horizons at once.
STEP 4: USE “BLEND IF”
Because of the very complex area in the corner of the image, go straight to the blend-if technique to get started. Right-click the cloud layer, and click Blending Options. Then drag the blacks slier for the Underlying Layer to the right, and hold down Alt / Option to “split” the slider for a feathered transition.
The area to focus on / zoom in on for the Blend If technique is the trees in the upper left, since this is the most complex area that requires masking of the sky. We will use quick selection tools to fine tune the other areas of the image.
STEP 6: USE QUICK SELECTION TOOLS
Other areas of the image, such as the horizon, the stone tower, or the couple and the foreground may still have areas that didn’t blend properly. Hide the cloud layer temporarily by clicking the little “eye” icon next to the layer thumbnail, and use Quick Selection Tools to create a selection around the well-defined edges of sky. In this case, the Quick Selection tool works better than any other, and selects the sky rather effortlessly. Don’t worry about selecting the intricate details of the trees, since that area is already blended perfectly by using the Blend If technique.
Next, turn the selection you just made into a layer mask. Make sure that the cloud layer is selected and is visible, then click on the Create Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.
This mask will be great for creating a clean edge between most parts of the earth and sky layers, however the little tiny patch of cloud between the couple is now also hidden, as is the area of clouds behind the trees in the upper left corner. So, after turning the quick selection into a layer mask, use the brush tool (B) to paint white on the mask and reveal the hidden areas. The tiny patch of sky in between the couple is actually already almost the exact same color so we can leave that alone, and just focus on brushing the clouds back in behind the trees. Since the Blend If settings are still applied to the underlying layer though, you can use a big broad brush stroke over the whole area!
You won’t always need to use both Quick Selection tools and the Blend If technique to merge layers together, however this demonstration proves that both techniques can work together to help you avoid any time-consuming or intricate brushwork!
STEP 7: USE GRADIENT TOOLS
Use the Gradient Tool to smooth out the transition between layer edges, for a more subtle, natural look. Any time you have a flat horizon in your image, using a gradient brush on the cloud layer mask can quickly create a gentle transition. (Don’t forget to post-process your original image with the correct lens profile, if you’re using a wide angle lens! Otherwise the horizon may appear curved due to lens distortion.)
STEP 8: EDIT LAYERS INDIVIDUALLY TO MATCH TONE OR COLOR
Because Camera Raw is such a versatile toolset for changing things like exposure, highlights and shadows separately and smoothly for both raw and JPG / TIF images, it is a great idea to edit your cloud images as smart objects whenever they will need multiple tonal adjustments at once.
In this case, we want to brighten the cloud layer overall, without compromising our highlight / white areas, so we will boost Exposure while reducing both Highlights and Whites.
USE ADJUSTMENT LAYERS WITH MASKS TO MATCH TONE OR COLOR
If you prefer to see your adjustments in real-time instead of using the Camera Raw interface separately, create an adjustment layer for Curves, Levels, Color Balance, Selective Color, or which ever Adjustment Layer works best for you.
USE LUMINOSITY MASKS TO EDIT HIGHLIGHT OR SHADOW AREAS
The final image should look great at this point. However if you want to manipulate highlight or shadow areas selectively, on the whole image or for just one layer, a great way to do this in Photoshop is to use a Luminosity Mask.
To create a Luminosity Mask, open the Channels panel window (Window -> Channels) and CMD-click or CTRL-click on the RGB layer. This will create a gradual selection of the brighter half (50%) of the image, with pure white being 100% selected and pure black being 0% selected. This way, you could then create an adjustment layer and it would automatically create a mask that only reveals the brighter half of the image.
To continue modifying the selection so that it only contains the very brightest of the highlights, hold down all of the following keys before clicking on the RGB channel again: Shift, CMD / CTRL, and ALT / Option. Click again on the RGB channel and it will reduce the selection further and further until only the whitest parts of the image are selected.
Keep in mind that the selection that is displayed by the “marching ants” is not a hard selection along those exact lines, it is a very gradual, feathered selection. If you would like to see just how much of the image is selected, you can turn the selection into its own channel by clicking the “Save selection as channel” button at the bottom of the Channels panel window.
Once you have only a little bit of the highlights still showing as being selected, switch back from the Channels panel to the Layers panel, and create a new Adjustment Layer for Curves. It will automatically create a layer mask for that selection.
Adjust this new Curves Adjustment Layer to tone down the highlights a little bit, while maintaining a poppy look in the image overall.
PERFORM FINAL ADJUSTMENTS ON THE ENTIRE IMAGE
If your workflow started in Lightroom, Save your PSD or TIF file back to Lightroom for final, minor adjustments to Exposure, Contrast, Curves or color effects, and of course, sharpening and exporting.
If your workflow does not involve Lightroom, you can simply use Adjustment Layers in Photoshop to apply similar final edits to tone or color, bringing together the image layers for a cohesive, natural look.