Sky Replacement in Adobe Photoshop is making photography become something that it is not

Nov 25, 2020

Joey J.

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Sky Replacement in Adobe Photoshop is making photography become something that it is not

Nov 25, 2020

Joey J.

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Let me ask you a question. Is this photo REAL or FAKE?

This might be a difficult question, because the answer depends on what you define as real or fake.

Where and Who Draws the Line of Being Real or Fake?

Firstly, there is no denying that post-production (a.k.a. post-processing) is an essential part of photographers’ workflow today, especially if you shoot RAW. Between RAW and a final output as JPG or PNG, we typically tweak a number of settings in photo editing software, such as colour temperature, exposure, vibrance and saturation, etc.

These adjustments can probably be seen as “enhancement” (if not done excessively) rather than “manipulation”, but where do you draw the line, or who draws the line? In photo editing, there is no playbook that tells us rules, so the boundary that defines real and fake gets quite blurry.

Personally, I like to keep post-production to a minimum, but that’s just my style, and of course I respect others pursuing their own styles. That said, some tend to go too far (intentionally or unintentionally), making their photos look more like digital art. I’m sure that you’ve seen such sunset or blue hour photos that are overly vibrant and looking rather unreal.

Adobe Photoshop Actively Plays a Part in a Photographic Cheat

And here comes Adobe Photoshop (among others) actively playing a part in a photographic cheat. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous AI-powered sky replacement tool.

YouTube video

In fact, I used this sky replacement tool (plus a few tweaks) to create the photo at the top. So, the answer to my question is FAKE (or you could say “fake enough”). Here, you can see “before and after” versions.

Chatan (Okinawa, Japan) photo “before” (top) and “after with sky replacement applied” (bottom).

I don’t deny that the “after” version looks much more interesting, but what’s fun about this?

To me, a tool like this takes fun out of photography. We don’t know what kind of sky we’re going to get until heading to a location. Depending on the weather, we may get undesirable sky, but that’s just a part and parcel of photography that we should embrace.

Controversies Sky Replacement Brings to Photography

Among photographers, the topic of image manipulation has been a contentious issue for all these years, but it seems that sky replacement has triggered a bigger debate within the photography community.

My good friend Daniel from Sydney, Australia has recently released a podcast episode titled What Does This Mean for the Future of Photography? , talking about this very topic (about 7 minutes in).

In there, he says we should be upfront about using such a tool and try not to pass off sky-replaced images as ones that are done in camera. I second his opinion, as such an act is (1) ethically wrong and (2) those photos aren’t yours anymore when manipulating to that extent.

We might come across as a purist, but there is a consequence to be faced as well. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of photography competition winners being disqualified retrospectively and stripped of their prizes due to excessive image manipulation exposed. This tells us that those images aren’t seen as “photography”.

Cases Where Sky Replacement Is Used for Good Causes

With all that said, we understand that Adobe Photoshop isn’t just made for hobbyists and enthusiasts shooting landscapes.

For example, sky replacement should come in handy for the likes of real estate photographers and wedding photographers.

A pre-wedding photoshoot is something you can’t change the booked date even if the weather isn’t ideal. Sky replacement tool will be a saviour for such occasions, and I doubt any clients would complain about the beautiful sky being fake.

A pre-wedding photoshoot on a clear day. You may not get lucky with the weather, but sky replacement can rescue the day!

Heading into an Era That Photographers Tag Their Photos #real photography?

So, we come to the end of the post. You may wonder what follows sky replacement. I guess the next up will be fake reflections on water. Even today, we can do this in Photoshop by using a layer mask, etc., but of course I’m talking about an AI-powered method that requires us a single click.

In the near future, we might head into an era that photographers tag their photos “#real photography” in order to differentiate themselves from digital artists pretending to be photographers.

In a way, we’re living in an interesting time of history. Together, let’s see how the future of photography and photo editing software unfold in the coming years!

About the Author

Joey J. is a photography enthusiast, avid traveler, and casual web designer and developer based in Singapore. You can find more of his work on his website, Tumblr, Flickr, and Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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21 responses to “Sky Replacement in Adobe Photoshop is making photography become something that it is not”

  1. Carol Simmons Avatar
    Carol Simmons

    It’s a conversation mom and I have had several times. I learned photography from her, she was a photojournalist (so, realist/purist/minimal processing). I believe if you’re telling a story (ie journalism, documentary photography, etc) then absolutely not- shoot as-is, what you get is what you get. Minimal processing, otherwise you’re manipulating not only the photo, but the story and the reaction the reader/viewer will have to it.
    If you’re photographing for art’s sake, to hang on your wall, then you have a vision in your minds eye of what you want and so what you need to do to realize it. I’m a fan of sharp contrasts in images, and Lightroom is my BFF to make that happen. But I also don’t pass this images off as the in-camera shot. If asked I disclose what I did. If I’m sharing with other artists I freely offer that info.

  2. Laurent Roy Avatar
    Laurent Roy

    Modifying photos is as old as photography itself… the only difference is that it’s way easier today than back in darkroom times… once that said, it’s a matter of honnesty/ethic from the “author”…

  3. Andy Dench Avatar
    Andy Dench

    I’m still stuck on the idiotic statement “those photos aren’t yours anymore when manipulating to that extent”. No, they’re still ours, especially when we’re replacing with one of our own sky images, maybe not sooc but what is nowadays. As others have said, photo manipulation is as old as photography, just much easier and known now.

    1. Gary Bailey Avatar
      Gary Bailey

      Andy Dench manipulation, yes, Anstey Adams dodging and burning would be considered acceptable. Completely replacing or adding elements, like the fake fairy pictures back in the day, well that is quite different.

    2. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Gary Bailey yet it did happen then as well and those photos were still theirs. Acceptable to whom, the purist photography police? It’s all art and it all has its place.

    3. Gary Bailey Avatar
      Gary Bailey

      Andy Dench to a viewer who is being exposed to art, not a photograph.

    4. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Gary Bailey so per your comment above, dodging and burning would be acceptable to someone looking at art but not any extensive manipulation? That makes no sense at all. Obviously in a straight photography show or competition there are and need to be clear requirements as far as editing for different categories but digital art and photo manipulation are here to stay and if anything, will only get bigger and bigger regardless of the intolerant attitudes of purist photographers.

    5. Gary Bailey Avatar
      Gary Bailey

      I would say enhancing what is there is perfectly acceptable (to a point) but removing entire elements and replacing them with a surrogate from another picture, is a completely different perspective.

    6. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Gary Bailey of course it’s a different perspective but no less valid or artistic. Often it involves far more time and effort than the straight photo as well. Acceptable for what? No offence but who are you (or I for that matter) to pretend to decide what’s acceptable? Contest rules decide that, outside of contests, it’s all acceptable.

    7. Gary Bailey Avatar
      Gary Bailey

      Andy Dench i think the phrase ‘a photograph’ would imply one image, not two or more merged together.

    8. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Gary Bailey no mention of how many images make something a photograph. My point is simple, it’s all art and all acceptable. Who cares what you call it. The point is supposed to be the resulting image and that it meets its purpose, whether that’s journalism, art or whatever.

    9. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench


    10. Gary Bailey Avatar
      Gary Bailey

      Andy Dench it does say likeness, therfore adding a second or third image takes the photograph away from the scene that it is meant to represent as it will no longer be a likeness.

    11. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Again, why does the label matter? Who cares whether it’s called a photograph or digital art or a composite. The final image itself is all that matters. People get so caught up in definitions and labels and forget about what actually matters. Create something you’re passionate about and enjoy it(journalism excepted of course). Unless you’re in a situation where people are using Photoshop to cheat the rules it doesn’t matter at all.

    12. Gary Bailey Avatar
      Gary Bailey

      Andy Dench the article asks if replacing massive parts of the image is making changes to photography, we both have different views. “Here is a photograph I took” “Here is a photograph I took and edited a bit to bring out it’s best” and “Here is a photograph that I took, removed 50% of it, and then replaced it with another picture” for me at least, means it is no longer “a photograph”, for me, that means it is a manipulated digital image, and to imply that it is a photograph straight out of the camera that represents the likeness of the scene in front of the camera by calling it “a photograph” I believe to be wrong. I am happy with digital manipulation, but we both have different views on the subject, luckily, the world will keep spinning tomorrow morning. Cheers, Gary.

      1. Plamen Avatar

        While I agree with the “purists” I can not but disagree with the understanding of the photography as a simplified registration of the reality. The camera optics and the sensor tend to add some aberrations from what our eyes see. The photographer is an artist with an idea to convey a message. We are talking not about forensic and science documentation I assume. We are talking about art. And if somebody doesn’t like the new feature let not use it! I want to bring to the viewer aesthetics and joy! Even the framing and the cropping are already manipulations and suggestions how and what to be seen – going this way we can argue and denounce the photography as art at all! Even before the new tool it was relatively easy to replace the dull sky in a photo. So why all this noise?!

    13. Andy Dench Avatar
      Andy Dench

      Gary Bailey I’m only saying this, when you look at an image, before you decide if you like it do you first need to know how it was made or do you just look at it and say wow, cool image? I’m not saying it’s ok to pretend a composite image is a photo sooc but again, unless it’s a contest, who really cares. Let’s just call it all art and be done with it. Take care.

  4. Peter Young Avatar
    Peter Young

    I having trouble believing that DIY keep bringing this subject up, its tantamount too “trolling” It is this bloody simple if the sky photo is yours and the main image is yours and you blend the two then its your ART and no one else’s not even “Mr NotReal” and seriously it’s also no one else’s business. If you are publishing then take the oportunity to teach the viewers a little in the post processing process.

  5. ipdouglas Avatar

    A ridiculous statement since ANY image is neither real and all are fake. All are a combination of technology in the taking device and the optics, user settings and manuafcturers settings and interpretations and that is at the decisive moment. When it is loaded to any device for editing or even edited within the device via software it yet again becomes a different fake thing!

    Photography is an art and not a vehicle of scientific record (though first level fake images are used and assumed to be a record).

    To argue otherwise is both ignorant and inaccurate, fullstop.

    Yes you may not edit at all and not use a UV filter, polarizer or graduated or other ND filter but you image is not real but a record image with all constraints listed above of what was composed. Other than selecting a composition such an image may be of the most wonderful scene ever but shows minimal artistic interpretation and is not in any way better than any image where a photographer/editor has expressed themselves artistically by editing the image.

    Obviously, editing performed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not an artistic act but in most cases may not be easily detectable? I am not sure Sky Replacement is using much AI myself? From what I see it uses a series of masks. There may be intelligence in detecting which parts are sky or not but then any Photoshop (or other editor) does the same when adding contrast or brightness for example?

    I advise to immediately delete all ADOBE supplied skies and load your own. Then you are only compositing in a similar way to how we used to do so 50 years ago (with great difficulty) in the darkroom.

  6. Michael de Gans Avatar
    Michael de Gans

    The problem with these photos is the tool affects the sky without affecting the lighting of the foreground. It just doesn’t look good.

  7. Arthur_P_Dent Avatar

    For me, it would depend upon the subject, the purpose of the photo and what is done. For instance, I have seen people take photos of religious buildings that insert the Milky Way and its galactic core, putting both the galaxy in a part of the sky where it would never been seen, and also at a place where light pollution makes it impossible to see. In that case, I think it violates the integrity the subject represents, especially when you are inserting something that wasn’t/shouldn’t be there. I’ve inserted a Moon in the photo, but that was because the Moon was blown out in the original photo, and I was replacing it with a photo of the Moon in the correct phase and sized appropriately. Wedding photos, on the one hand you could argue the portrait is more artistic and liberties should be allowed, but it is also a historical document, and you shouldn’t be altering reality, especially if a guest compares it with their cellphone pictures and realizes that the sky is completely fake. This will probably become another one of those fads that fauxtographers will use when they set up their “businesses,” just like selective color and other cliches.