1. Shoot raw
You can’t recover detail in an overexposed sky if it’s been clipped and lost forever in the original image. With a JPEG, what you see is what you get, but with raw files you’ve generally got an extra 1EV of ‘invisible’ highlight detail which can be recovered with a good raw converter.
2. Use coloured grads
If you do have an overexposed, detail-free sky you might just get away with using a light blue grad to simulate a blue sky. Color Efex Pro (Google Nik Collection) has a nice selection. You can experiment with colours even if your sky does have detail. The sky in the main photo here is hardly ‘natural’ but it replicates the old and much-loved Cokin ‘tobacco’ grads and produces a nice colour palette.
3. Use your raw converter…
Lightroom and Capture One Pro both offer very good graduated filter effects and controls. The advantage of working on the raw file is that you can carry out the highlight recovery in the sky area rather than dimming the highlights in the whole image.
4. Or prepare your photo carefully
I used Color Efex Pro for this photograph rather than Lightroom – I prefer its controls and the range of grad ‘colours’ available. But I still needed to do some careful work in Lightroom to bring all the bright tones in the sky back into the range of the 16-bit TIFF image that Lightroom sends to Color Efex Pro.
5. Mask out tall objects
Tall buildings (and animals) will frequently occupy the sky area, but you don’t want these to be darkened by the filter effect too. Lightroom CC now has an eraser brush for removing the effect from specific areas, while Color Efex Pro, used here, has control points. I used these to mask the bull’s head and they’ve worked really well.
6. Don’t get greedy
I’ve made this graduated filter effect very strong on purpose but it’s not always good to make them obvious. It doesn’t work with every shot and there is a tipping point where a graduated filter stops enhancing the photo and starts taking over as a rather obvious digital effect.
7. Make blue skies bluer
I use this a lot. Often blue skies come out rather less blue in the image than the impression we had at the time. You can globally increase the strength of the blues in the image to correct this, but I prefer to use a neutral density graduated filter because this gives a more progressive and natural-looking darkening of sky tones from the horizon to the zenith.
8. It’s great for black and white too
It’s tempting to use channel mixing techniques with black and white to simulate the effect of black and white filters, but over-reliance on the red channel can create nasty artefacts. Instead, leave the colour mixing along and use a digital grad to darken the sky. You get the drama without the artefacts.
9. Don’t use HDR before you’ve tried a grad
If you have a problem landscape with a bright sky, don’t assume an HDR approach is the only answer. HDR techniques will bring back that bright sky, solving the problem, but they act globally, changing the appearance and feel of the whole image. If a bright sky is the only problem you’ve got, a digital grad is the only solution you need!
10. Grads aren’t just for skies
I used a second grad with a blue tint at the base of this picture to give the ground some solidity, frame the bull more effectively and add overall tonal contrast to the picture. It looks like a light and shade effect, adding a little drama to the composition.