TKActions Quick Tip: Cloud sculpting

Sean Bagshaw’s back and he’s posted another great Photoshop tip, this time on creating dramatic skies. He calls the technique “cloud sculpting” since its net effect is to bring improved texture and contrast in cloudy skies. Basically, it involves luminosity painting (painting through luminosity selections) to burn the darker parts of the clouds darker and to dodge the lighter parts lighter. The process is done on burn/dodge layers in order to non-destructively use black and white paint to accomplish this. Painting black through a “Darks” luminosity mask to darken and painting white through a “Lights” luminosity mask to lighten guarantees improved contrast since the further tones are from middle gray, the more paint they receive during luminosity painting. It’s just necessary to choose a luminosity mask that properly targets either the light or dark tones in the image.

Sean makes quick work of the image he demonstrates in the vid, but I took my time trying this as I definitely wanted to get a feel for how it worked and experiment with some variations. Below is the result of my first effort for an image I’m currently working on. You can roll the mouse over the image to see where I started from before employing this technique. NOTE: The image and the rollover might not be visible on the email feed. You may need visit the blog site if you want to see both images.

I had already worked to get a lot of drama in the storm cloud in my initial version, but cloud sculpting seemed to offer the promise of making it even better . . . and it did! There is certainly a better sense of the lightning lighting the cloud internally after cloud sculpting. I also learned a few things along the way.

  1. Zone masks are worth a try. I used “Zone” masks selected with the “Pick” button along with a higher opacity brush for burning (instead of “Darks” masks) and felt it gave me good control. I used a “Lights -3” for dodging, and that seemed to work well for me.
  2. Don’t modify the masks. While it may be tempting to modify the mask to make it more specific for either light or dark areas, clouds have a lot of softness that needs to be maintained. The straight masks generally will do a good job of keeping the clouds properly soft since they’re perfectly feathered based on the underlying tones in the image. So just try this technique first with a straight Lights, Darks, or Zone mask and don’t crank up the mask contrast before turning the mask into a selection.
  3. Smaller brushes can really target the effect. Sean used a large brush in the vid, but adding successive brushstrokes using a smaller brush worked best for me. That’s possibly because I was already working with a developed image and really wanted to “sculpt using a finer chisel.” It might make sense to start with a big brush but then decrease the size as the sculpting takes shape. The small brush also offered finer control than I could have ever achieved with an adjustment layer.

I was pleasantly surprised at what I was able to pull out of these clouds once I got started. Definitely a fun technique and worth a try.

Quick Tip: Cloud sculpting
Quick Tip: Exposure blending
Quick Tip: Favorite new V6 features
Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more tips on photography and post-processing.