Travel Photo Tune-Up: Fixing a Washed-Out Sky


Travel Photo Tune-Up: Fixing a Blown-Out Sky with Adobe Lightroom 3

When traveling, you can’t always wait for great light to take a photo. And taking an outdoor shot during midday almost never works. Either the sky is exposed correctly or the foreground but rarely both. Using Adobe Lightroom 3, you can fix that problem in just a few minutes.

This is a shot I took while riding around Laos on a scooter. It was about 2pm and I was far from my home base so waiting for sunset wasn’t an option. I was concentrating on getting the rice paddies in focus, so the shot was exposed correctly for them but the sky was too bright and washed out. Since I was shooting RAW –rather than JPG– I knew I could easily bring the sky back in when I went to edit my photos.

Using the Graduated Filter Tool

The Graduated Filter tool can take care of this problem quickly. It mimics the filters photographers used to attach to their camera lens back in the pre-digital days and allows you to adjust exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, clarity and sharpness for a specific portion of your image. That effect tapers off to nothing, with a smooth transition between the adjustment and the normal settings of the unaffected area.

To start, simply pop over the the Develop Module and click on the Graduated Filter button at the top right. A small panel will drop down, showing the settings you can adjust. With the tool activated, just click and drag, starting where you want the strongest effect and stopping where you want there to be no effect at all. What you will see as you do this is three lines appearing on the screen with the ‘push pin’ button in the middle that you also see when using the Adjustment Brush.

If you drag all the way down the image, the transition (or gradient) will be very gradual and cover the entire image. If you only drag an inch or so, the transition will be more abrupt which is just what we want for this image. The foreground is close to how we want it — we just need to darken that sky some.

To show you how the lines work, I’ve set this filter to -4 f-stops, which is far more than we want, but makes it easier to see the effect:

Travel Photo Tune-Up: Fixing a Blown-Out Sky with Adobe Lightroom 3

Feel free to play around with the placement as much as you like. Lightroom never makes permanent changes to your original file, so you can always come back and move it or adjust the settings later. By clicking on the push pin you can move it up and down or hit [Delete] to remove it entirely. Hover your mouse to the side of the pin and you can rotate (holding the [Shift] when creating it locks it to 90%). Clicking on the lines allows you adjust the transition from 100% to 0%. Easy!

Travel Photo Tune-Up: Fixing a Blown-Out Sky with Adobe Lightroom 3

For this shot, we have a nice straight horizon to work with, so we’re going to use a shorter gradient and center it over the trees. Once I’ve positioned it, I simply move the Exposure slider until the sky seems to match the foreground in brightness. While I was there, I gave the Clarity slider a couple bumps to bring out the texture of the clouds and boosted the Saturation by a hair. After I make all of my edits, I can come tweak that if I want by opening the Grad Filter panel again and clicking on the push pin.

Things are looking better already — the treeline does a good job of hiding the transition and the skies have some definition now. Now we’ll close the Grad Filter panel and make our edits to the rest of the image. All changes we make in the Develop Module will affect the entire image.

Adjusting Exposure and Tone

Travel Photo Tune-Up: Fixing a Blown-Out Sky with Adobe Lightroom 3

Now I can treat the shot as a single image and most of my edits will be pretty straightforward. I start by bumping the Exposure a quarter-stop and add +20 to the Clarity to bring out the texture of the clouds and the rice. Adding some Fill Light helps bring out the details in the tree line which had become too dark and muddy — it can be a strong effect, so go easy.

Dropping down to the Tone Curve panel, I set it for Medium Contrast and boost the Lights, Darks and Shadows to brighten the image further. At this point, I thought I was done so I proceeded to create the graphics for this post. And as often happens, when I looked at the image the day after, I felt like I had overdone it. The final was too saturated and contrasty and just didn’t look natural or match my memory.

This happens to me pretty often — I get carried away and over-do things. So I’ve learned to –when possible– let my edits sit for a day and come back and look at them with a fresh eye. I almost always end up toning things down later. In this case, I’d already created the graphics and was far too lazy to redo everything so I cheated. Adding a bit of Recovery will tend to desaturate and tone down your edits. I was using the Canon Landscape calibration, which always adds Contrast, so I dropped that down to -5 to produce the final image.

The Final Result:

Travel Photo Tune-Up: Fixing a Blown-Out Sky with Adobe Lightroom 3

I hope this has been useful. If you have any questions or suggestions for future posts, please leave a comment or send me an email.


Want to Submit an Image for a Tune-Up?

Photos from the Pushkar Camel FairSimple email a JPG HERE or to travelphototuneup at hotmail dot com. Please keep images under two megabytes (2MB).

Thanks for reading this far. Happy Shooting.


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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Lavanya May 12, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Hi Wez!
I’m an avid user of Lightroom too! Though I don’t use the Gradient filter too often it HAS helped in some pictures similar to the one above.
I find the wide and narrow transition a bit hard to control with the touch pad on this filter.
And another tip if your horizon or the area you want to darken isn’t a straight line the Adjustment brush works just as well and you tend to have more control over the movement and speed. (at least i seem to! :) )


wes May 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

I’m a big fan of the Adjustment brush as well. If there had been a tall mountain on the horizon of this shot I would have skipped the Grad Tool… Thanks for the comment.


Lavanya May 14, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Oops! sorry for mis-spelling your name earlier Wes.
My bad.


Matt Hope May 13, 2011 at 2:29 am

I’ve been using this like crazy lately. It can really do wonders to a photo.


wes May 13, 2011 at 10:15 am

I love LR. Never going back to photoshop for photos…


Nick Laborde May 13, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I guess I should take advantage of that $99 coupon I have for LR.


wes May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Do eet. :)

Dave May 13, 2011 at 7:00 am

I’ve used the gradient tool to save many a blown-out sky. Great tips!

Reply May 13, 2011 at 7:02 am

this is very cool – thanks for sharing


AirTreks Nico May 13, 2011 at 7:05 am

Uh, THANK YOU! This problem has been plaguing me for years. So glad I finally know how that graduated filter tool can help. I’ve been neglecting it for so long.



wes May 13, 2011 at 10:28 am

Cool! Glad it helped.


megan May 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm

I’ve just recently started using a graduated ND filter with my camera after a tip from a friend and it’s really improved a lot of my sky shots. I don’t always get it right though so this Lightroom how-to will come in handy! Would this only work if you’re shooting RAW?


wes May 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Still works with JPGs but you can’t push things quite as far.


Neale May 18, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Thats amazing stuff I take the pics but only half is real good will try to figure this out later..


ayngelina May 19, 2011 at 5:26 am

Wes you are A-MAZ-ING. I didn’t know you could do this in Lightroom and was just wondering what the hell I was going to do with some photos that had blown out skies.

I’d love to see this as a regular feature on your site. It was SO helpful.


wes May 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm

So glad it helped. Love your photography!


Anthony May 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm

I have only discovered what this filter does and now I can utilise it even more. Thanks a million wes


barry hackett May 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Do you know if there is a similar way to do this in photoshop? as I do not have lightroom. Still a great topic.


wes May 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I think in Photoshop, you’d need to create 2 layers, one darkened and the other not, then composite them with a layer mask. Would work but not as much control and more effort required.


John MacLean Photography June 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Barry, You can edit your images in Adobe Camera Raw which uses the same RAW plug-in engine as LR, if you have a current version of PS. I used to choose images thru Bridge and then do Command/Control + R to open them in ACR. There you’ll have access to the same tools and adjustments as LR, it’s just an easier GUI in LR.


Frances May 24, 2011 at 11:47 pm

I recently read that if pictures are not edited, they are not done. So I have started to look into editing my pictures. Thanks for sharing Wes!


wes May 27, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Heh, I think I’d agree with that.


Alex May 25, 2011 at 2:49 am

Definitely useful guide, thanks. It’s better to use lens filters, of course, but it does good with Adobe as well )


wes May 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Old school! I like it :)


Giulia June 6, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Moving my first steps in Lightroom – looks such a powerful tool! Can’t wait to master it as you do.
Bookmarking this post for many washed out skies in my archive… :)


wes June 9, 2011 at 8:05 am

Glad it helped!