How to apply a Sky Overlay in Photoshop

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How many times does it happen that we come across a beautiful picture with great composition, but with a dull sky? This tends to be a common issue – especially if you’re just starting out in the world of professional photography – in this case, digital post-production becomes a must, so you can compensate for this deficiency.

sky overlay

Rather than discarding those pictures, Photoshop gives you an alternative through the innovation of Overlays… but what are overlays?

We can define Overlays as layers merged onto our original file in Photoshop for the sole purpose of enhancing our composition. In most cases, overlays are used for changing skies, but you can also use overlays for creating effects like changing seasons (snow/winter overlays) or for applying effects such as bokeh.

define Overlays as layers merged

In this guide, we are going to cover how you apply a sky overlay in Photoshop using a step-by-step process.

Origins of the overlay

You can either use images retrieved from Google, photograph a sky that matches the look you want to have in your image, or use images like Stock Photos, which are files of overall high quality made by professional photographers. It is up to you how you decide to do it. Generally speaking, you should aim to improve the quality of the job you already did, and we can establish a series of recommendations to accomplish this:

  1. Always use overlay files with a minimum size of 1500 pixels
  2. Avoid using sky overlays with information such as buildings or trees – They will not match the information on the ground, such as shadows.
  3. Keep an eye on the quality of the overlay, making sure it’s not a pixelated image.
  4. Match exposure data – Otherwise the composition will not look realistic
  5. Time of the day – Illumination conditions won’t be the same in the afternoon as in the evening or at dawn.

For this tutorial, we are going to use the image shown below as our sky overlay.

Origins of the overlay

Procedure for applying an Overlay in Photoshop

Start by opening the image to which you are applying the overlay in Photoshop.

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applying the overlay in Photoshop

Open the image you want to use as a Sky overlay. Select it entirely and drag on top of the image you been working with.

image you want to use as a Sky overlay

Lower the opacity value on the sky layer, so you can see what is going on below this newly opened layer. Consider an opacity value between 40-60%

opacity value on the sky layer

Since you can see, what is happening in the layer below, you can adjust the scale of the sky overlay as well as adjust it to fit areas where buildings/trees/people may be playing role in the original file.

Now, create a Layer Mask using the Layer menu, since the idea is to use the “Hide All” option.

create a Layer Mask using the Layer menu

The sky overlay will now be hidden, and in order to have it show, you have to use the brush tool and a white color to paint over the areas you want the sky texture to be part of your composition.

sky overlay will now be hidden

And that’s all! Simple isn’t it? Another method you can use is to work with the eraser tool directly and deleting the areas you don’t want to keep as part of your image. I don’t recommend this method, however, not just because of the time involved, but also because it is a purely destructive method. By using Layer Masks, it’s a given that you can correct any kind of mistake made in just a few seconds.

In case you happen to work with PNG files and alpha channels, there is one more method involving Layer Blending Modes and Layer Masks, although in most cases this won’t apply to photography (it is widely used in Architectural Renderings).

In closing, then, I’ll leave you with the finished image after applying the Sky Overlay. A nice, quick and friendly retouching to bring the best out of your image.

Good luck and keep editing!

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