Well, being in a foreign location certainly can force one to take one’s Lightroom thinking a step further. Here in Costa Rica, at this time of year, it rains every afternoon, sometimes, in sheets. The result is a lot of dark green on the ground and some very bright but totally cloudy skies. There are lots of shades and shapes in those clouds, but normally, no matter how far to the right you slide the Recovery slider, some of the skies are totally blocked up, provided you’ve also got enough detail in the landscape.
One solution to this is to shoot all your landscapes early in the morning, before the rain clouds move in. That doesn’t work too well when you’re suddenly confronted with overwhelming beauty at 2pm. Besides the overcast skies provide a soft light that lets you see lots of detail in the dark green landscape…provided you expose for it.
The answer to getting beautiful skies and beautiful landscapes is actually simple: Always start by exposing for the sky. Take a careful look at your preview monitor as soon as you’ve taken that shot to make sure you/ve got all the detail you/re going to need in that shot. Also, I’ve found that when exposing for the sky, it’s best to shoot in manual focus and purposely focus the lens at infinity. Then you’ve made sure to get sharpness in all the little transitional details of the clouds and sky. Also, take this shot at the widest angle your lens will provide. You’ll have an easier time scaling it to fit in with all the landscapes you’ll shoot subsequently (as long as they’re shot when facing the sky in the same direction).
For the landscapes, I take a center-weighted reading of the greenery, then set the camera manually so that the exposures stay consistent for the greenery regardless of the cropping or variations in viewpoint. This gives me a consistency from frame to frame that saves a lot of adjusting time in Lightroom.
Once the images have been imported into Lightroom and the winnowing and metadata tasks have been accomplished, I adjust the cloud shot so that the clouds show just the tonalities I like, completely ignoring any landscape that may be present. From Lightroom, I then open the cloud shot in Photoshop and clone out any portions of the landcape that may intrude on the shot I’m going to put in front of it, since I’m likely to put several different landscapes into the foreground. I then leave that image open in Photoshop and go back to Lightroom.
The next step is to adjust the landscape portion of the photograph to just the brightness, contrast, clarity, and vibrancy I want to see it it. I then select all the images and click the Synchronize button.
Then, one-at-a-time, I open each image in Photoshop from Lightroom. In Photoshop, I first activate the Sky photo, Select All, and then paste that layer into the landscape photo. I then press Cmnd/Ctrl + T to put a transform marquee around the sky layer, and scale it to fit the landscape, making sure that any of the sky’s landscape is below the horizon of the landscape’s horizon.
Next, I turn off the Sky layer and make the landscape photo active and choose Select > Color Range > Highlights. When the marquee appears, I use a Lasso set to the Subtract selection option to eliminate any highlight selections that may appear in the landscape itself. I then choose Modify > Contract and Modify > feather, each with about a 2 pixel setting to create a slight blend in the selection.
Next I activate the sky layer and click the Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. Bingo, there’s my sky. I then go ahead and make any needed regional adjustments or retouching in Photoshop and then choose File > Save. I now have the composite image saved to the same Library as the original shots and can give it my three star ranking as a definite first-run pick.