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Changing the Sky: Improving Images in Photoshop Elements

Updated on June 11, 2013

Changing Image Backgrounds in Photoshop

Changing, and improving, the background of your images in Adobe Photoshop can be a daunting challenge. However, image design in Photoshop can be simplified through reading informative Photoshop guides like this one. I will be teaching you how to improve the quality of your image by substituting a dreary, dead, sky behind an office building with a vibrant and contrasting sky that really makes the focal point pop. For this project, I will be using Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 - however, the tools I mainly use (magic wand, magnetic lasso, and a few others) will be in almost any version of Photoshop. Through reading this guide, hopefully you will have some fun, learn some new tricks, and understand the tools in Photoshop well enough to do this on your own.

Our Starting Photo - Dreary and Dead, This Photo Will Need Some Work!

Here is our starting photo. I took this as part of a project I was working on for one of my clients but, unfortunately, if I used this photo in my advertisements, people would wonder why in the world they would ever want to work in that office building. As you can tell, the sky is dead, the building is somewhat blurry, and the photo could look a lot better with a little bit of Photoshop magic. If you want to do the project with me, just right click the image and save it to your desktop. You can then open it in Photoshop and get right to work!

Step One: Duplicating the Background Layer - After opening the photo in Photoshop, you will end up with a screen like the one below:

As with any Photoshop project, you are going to have to get rid of the pesky "background" layer. This background layer is locked, meaning you cannot edit it. After 5 years of using Photoshop I am still not exactly sure why they lock the image to start, however, it's very easy to get around this issue. Just right click the layer at the bottom right of your screen and select, "duplicate layer." Rename the layer "New Background." Afterwards, with the old background layer selected, delete the layer by clicking the trashcan icon above the layers. You should end up with a screen like this:

You have now created a new, editable layer.
You have now created a new, editable layer.

Step Two: Selecting the Sky

Make sure you have your "New Background" layer selected. Now, select the Magic Wand Tool at the left (it's the one that looks like a wizard's wand casting a spell). Now, if you try to select the sky right away, you'll end up deleting part of your building as well - you definitely do not want to do that! The key to using this tool properly is adjusting the tolerance level on the upper left. The tolerance level determines how closely the pixels have to be related in color in order to select them. The lower the tolerance, the fewer pixels it will select. Many times, it will be better to work on a low tolerance and select multiple areas than to work on a high tolerance and lose parts of your picture.

Therefore, with that tip in mind, change your tolerance to 15. I found this was a great level to select my sky but not the building. You won't get it all at once, but keep selecting the areas that aren't yet and eventually, you will have selected all of the sky. You should end up with a screen like this:

Step 3: Deleting and Replacing the Sky

If your screen looks like the one above, then great - we can go ahead and hit the delete button. This will give you the buildings with the black and grey boxes that indicate that the selected area is transparent. From this, we can do a couple things. First off, we're going to improve the sharpness and overall quality of the buildings. To do so, select the inverse of the sky, or the buildings and everything else that is not selected. You can do this from the menus, but the easiest way is to click Ctrl+Shift+I, the quick key code. With the buildings selected, click "Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Brightness/Contrast." Slide the bars over to the right to increase the contrast (which will deepen the grooves of the bricks and trees) and the brightness, which will help with making your building stand out. I chose +25 for both, but you can choose whatever you feel like improves the image the best.

Now deselect the building with the quick key Ctrl+D. To get blue sky, you can go to Google Images and type in blue sky. I'm going to use the image located here. Use the following steps to get a crisp, blue sky:

  1. Copy the image by right clicking it and clicking copy. Go back to Photoshop and create a new document (it should be the same size as the photo you just copied).
  2. Paste the picture into that document and crop as necessary (the crop tool looks like a black, square bowtie with a line through it).
  3. Click and drag the image into your building document. It will cover the building.
  4. Go to the layers section of the building picture and drag the "New Background" layer up. Now, the sky will be behind the building.
  5. If the sky isn't blue enough for you (it wasn't for me), click "Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation and adjust those values. I used +15 hue and +60 saturation for the blue sky photo above.
  6. Move the image around to get the clouds you want in your image - since the image I chose is so large, there are plenty of great options that you can choose for cloud coverage.

If all went well, it will look something like this:

Would you look at that! A crisp, blue sky behind our enhanced building. Now I'd LOVE to work there!
Would you look at that! A crisp, blue sky behind our enhanced building. Now I'd LOVE to work there!

Step 4: Fixing the Building

Now if you are following along with me on your own program, you will notice that I took some chunks out of the building for our original image. This is to help you learn about the Clone Stamp tool, which is a great way to fix pictures such as this one, which could possibly have unwanted things in front if it such as tree branches or glares. If you aren't following along at home, here's a quick picture of what I'm talking about:

Now, go ahead and select the Clone Stamp Tool (it looks like a big wooden stamper with a black triangle on it). Zoom into the spot that you want to copy and select an appropriate stamp size with the slider on top. I chose a 9 pixel stamp. To select what you want to copy, hold down the "Alt" key and click the area. When using the Clone Stamp Tool, be sure it is centered or it will not work. Now, move your mouse down to the broken areas and click. It will copy the building, creating a smooth line. Once again, be sure it is centered or it will not work. If you do it correctly, it should look like what I have below:

The Finished Product

I think we've done some good work here!

With all of this new knowledge under your belt, it is always fun to compare where you started to where you ended up. If you want to learn an advance trick for this technique, scroll down a bit - however, if you're happy knowing how to replace backgrounds and split layers, two of the most essential Photoshop tricks, you can save your picture and use the technique on many more photographs to come.

Before and After! You have now mastered the basics of background replacement.

Before and After! You have now mastered the basics of background replacement.
Before and After! You have now mastered the basics of background replacement.

Step 5: Advance Sky Replacement

Now I know that we were successful in replacing the sky. However, a keen eye will look at the windows that are reflecting the sky and see that the image has been Photoshopped. I will be using a different photo of the same building (see below) to teach you this technique that you can apply to future projects. Once again, just save the photo and open it up with Photoshop and you can follow me step by step.

So you may be able to see I already optimized this photo. However, there is a small error with how I edited it. While the sky is vibrant blue, the windows are reflecting a different color, even adjusting for tint! We're going to go ahead and solve this with similar techniques to the blue sky fix.

First, go ahead and use the Magic Wand Tool to select all of your windows. You may need to adjust the tolerance to get different windows. If you are having trouble selecting everything, make sure you have the "+" option selected. This is the second "double box" on the upper left. This will let you continue selecting parts without holding down the control button.

After selecting everything, duplicate your building layer. Name this "Building" and press delete. Then, select the inverse (remember, Ctrl+Shift+I), and select your previous layer. Press delete. Deselect (Ctrl+D). Congratulations! You now have separate windows. If you did this correctly, your layers will be set up similarly to the picture below.

Now, with the Windows layer selected, you can go ahead and adjust the lighting, hue, and contrast to get a properly colored reflection. Remember, use the "Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation" line to get to the toolbox. I used +20 saturation and +5 lightness.

Congratulations! You now understand the importance of detail. Go out and try it on one of your own photos. Below are my two completed images, and I hope that you enjoyed these tutorials.

Our First Finished Photo - Blue skies and sunny prospects!

Our Second Finished Photo - Attention to detail can really improve how people look at your photos

So... Are you going to give Photoshop a try? Why or why not?

More Photoshop Help Guides

Here are some more great guides you can use for improving your Photoshop skills.

Comments or Questions? Post them here!

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    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      6 years ago from UK

      good tutorial

    • xDerivative profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @anonymous: License? Not sure what you mean. The program right now is INSANELY cheap on Amazon for $50.00 - you'll never see a deal like this again. I'd buy it now if I were you.

    • xDerivative profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @JoshK47: Thanks! Means a lot! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for the tutorial

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great tutorial. may be one day i will have any money to buy photoshop license.

    • dancerene profile image


      6 years ago

      Excellent lens and good choice in recommending PS Elements.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very well-done guide! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Awesome tutorial .. Thanks a lot.

    • willypo profile image


      6 years ago

      woww, this simply magic tips for me who always avoid magic wand tool.

      I use PS for 2 years but always get pissed off when start using magic wand - so I use more brush than magic or lasso.

      avoid photo editing and prefer illustrating.

      Great Lens :D

    • peggygallyot profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for teaching how to use photoshop

    • MayaIxchel profile image


      6 years ago

      Great tutorial! I always wondered how to fix the background. Thanks! Greetings from 'the land of eternal spring'!

    • LynetteBell profile image


      6 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Thanks for the tutorial...maybe one day I'll get Photoshop.

    • xDerivative profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @NuMil3Design: I see that, thanks for pointing it out. What you may not know was that I did not use the original picture as the starting picture. The original picture had a large tree branch and leaves hanging in front of the left side of the building. It would have stretched the tutorial way too long to show how to remove the obstructing objects, so I started at a more simple point. My next couple lenses will be more on Photoshop, including that leaf picture, so keep a look out for that.

    • xDerivative profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @anonymous: True - there would be lighting variables. However, for advertising you really want everything to be picturesque, and shadows distract from the main focus of the photo.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice step by step tutorial but the sky still looks fake, an overcast day won't throw shadows but a vivid sky with clouds would produce shadows and other lighting variables which are not reflected in the photograph. Well put together though. I would rather used HDR to get a vibrant photograph rather than touching up with layers but that is just my personal preference.

    • ermiarch profile image


      6 years ago

      Great Photoshop tutorial...thanks

    • hessa johnson profile image

      hessa johnson 

      6 years ago

      Really helpful lens. I have also bookmarked it for future reference.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nicely done. Just FYI: it looks like there's a small flaw in the roof line on the left side of the front of the building (above one of the green blocks). Can't wait to see your fix on that. :)

    • Teapixie LM profile image

      Tea Pixie 

      6 years ago

      Wonderful instruction here, Great work! I have bookmarked your page so thatI can walk through each element, step-by-step.

    • profile image

      Deadicated LM 

      6 years ago

      Great Lens and tutorial.

    • jlshernandez profile image


      6 years ago

      Great tutorial. I will need to try this. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great job! The idea is very much helpful, I can't wait to try this.

    • Lynda Makara profile image

      Lynda Makara 

      6 years ago from California

      Fantastic work! A well-deserved purple star, and blessings to you.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      6 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Wow, very impressive!

    • writerkath profile image


      6 years ago

      Awesome! Congrats on your Purple Star! I think you made a pretty technical topic more understandable to people like me who don't quite understand what Photoshop can do. Thank you! :)

    • kburns421 lm profile image

      kburns421 lm 

      6 years ago

      I've thought about creating Photoshop tutorial lenses, but they seem like way too much work with screenshots and everything, so props to you for making this! It's a very great, informative, easy to understand lens.Congrats on the purple star :-)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I could have used this information when I was editing my foal photo for my new logo. Will bookmark this for future reference.

    • sibian profile image


      6 years ago

      Interesting, it is the first tiem I hear about this version of the software. I used GIMP so far, but it is not very user friendly at times.

    • bensen32 lm profile image

      bensen32 lm 

      6 years ago

      Was interesting thanks for the info, and a good lens too

    • xDerivative profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @Ramkitten2000: Not too many people notice the window reflections unless it's under the context of Photoshopped photos. I would have done it for the first image, but I didn't want the project to take someone too much time, and selecting all of those windows would really be time consuming. Glad you liked my guide!

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 

      6 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I'm glad you ended up addressing the issue of the window reflections. When I saw the first stage of the sky replacement, with just the sky changed, I looked at the windows and noticed that right away. I might not notice so quickly if I didn't know a photo was Photoshopped and looked it for only a few moments, but it was definitely noticeable here. Interesting how you fixed it. This is a great tutorial.


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