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Sky Replacement With Photoshop 2021 and Luminar 4: How Do They Compare?

Sky Replacement With Photoshop 2021 and Luminar 4: How Do They Compare?

Well, Adobe has gone and done it. Sky replacement is now a featured part of the just-released Photoshop 2021. For about a year, Skylum has been the leader in sky replacement with Luminar 4, but the story isn't that simple anymore.

Adobe first showed off sky replacement at the Adobe Max 2016 conclave. It got, as I remember, much applause and interest. But then, nothing. Now, four years later, Adobe is offering this feature, seemingly playing catch-up with Skylum. 

While sky replacement is still a contentious issue, it can mean a lot to many real estate photographers, wedding photographers who do outside events, and some landscape photographers who find it useful at times. The controversy will always be with us, and that's a healthy thing, but how does the Adobe offering stand up to Luminar's popular sky controls? 

That's just what I wanted to find out, so I took an image that has routinely tripped up Luminar because it had trees with many small branches and leaves. It would be very difficult to do a sky replacement by manually masking in a new sky with all this vegetation, so automation offers hope for an image like this. 

How Do the Two Programs Compare?

Here's the original image of the location:

And here is a closeup of the trees that can be problematic for auto-masking software:

Luminar has some issues here, and while one can use the Close Gaps control to help, it still has problems filling in between the leaves and the branches. You can see the areas where it is less than perfect:

I tried the same challenge with the new sky replacement feature of Photoshop 2021:

This was much smoother, although again, I had to play with the edge controls in Photoshop to improve things. If I went too far with the edge controls, the sky image itself was altered, which is not a good outcome. 

Here's a look at the sky controls for Luminar, followed by the Photoshop controls. 

In the Adobe controls, note the options to reposition the sky image at the left of the panel, and the scale control that's missing from Luminar. Photoshop lets you move the sky image vertically and horizontally. Luminar only allows you to move the sky vertically. It's just not as flexible. 

Who Is the Best?

Normally, I'd call it a day and declare Photoshop the winner, but it's not that simple. Both software programs have sliders to spread the new sky color on the landscape, making it a better integration between the original image and the new sky. I found Luminar had a much better option there. I got a far more realistic outcome using the Luminar Relight Scene slider than I did with the Photoshop color adjustment slider. With Photoshop, the effect was subtle or not visible at all. 

On the majority of sky replacement tests I did, both Luminar and Photoshop looked about the same. Both let you import skies from your own library, and both let you flip the skies horizontally. Luminar lets you add atmospheric haze and lets you defocus the sky. Photoshop doesn't, but because the sky is a separate layer, you can do that with the existing Photoshop tools. The results can look quite good with both programs, but Photoshop has an advantage where the mask has to integrate with a complicated, busy foreground.

Still, I've had excellent results with Luminar when I've needed it, like this photo in an Arizona ghost town. It's not perfect around some of the detailed metalwork, but it beats manual masking.

Neither Photoshop nor Luminar do water reflections yet. In both cases, you'll have to manually insert them into bodies of water by making a new layer and creating a mask. However, Luminar has announced its new Luminar AI update shipping late this year will do sky reflections in water, and that's a pretty big deal when you need it.

Photoshop sky replacements are done in layers, making it easy to readjust image values. Luminar drops in the sky, and you are left with one layer. If you don't like what you wind up with, you have to start again with adjustments, although Luminar does allow you to go back and insert a different sky before you save the image. Photoshop does the same. A new sky becomes a new layer, which can be kept or removed. Overall, Photoshop offers more flexibility, while Luminar is striving for simplicity.

Of course, Adobe could add that feature as well, just as Skylum could ship Luminar with more options to reposition skies. 

It's pretty clear many Photoshop users were clamoring for sky replacement, and Adobe has answered that need. Luminar isn't standing still either, and Luminar AI, when it ships, could leapfrog Adobe. And both programs will surely evolve from here.

Since Photoshop is subscription-based, it was great to see this feature pop up as part of that plan. Luminar is something you will have to buy, and Luminar AI, which will include a more sophisticated sky replacement feature with water reflections will be another expense for Luminar 4 owners. It's a justified sore point, and I wish Skylum would have simply updated Luminar 4 with the water reflection feature.

Both programs beat manually masking a new sky in by a long way. I'm impressed with both applications, and I'm hoping Luminar will offer better sky placement tools, and I'd like to see Adobe offer better color-matching and water reflection options.

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36 Comments

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Sky replacement. Why not drop photography and use an algorithm replacing sky, people, surroundings to peoples calculated liking. Fake everything! I think there should be a clear distinction bethween fake smear and photo. This is not painting with light, it is just computational lies posing as photography.

Lee Christiansen's picture

My commercial clients don't care if there is some trickery to achieve the best result. With the exception of some product and food projects, or perhaps makeup adverts, the brief is often "whatever it takes..."

And guess what - photographers have been cheating their images since day dot. The film guys have been doing it waaaay before digital anything, it just took longer and was less precise. (And that includes skin retouching).

The second we ask a subject to push their head forward to fake a better neckline, we've stepped over the boundaries of real and fake. If we were truly purists, then we'd just plonk our subject on a chair and click. But we don't. We choose angles that hide things, we use makeup (the real world Photoshop), heck some of the dafter ideas is that we get our clients to "squinch..." :)

Or sometimes we'll force perspective to tell (or promote), a particular narrative. Just look how people got all upset when there were some protest images in Paris where it seemed to show big fires - when all it was, were small fires close to the lens... No digital trickery there - just good old optical technique.

There are those who despise any sort of presets, because it alters the image without any work. They'll proudly proclaim that they always shoot JPEG - forgetting that the multiple image settings in their camera are just predefined presets by the camera manufacturer. Or the "I get it right in camera" mob. Really... you can control all the light around you, and have a camera which exposes to the nearest 1/20 of a stop...?

And those lovely smooth water shots in landscape images - water doesn't really do that... it's a shutter speed trick. Easy to do, optically done - but it is manipulating reality. Just like when Ansel Adams surely used filters to enhance certain colours in his B&W photography or when we'll use a grad ND or coloured grad to make a sky look good.

And now we have better ability to make composites - so what. Some people will complain that it used to require more skill. As a pro, I prefer there to be a distinction between what I can achieve with years of experience, and Bob around the corner who has an automated filter that is almost as good. I almost NEED there to be a skill distinction. But then I remember how much easier my job is with adjustment layers in Capture One, compared to the days when I needed to create multiple versions, layer in PS and selectively mask, or my ability to straighten parallels when I don't have a T&S.

How far do we push reality? Do we tell the bride, "sorry, that fire exit sign was right behind your head when you caught the bouquet" or do we manipulate those pesky pixels and tease the offending sign away? I know which direction I'm going for a paying client.

Sure there are good arguments for absolute authenticity. I don't want pixel manipulation on press images where it changes the narrative. But for everything else - we're just creating pictures.

I shoot street photography and will often spend time taking out minor elements such as small bits of litter when they're annoying white dots on the pavement. I'm changing reality for sure, but I'm not changing the narrative so I'm OK with that. I won't change the sky because that would change the narrative.

But if a commercial client wants me to shoot a scene in London for a campaign ad, and they want a dramatic skyline, then hey, whatever it takes. Because they're sure not going to pay me to sit there for 10 days until it happens.

The camera is just the start of the image journey. After that we can take it as far as we like.

We can shoot JPEG and live with the technical limitations imposed on us and settle for the camera preset selection. Or we can shoot Raw and fine tune the colour and exposure better. Or maybe do some localised dodging and burning. Or maybe we'll add a bit of localised colour changes and sharpness with a bit of lens distortion without ever leaving the sanctity of Raw. Or maybe we need just a light tweak to some pesky pixels that we couldn't control because of time limitations. Maybe those pixels make up a bigger area and we're retouching someones face a bit - just to get them like on a really good day. Or perhaps we need to go a bit further. Or maybe that tree is annoying and the overall image would be better if we took it out of the background, or maybe that sky...

It saddens me when I read people spout how "real" photography stops at the pressing of a button. The reality is that "real" photography STARTS with the button press.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

I think there should soon be a limit for what could be presented as photography. All this fake junk serves no other purpose that to con ppl. All this colorful sunsets, the perfect skies, the people without any marks on their skins; it’s about ethics.

Lee Christiansen's picture

And who decides that limit?

I'm assuming then that you shoot only JPEG, never make an adjustment, never force or request a pose and never retouch a single pixel. And never more than one light outside because there is only one sun.

Because I've just decided that anything more than that is fake and should never be hailed as photography.

We OK with that?

Seems that the boundaries you are setting, just happen to coincide with your personal ideals. How convenient.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

I haven’t actually set any limits/borders, other than pointing out that to have a «sky replacement» tool is way out of what I consider limits. It must be done through discussions. I think the disasters of fake news could be a climate change in this discussion. Stalin edited out ppl from photos in order to get the story right, and that is another limit for me.

Personally I change exposure, ISO and contrast without exceeding my selimposed limits. I never retouch/edit out pimples or molds etc, and never use extra light, though extra light is not a problem for me.

Martin Smith's picture

Even straight out of camera is a digital interpretation; it may not see what the eye sees. This idea of authentic vs. fake is strictly speaking, fake :)

Eivind Larsen's picture

When you are selling your house, do you wait for a day with beautiful skies so the real estate photographer can take good photos? Or do you just advertise your house with photos taken on a rainy day? When I'm selling my house, please come photograph it ASAP, don't delay, and then please replace background with something that helps to sell it.
Oh. And if there's a dog shit on my driveway, please clone it out, don't be a purist...

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Yes. I do not leave it up to the real estate ppl to photograph it. Photographed and sold my houses several times. But I am able to plan ahead of selling, so please do not worry about me. I adjusted contrast and exposure afterwards. Nothing more. All of them sold for higher prices than estimate from real estate broker (I photographed, broker sold)

Wayne Denny's picture

I have a feeling that if there was a Venn diagram of people who comment about the destruction of the purity of photography on this site, with people who don't have any of their work posted to their profile, it would just be a circle. Every single time. If you're achieving top quality work with zero post processing, you should be sharing that work with the rest of the world!

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Maybe. Maybe not. I think this is a question about defining photography, not about sales. I would also think many curators would disagree with you regarding the correlation about quality and posting of photos posted here.

Wayne Denny's picture

I never said anything about sales or curators. Simply that people who feel the need to gatekeep what is & isn't photography on every editing software article never have their own photography posted to their Fstoppers profile. Or a link to their work.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

You would also know that most of the academics and curators discussing such topics are mediocre photographers, or not even photograph much themselves. To define this is not a matter of photography skills, but rather analysis, ethics, and theory. Roland Barthes is an example.

John Fawcett's picture

As a technology geek I find this fascinating but as a photographer, I’m quite appalled and insulted. This current obsession with sky replacement reminds me of the over-the-top, garish HDR fad years ago. I’m not at all interested in using it but if it makes you happy, have at it.

Jon Kellett's picture

I agree that this has the makings of just another fad, but I'm also keen to see how many images I've got where the subject was great, but the sky less than ideal. The deciding factor will be the application in the end.

If it'll allow me to save a so-so image, I'm all for it. Just like other tech such as denoise and sharpening software has allowed me to save older images.

Jeremy Lusk's picture

Guys. It’s not blasphemy. It’s not the death of photography. It’s just a piece of software for image enhancement. Like any other tool, in the hands of someone without talent or taste it’ll produce some unfortunate results. In the hands of a pro who understands what a client might be looking for and can use some restraint with the sliders, it’ll produce perfectly usable and attractive results.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

No problem for me. Just call it illustration, because people believe a photo represents more truth than a drawing. Photography it aint.

Martin Smith's picture

Photography isn't any more pure; it's all a mechanical facsimile of what the eye can see. If you only think, "straight out of camera," is real, you're just trusting Canon's decisions for the illustration.

Chris Sargent's picture

Great article.

I recently wrote a brief blog post comparing the two applications and I align with your thoughts. I agree that Photoshop 2021 does a better job with masking. Luminar 4 also struggles when there are prominent clouds and highlights in the original sky which can cause unsightly results. http://mostly.photos/blog/2020/10/21/skylum-luminar-4-vs-adobe-photoshop...

jon Glaser's picture

It costs thousands of dollars to fly to a location and shoot. We dont care if there are bluebird skies or dark non-descript clouds,,we shoot and hope for the best. However, with sky replacement I am afforded the opportunity to revisit without spending another $1000 or even $2000. This, in my mind, justifies the result. Money and Time.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Sure. «If you can’t make it, fake it». Goes for many areas of life. Still I think it needs to be some boundaries, demands, to call work photography.

W Mitty's picture

And Steiglitz expounded that only straight photography (i.e. pure rendition of reality, sans exposure tricks and perspective distortion) was the only acceptable photography. Else, it was just painting. Fortunately, the f-64 group broke out of the mold and propelled photography into an artistic medium. I believe that even Ansel Adams was not above compositing of photographs in the darkroom when it met his artistic vision.

I think we still call their work "photography". In fact, it is what the purists pine for.

It may not be your taste, but is not the purpose of art to push boundaries? I don't particularly like cubism, but had Picasso not explored it and made it an artistic force, we probably wouldn't have Dali-esque surrealism, of which I am certainly a fan.

I had an artist friend say to me when I was quite young and complaining about the lack of classical artistic technique in abstract art, "well, you can only paint a bowl of fruit so many times". Changed my view completely. Metaphorically, is it not the same with photography? Had we no advances in cameras, lighting, optics and processing techniques from the days of Daguerre, would photography even be of interest to anyone anymore?

No one ever started a revolution by standing behind the barricades.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

I have no objections re artistic, creative use. But at one point «painting with light» becomes «painting with Photoshop». You can fake a whole photo with AI. So my point is that given all this tech, it’s a need to draw a defining line somwhere between the puristic view of a photo, and sky replacing software and other blatantly fake alterations. The line between photography and illustration.

W Mitty's picture

I guess I see no argument for a "need" to draw artificial lines to define an activity.

Should we draw lines between what is rock music and what is jazz? If so, we wouldn't have had the Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Return to Forever, or Larry Carlton, or Steely Dan. Or a line between what is "real" music and what is synthesized music? If so, we wouldn't have Yes, and Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Brian Eno, or even Baba O'Riley for that matter.

What a boring world it would be with artificial lines.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

So you would accept a picture as a photo, when there only has been a computer involved in the process? No camera, only an algorithm?

W Mitty's picture

I would think it is a picture. If I like it, so be it. If not, I wouldn't look at it. Photos that are too over processed are of no interest to me, and I tend to pass them by. It doesn't bother me that photos can be synthesized because I tend to not like composited photos if they create an altered reality. But if someone composited a photo of Half Dome from a dozen other photos in such a way that it looks completely natural, I would not be able to tell that it was not "real" and have no reason to dislike it, nor reject it. It is only those photos that are obviously faked that offend our sensibilities. If a picture looks fake, then it holds no interest for me, but I don't get angered that someone created it, nor do I think that there should be some community proscription against the act of trying to create it.

Should we deem "Fantasia" to not be a movie because it was illustrated, not photographed using real actors?

I just find that those who try to define boundaries ALWAYS end up advocating some form of censorship or censure. I have no intellectual interest in that sort of regulation because it is ultimately an act of arrogance on the part of those advocating it, in that their view is somehow more "correct" and should be accepted as an inviolate norm.

In the end, EVERY photograph is an interpretation of reality - it is never 100% realistic because the world is not time invariant and a photograph captures an image as time invariant. So, I prefer not to set an arbitrary cutoff line as to how much interpretation is acceptable.

Eistein Guldseth's picture

As I have tried to say in earlier posts, I’m not interested in regulations, but distinctions: This is a photo (filling certain criterias). This is an illustration (filling other criterias). Like news: This is verifiable. This is not verifiable. So what constitute a photopraphy should be defined. I have worked with 3D, alterations of photographs, mix photo/computer graphics, and plain photo. Given the development of all this smart sw and algorithms, AI we need some definitions in order to be able to evaluate the value of a photo presented in a news article, a commercial aso is.

jim hughes's picture

The photographic equivalent of lip-syncing. And if you didn't even shoot that sky yourself you're lip-syncing someone else's track.

Jon Kellett's picture

"Someone else's track" - What if it's your sky too, but from another shoot? Sure that'd be just lip-synching, no? :-)

As another person noted, you may have spent months of planning and thousands of dollars travelling to the photo location. The weather doesn't always work out and while sometimes you can "work with the weather" (been there, done that), that isn't always true (been there, done that too).

What is missing is a wider viewpoint - What is the market or intent? Lip-syncing for an animal portrait, or a non-repeatable landscape image surely is only dishonest where the sky is a main feature instead of incidental, don't you think?

MC G's picture

I have a library of my own sky's I prefer to use :)

Martin Smith's picture

I'd say it's closer to a songwriter vs. a singer -- and that's SUPER common for a singer to perform something with a different songwriter. Do you think Whitney Houston's "I will always love you" is less real than Dolly Parton's?

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