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To Swap or Not to Swap…

Photoshop has always been a hot-button issue in the world of photography. But recently a specific topic has been getting a lot of attention when it comes to landscape photography post-processing… the topic of swapping skies. In other words, switching out an image’s boring sky for one that makes your viewer say “Va-va-voom!” There have been discussions popping up on Facebook and 500px, text messages winging through the data sphere, and (gasp!) even conversations happening face-to-face.

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Same shot, different sky

Some photographers are all for it, some are diametrically opposed to it, and a few couldn’t care less one way or the other. In any case, a common conclusion from these discussions is that “art is art” and how one photographer chooses to create an image is solely that individual’s business. But in my view, such a laissez-faire approach isn’t sufficient because, while art may be art, all art is not photography. Meaning that do whatever you want doesn’t apply here. After all, brushing a bunch of acrylic paint onto a metal sculpture and calling it pottery doesn’t make it pottery. I believe that, as photographers, we have an obligation to stand on one side of the issue or the other and decide… is this photography?

I’ll start. I’m one of the curmudgeons who staunchly believes that sky replacement has absolutely no place in landscape photography. I’m not saying it doesn’t take skill to pull off seamlessly or even that it doesn’t make an image look better. But it does take an image from the realm of photography and plops squarely it into that of graphic design or digital art. Semantics and definitions aside, I am actually far more interested in the concepts represented by landscape photography. And from that standpoint, I believe that swapping skies weakens the art as a whole and, more importantly, cheats you out of one of the most magical parts of photography: the profound experience.

Wharariki Beach, New Zealand

Yes, the sky really looked like this.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to sit here all day and lecture you on the ethics of art. You want to replace your skies? I’m not going to stop you. I mean, it’s not like you’re recruiting child soldiers or something. But I do think there are a few vitally important things to consider before you head down that road.

I just don’t think it’s necessary. The world produces so many beautiful moments that, to me, it seems superfluous to invent one. If conditions don’t line up for the shot you want, get out there and try again.

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A real scene that actually occurred. All it took to capture it was persistence in visiting this location.

Trust me… I fully understand the temptation to replace a sky. How many times have you been out shooting when the conditions were almost spectacular? Or maybe you took a shot in a place that you’ll never visit again and you’re disappointed that conditions didn’t live up to your expectations. It’s happened to me more times than I can count. And, even if you captured a nice photo, if only the color had just reached all the way across the frame or if the clouds had just turned red instead of staying gray, then the photo would be that much better. So what’s the harm in using digital technology to make it so?

Thus goes an argument of the pro swappers. A better sky makes the viewer more emotionally engaged with the image and gives the image more impact. I might actually agree with this if I believed that a photo is simply (and superficially) pixels on a screen. But it’s not. A fantastic photo is a representation of a real thing… what Henri Cartier-Bresson called The Decisive Moment. That perfect confluence of subject, timing, composition, light, and technique that captures the magic, the power, or the statement of a single slice of time.

To me, that is what gives a good landscape photo impact… it captures the magic of a real moment and makes a statement about the planet on which we live. So how can a photo have any impact at all if the moment it depicts never actually existed? In other words, if the power of a photo lies in it being a representation of reality, that power collapses when you start to manufacture the reality behind it. You might as well also add in a huge full moon or even a second moon. And why not add a rainbow while you’re at it? Or, even better, the silhouette of a howling wolf or maybe a unicorn? It might be an image with lots of WOW! power, but it certainly has no credibility as an impactful photo.

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A moment of beauty which to me is more powerful because this is what I actually saw while standing on the beach. To me it says Look how beautiful the Earth can be. Not Look how beautiful I wish the Earth was.

More importantly than destroying the impact of your photo, I believe that sky replacement cheats you out of one of the most profound parts of landscape photography… experiencing a unique moment of Earth’s spectacular beauty. Those perfect moments are rare, and they should be! That’s what makes them special. When every image you create is epic, you diminish the actual life experiences that truly are.

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The power of this photo for me stems from the experience of watching those actual clouds billow and blossom over those actual mountains and reflect in this actual tarn. An experience of profound beauty and joy, one which I wouldn’t want to diminish by having merely invented it digitally.

Replacing a sky also cheats you out of the satisfaction of capturing one of those rare moments. Capturing a successful landscape photograph often requires discipline, persistence, perseverance, dedication, hard work, sweat, planning, patience, creativity, a good eye, and technical skill. When you excuse yourself from developing those qualities, you’re not actually earning the images you create. To me, it’s a hollow victory to create a spectacular image via Photoshop. I’d much rather know that when Mother Nature brought her best, I was able to bring my best as well to capture one of those moments. If that means capturing hundreds of mediocre photos for every truly spectacular one, I’m more than willing to pay that price.

What do you think? Does sky replacement weaken the art of photography or do I just sound like an old fart from the dark ages? Let me know in the comments.

 

Full Disclosure: Some of you may note that I have a Photoshop tutorial where I do replace the sky in one of my photos. I did this, not for the purpose of replacing the sky, but rather because it’s an excellent way to teach the various selection tools available in Photoshop. Also, some of my night photos are combinations of two exposures: one for the sky and one for the foreground. This is done to overcome the technical limitations of the camera only; and in every case the stars, Milky Way, composition, and other photographic elements are genuine to those moments.

About Author Joshua Cripps

Joshua Cripps started making remarkable photos while he was still in the womb. His first significant image, titled Sonogram, was praised for its graininess, deliberate blurring of details, and gritty black and white mood. Earning two thumbs up from his parents, this photo only hinted at things to come. Since then Josh has won countless awards and accolades, including more than one “Certificate of Participation,” dozens of “Good Sportsmanship” plaques, and the coveted “Busy Bookworm” award. His mantel long ago collapsed under the weight of gold-painted, plastic trophies.

Currently Josh spends over 700 days every year in the field seeking out the finest landscapes on earth. He has a mighty beard and sings in a rich baritone. Hiking at least 45 miles to capture every photo, Josh ensures that every image he crafts represents the very heart of the wilderness. While you were reading this Joshua Cripps did 93 push-ups, won more awards, and became internationally re-renowned.