When I think about why I love photography a lot of reasons come to mind. However my favourite, and albeit most pretentious, is that I have the ability to preserve nature and freeze time. To be able to take a photo and know that that specific location may never look like that again. Let’s be honest, it’s the closest I’ll get to having superpowers.
So when it comes to sky replacement, it makes me feel a little uneasy – like my superpowers are being faked. I feel like I’ve cheated nature and history, and just like that, I’m not proud of my work. But am I just overvaluing and overthinking?
What is sky replacement?
Sky replacement is the art of taking the sky from one photo and putting it on top of the sky in another photo. I have no problem calling it an art because, when it’s done right, it can be pretty tricky. It’s used to give a photo more colour, or more drama, or more stars, etc.
There’s different types of sky replacements, and I view them with different degrees of severity.
- Exposure stacking is taking several photos of the same scene during the same shoot within a relatively short amount of time at different exposures. This way you have a few images with different elements all correctly exposed. You then blend these in editing to have a perfectly exposed scene. I have zero problems with this, because it’s exactly what our eyes would be seeing.
- Time stacking is like exposure stacking, but different elements (such as the sky or tide) are taken at different times. This would be done to get a sunrise sky over golden hour tides, as an example. It can also be done with the same location and same time, but different days. If done within reason, it’s not a big problem for me. It’s when we start blending night skies with sunsets to create surrealism that it starts to get a bit much for my liking.
- Sky movement (I’m making these names up now) is where you take a photo of the sky near your composition and lay it on top. This would be done if you have a great composition but the sunset is happening just to the side of it, and you want to join those elements together. Because this isn’t true to nature, it start to become a bit iffy for me, but it’s still more realistic than the final replacement option.
- Full sky replacement is where you take a photo from a completely different location and lay it on top of your image. This one varies in severity itself – if you overlay a realistic sky for that location, I still think it’s cheating but to a more forgivable extent. But if you overlay a milky way over the Sydney Harbour Bridge I’m going to call bullshit.
Alright, so what’s the big deal?
It all comes down to dishonesty. I feel like whenever photos are ‘faked’ we are lying to the viewer. It’s like being terrified of Jaws and later finding out the shark was a robot – it takes away the raw reaction and essentially robs you of that experience.
But lets look at the bigger picture. Say someone sees a sky replacement, enjoys it, and moves on. No one was hurt, no one feels lied to, who cares? But now lets say the same photo is shared to a tourism page that is now getting a lot of attention. That audience is being lied to, believing if they visit the location they will experience the same thing. I’ve been inspired by photos on Instagram, gone to the location, and then realised that image isn’t naturally possible. Not only have I wasted my time and money, I’ve lost respect for the photo.
How can it be harmful to the industry?
Going back to the dishonesty theme, I think it could start a chain reaction. On the assumption that a sky replacement is shared to a large audience and is later revealed to be fake, it could cause a lot of questioning against others in the industry. We could start to see an increase of awareness amongst companies and tourism boards which may result in smaller photographers being refused deals because of trust issues. This is all on the extreme end of things, but just looking at the way the internet is currently going (taking YouTube’s strict rules for monetisation into account) I’m worried it’s a possibility.
On the flip side, what if sky replacement becomes the norm? Now smaller photographers and those against sky replacement will have a harder time fighting for exposure. Not everyone has the tools or skills to make sky replacements, and those could start to feel more excluded than ever.
If you think this is all paranoid hyperbole, that’s fine, because it very well might be. But I wouldn’t be discounting anything too soon. The industry is moving very quickly, and certain rules and regulations can catch on.
How fake is too fake?
Is it wrong for me to question the morality of sky replacement when saturation and vibrancy sliders are so widely used? And at what point do they cross the line from ‘touching up’ to ‘unrealistic’? Does everything have to look like it did in real life, or are we allowed to add a hint of surrealism?
These are all questions I’ve been asking myself on this topic. Shooting in RAW will give you a flat image to start with, so in order for it to look like it did to your eyes you need to be making those adjustments. And I’ve certainly pushed photos well beyond realistic in terms of lighting and colour. In fact, my current editing style could be considered pushing things slightly too far.
This article isn’t about slamming anyone for doing sky replacements, it’s about generating the discussion. I’m still very much undecided on it all. I am definitely swaying more towards not liking it than liking it. But at the same time, especially for those who can’t shoot every day, who am I to say what they can and can’t be proud of?
I’ve sky replaced before.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m a saint and have never done sky replacement before. I have, quite a few times. I’ve shared a few of these images, and I’ve kept some hidden because of how guilty I felt. There are images that I have created artificially that I am proud of because all the sky replacement did was stop me going back day after day trying to get a similar ‘real’ sky.
This is exactly why I’m here and there about it. It’s not right for me to draw my line in the sand and say my replacements are okay but someone else’s aren’t. Am I never going to do a sky replacement in the future? Probably not. Do I feel guilty every time I do it? Yes.
I guess for now, that is my answer – uncertain.