Have you ever photographed a great sunrise or sunset but found that the colors captured in your camera weren’t nearly as impressive as what you saw with your own eyes?
Then you’re not alone.
The good news is that it’s quite normal and there are many ways to bring back details and colors that were in the sky; some do it by placing filters in front of the lens, some do it in a photo editor like Adobe Photoshop, while others do both.
In this article, we’ll look at how it can be done by using Photoshop. More specifically, I’m going to introduce you to two easy ways to enhance sunsets colors in Photoshop.
The methods are easy to use and quite effective for making minor adjustments to your photos. They are both considered global adjustments but I’ll also introduce you to another couple techniques that you can use to affect only specific areas of your image, these adjustments are known as local adjustments.
To make it as easy as possible to see how the two methods work, I’ll use the same image example for both. This might also give you an idea of what’s going to work best for your image.
Method #1: Curves Adjustment Layers
You might already be familiar with the Curves tool if you’ve been using Adobe Photoshop for a while. This is one of the most commonly used tools to adjust contrast in the image as it lets you adjust specific points throughout an image’s tonal range.
By targeting these specific points, you’re able to darken or brighten certain areas of the image. For example, you can use it to darken the brighter tones, which is part of how this technique can help enhance sunset colors.
Step 1 is to create a Curves Adjustment Layer. This is done by going to Create new fill or adjustment layer -> Curves. A new box showing a line across the histogram should now be visible next to your picture.
Step 2 is to bring out the color in the sky by darkening the image. This is done by clicking the line at the upper corner of the first square in the histogram and slowly pulling it down. The further you pull, the darker the image becomes. Keep pulling downwards until there’s enough color in the sky. Don’t worry if you take it a bit too far as we can always decrease the layer’s opacity later on.
But wait… Now the foreground is way too dark!
In the introduction, I mentioned that we’re working with so-called global adjustments. This means that the adjustment we make will affect the entire image. In our situation, we’ve successfully darkened the sky and introduced color and contrast to it but we’ve also darkened the landscape.
Now, there are several ways of handling this. Some are easy and others more advanced. The easier method is a good place to start but you’ll quickly learn that it’s a less accurate method too. Still, let’s take a look at how you can quickly remove the adjustment from the foreground without touching the sky.
To do this, we need to manually create a mask that lets us hide the adjustment from the places we don’t want to affect. This is done by creating a Layer Mask.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to Layers and Masks in Photoshop
A Layer Mask lets us choose exactly where the applied adjustment will be visible. This extremely useful tool (that’s going to sky-rocket your Photoshop skills) is seen as the white box next to the Curves Adjustment Layer in the Layers Panel.
The Layer Mask box is white by default, which means that the adjustment applied to that layer will impact the entire image. Painting on the mask with a black brush, however, removes the adjustment from that specific area.
This is because white reveals and black conceals. Remember that phrase!
Let’s hop back to our image and remove the Curves adjustment from everywhere but the sky. Simply select a soft black brush at a medium-high opacity and start brushing the foreground. Notice how the adjustment is removed from the places you’re painting with black.
Not that hard, right?
Are there any disadvantages?
Unfortunately, yes there are.
As I said, there are both easy and advanced techniques to remove the adjustment from unwanted areas by using a Layer Mask.
The downside of freely painting onto the mask as we did above is that some of the adjustments will most likely bleed onto the parts you want to keep untouched. In other cases, the opposite happens and you get a hard visible edge along the horizon or the affected and unaffected parts of the image.
This is why I suggest using a soft brush at an opacity of 60-70%. You’ll have to brush a couple of times extra but it makes the transition smoother and reduces the risk of getting unwanted edges.
If you’re new to Photoshop and just learned the terms Layers and Masks, I strongly recommend that you practice the layering technique described above. The results might not always be perfect but it’s a great practice and it does a decent job most the time.
For those who are more comfortable in Photoshop, I strongly recommend learning how to use Luminosity Masks for more precise editing. These are more advanced but also have a level of precision that’s nearly impossible to achieve with the easier technique.
Method #2: Color Range Mask and a Photo Filter Adjustment Layer
The second method of enhancing sunset colors in Photoshop is one that I learned by Jimmy McIntyre, creator of the Raya Pro Photoshop Panel, many years ago.
This technique tends to work better on pictures that already have a fair amount of contrast in the sky. Even though it has an effect on the photo used in this example, it’s much more subtle than the other method.
However, on images with more red or orange in the sky it does, in my opinion, a better job than many other techniques.
You can also combine these two methods to get an even better result.
Let’s hop straight into it and look at how you can use a Color Range Mask and a Photo Filter Adjustment Layer to enhance the colors:
- Create a Photo Filter Adjustment Layer by going to Create new fill or adjustment layer -> Photo Filter
- Select Warming Filter (LBA) from the dropdown menu in the property box that appears. This filter tends to works best with sunset and sunrise colors.
This has applied a nice orange color cast to your image but if the effect isn’t strong enough, you can increase the density (though you should avoid higher values than 40)
At this point, we’re facing the same issue as we did in method #1; the adjustment has been applied to the entire image. We already know that we can remove it from the landscape by using a black brush on the Layer Mask but I want to introduce you to one more technique.
This one is slightly more difficult than the previous (though easier than Luminosity Masks).
Step 1 is to invert the Layer Mask to make it black. This removes the adjustment from the entire image but makes it easy for us to introduce it back into the sky afterward. Invert the mask by setting white as your Foreground Color and click Cmd + Backspace (Control + Delete on PC).
If the mask has become black and the adjustment isn’t longer visible, you’re ready to move on to the next step.
Step 2 is to create a selection that’s targeting only a specific color range of the photo. Do this by going to Select -> Color Range… and use the Eyedropper tool to select a tonal value from an area in the sky with the color you want to enhance. Set Fuzziness to a value between 50-80, depending on how much of the sky you want to change (a higher value gives a broader selection that also targets similar colors)
The black and white mask preview shows which areas are being targeted with the selection you’re creating. Remember: white reveals and black conceals.
Click OK and the selection is activated (seen as marching ants on your image).
Step 3 is to manually paint the mask through the selection. Since the mask is black we need to use a white brush this time. As long as the selection is active, you don’t need to be accurate when painting white onto the black mask; only the selected areas will be affected.
What just happened…?
I told you this was a bit more advanced! Let’s look at what we just did.
Since the Photo Filter adjustment affected the entire picture, we needed to mask out the areas we didn’t want to be changed. We could have done it using the same technique as in the previous example but, quite honestly, it wouldn’t be the best option for this technique.
The reason is that you want to apply the Photo Filter to only specific color ranges of the image. If you have blue parts in the sky, those areas would get an ugly color cast that looks off. To avoid this, we made a selection that targets only the color we want to enhance.
Had you not been using a selection it would be nearly impossible to get seamless transitions between the adjusted and non-adjusted parts.
These two methods of enhancing sunset colors in Photoshop might seem difficult if you’ve just started using a photo editor but you’ll soon realize that they aren’t that difficult at all.
The first method is great to use when the sky lacks contrast or is a little overexposed and the second method is best when there’s already a fair amount of contrast but you want to enhance the colors a little more. Through some experimenting you’ll quickly learn for which images the two techniques work best.
Quite often, though, you can get amazing results by combining the two techniques. Just make sure that you’re being precise with your Layer Masks; poorly masked adjustment look very amateurish and can take away a lot of attention from an otherwise great image.