Portrait photography at the beach can be a major challenge. Between the bright sun overhead and dark shadows cast below, getting a proper exposure may be impossible. If you expose for the sky, your subjects will be too dark. And if you expose for your subjects, the sky will be blown out. We’re going to look at two ways to use Photoshop to adjust for the extreme lighting conditions at the beach. Once we have everything properly adjusted, we can bring the image into Painter.
From Gloomy to Glowing
As you can see, the weather was not cooperating during this family photo session. The sky is dull, and the color of the beach is dreary. For beach shots like this, the solution is to correct the top half and the bottom half separately, using layers, clipping masks, and layer masks. First, let’s correct the sky.
Create a layer copy of the image first: click and drag the Background layer down to the Duplicate Layer button (it’s next to the trash can). Rename this new layer “Sky and Water.” We will need to make adjustments to the sky and the water together, since the water reflects the sky colors. Click on the Quick Mask button (in Photoshop’s tool box, it’s the icon that looks like a rectangle with a circle inside of it) and cover over the beach and the figures using black at full opacity. Then, click the Quick Mask button again. The area you painted is now a selection. Press the delete key to remove the beach and figures from the Sky and Water layer. Deselect the selection (CTL/CMD+D). At this point, you should have two layers: the upper one is Sky and Water, and the lower one is Background. Duplicate the Background layer, then drag it above the Sky and Water and layer, so it’s on top. Click on the Background Copy layer to activate it, if needed. On the menu, go Layer>Create Clipping Mask. This tells Photoshop to use the Sky and Water transparency area as a mask. You’ll see how this works in a second.
Now add a Levels Adjustment Layer (go Layer > Add Adjustment Layer, and name it Sky Levels). The levels dialogue opens. Just dismiss it for now. With the Sky Levels layer active, go Layer > Create Clipping Mask. We’re applying the same mask as before. Now, we’re ready to change the levels in the sky and water.
On the Sky Levels layer, click on the levels icon (see screenshot above). Slide the middle slider towards the right until the sky becomes darker. In this example, sliding it into the middle of the dark area of the histogram did the trick. The clipping masks restrict this adjustment to just the sky and water. You can adjust the sky while still viewing the foreground, untouched. This is a good technique for balancing exposure in an image.
Depending on your particular photo, you may need additional adjustment layers. In order to get the glowing orange color here, I used a warm photo filter layer, plus hue/saturation, and a curves layer, and a gradient fill, all using the clipping mask option. To adjust the foreground areas, insert adjustment layers just above the bottom Background layer (see below).
Once you’re happy with the sky, you can merge all of the sky-related layers into one. Shift-click to select the group, and then go Layer>Merge Layers. Now it’s time to add to the bottom of the image, to move the figures out of the corner. I extended the canvas size downward, and painted on a new layer with a middle-value sand color, using the paint bucket. Then, using a soft cloning brush, I cloned sand from the image to fill up the bottom. Finally, I resized the image to 30×40″, and brought it into Painter. Here’s the completed result:
A Different Method
Here’s another, simpler method that you may find useful. In this case, there really wasn’t much going on in the sky. It was just overcast and flat. So I created a nice blue to violet gradient, and placed it on the top layer at 65%. I used the Darken blending mode for this layer. Experiment with the different blending modes, to see which works best for your photo. Adjustment layers were added above the background image. The gradient is limited to the sky by use of a layer mask (see below).
Photographing on the Beach
If conditions on the beach are not the best, make sure to take some photographs of the sky which are properly exposed, and do the same for your subjects. Then, back in Photoshop, it’s just a matter of compositing the two together. Keep each on a separate layer, and adjust them until they seem to “belong” together. Good luck, and have fun at the beach!
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