Replace a sky in Aurora HDR Pro

I'm back with another tutorial, and this one is pretty fun!  Today I will walk you through how I replace a sky in Aurora HDR Pro.  It's quick, easy and effective - follow along!

As you know by now, I am absolutely LOVING Aurora HDR Pro.  It's incredibly capable, versatile, and easy to use, yet it gives me unbridled creative options when it comes time to process an image.  I use it for everything now, whether it's an HDR photo or not.

To that point, today's tutorial involves replacing a boring sky in a single exposure that I shot out in New Mexico.  We were way out in the sticks, about an hour from Santa Fe in a little town known as Abiquiu.  In fact, we were 10 miles outside of Abiquiu.  If you haven't heard of the place, it's best known as the former home of the artist Georgia O'Keeffe.  She spent much of her time here, painting the varied and beautiful landscapes.

I just came to photograph them.  :-)

Ok, let's get started folks.  Oh yeah, almost forgot - you can watch this on my YouTube channel if you prefer to do it that way:

Here's the video...

Alright, so here is the photo, straight out of Lightroom and loaded up in Aurora and ready to go.  It's a typical road shot, from the middle of the day, and as you can see the sky is completely blown out (remember, this is a single exposure).

The first thing I do is add a preset to this base layer, because I want a little more pop in the foreground, so I chose the Vivid Memories preset in the Realistic HDR category.

As you can see, the foreground has changed a bit, getting a color boost and some contrast and details, too.  I think it looks better.  Of course the sky is still a mess, but we don't care because it is going to get replaced in a moment.

The next step is to add the "texture", which is really just another word for any photo you lay on top of the current one.  This realization came to me one day when I was playing around with textures on some other photos.  Basically, a texture is typically thought of as some sort of overlay pattern that adds a little different look to your shot.  But with Aurora you can easily paint in the texture just to the portion of the photo you want it to appear in.  So I though, "Why not just paint in a new sky instead of a texture"?  And that's how I got here.

So to add a texture, just click on the + sign in the layers panel and create a new layer.  Then you have to go find your source file.  Here's a screenshot of that happening:

Once you click on "Custom Texture", it will open up your file finder and you just grab whichever sky photo you want to place into this one.  I had the file on my desktop, and here it is once it comes into Aurora.  Remember that texture files come over at 100% opacity, so they will obscure your base layer completely. 

This was a sunset taken in Austin many years ago.  It's an HDR that I created in Aurora previously.  I just like the sky in this one.  I have many photos of just clouds and skies that I have taken over the years, so now I have put them all together in a folder so I can easily grab one in case I want to do this again (and I'm sure that I will).  Also note that this photo isn't just sky - there is a bunch of land and lake in it too.  But we are not going to use that part, and conveniently it is located at the bottom of the photo - and we already have a "bottom" we are going to use in our base layer.  So we are ready to roll.

The next thing I do is reduce the opacity of this texture layer, because I need to see the base layer underneath it.  I reduce it down to 36% so I can see a bit of both layers.  I do this because I need to see where the horizon line is in this base layer - because next we are going to paint in the sky.

Do you see how you can make out the horizon line now?  Next up, we are going to grab the brush, set it to 100% opacity, and brush in the sky.  Now this is where most of the work comes into play.  The reason this part can take a while is because you want to be as accurate as possible with the mask.  You want a blend of the two images to appear clean, without any visible proof that you brought in a new sky.  I personally feel you should disclose that you replaced the sky, especially if you are sharing this with anyone.  But then again, this is art and it's the artist's choice.

Here is the mask after a bit of painting and erasing, and more painting and erasing (it took a bit to get it right):

And when I hide the mask, here is what the photo currently looks like (and note that I brought the opacity of this layer back up to 100% so that it is the complete sky in the merged photo):

Now, you could call it quits here if you wanted to.  I think the new sky works pretty well with the foreground, and if you are satisfied, then you are done.  But sadly, I am not satisfied.  :-)

I feel like the color and tint of the foreground is a little too yellow to match up with the sunset sky.  While I doubt anyone would question it, I think it needs a little adjustment to better align the colors, so that is what I will do next.  

The first thing I do is create a new layer and call it Foreground.  Then, because the mask for the foreground will be the exact opposite of the mask for the sky, I just copy the mask from the New Sky layer and invert it here.  Presto - a perfect mask for the foreground!

Then in the Color menu, I adjust the temperature and tint to get the foreground looking a little bit more like it was really under that sunset sky.  It's basically a slight boost to the warmth of the foreground (and because of the mask, we are ONLY working on the foreground).  So here's that action (note the adjustments in the Color menu):

Now I think this looks much better than the previous foreground, although that could just be my personal preference.  Anyways, it's how I wanted it to look, and seems more real to my eyes.  So once again, you could call it quits here.  But as you probably expect by now, I am going to do a little more to the photo.  This is purely optional and just a personal preference of mine.  I just want to add a slight preset on top of this almost final version, for artistic effect.

So, once again I create a new layer, name it Dramatic preset, and go grab a preset to lay on top of this.  As you can see, I chose the Realistic Dreamy preset from the Realistic HDR category.  I just like that dreamy-ish sort of look, especially with landscapes.  It adds a little bit of mood and mystery to the photo, and I like that.  However, note that I do not use it at 100% because I think that would be too strong in this case.

Here's a bigger view of the Realistic Dreamy preset added to the photo.  I also further reduced the opacity of the preset, down to 27%, and also made some slight adjustments to the color saturation and vibrance here.  Again, this was personal preference, but it looked good to my eyes, so I went with it.

And finally, below is the final final final version of the photo.  All together, this was maybe 10 minutes of work, and 3-4 minutes of that was getting the mask correct.  The rest was experimenting with settings, presets, etc.  In other words, just making adjustments to see what caught my eye.  Anyways, I finally landed on this version, and I like it quite a bit.  As you can probably tell, once I got it back into Lightroom, I ended up softening up the foreground color a little bit more.  In looking at it, I don't think you can tell that a new sky was added.  It seems to fit the scene quite well in my opinion.

Well, that's it folks - thanks for stopping by and let me know if you have any questions!

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