Sky replacements in bird photography

With the advent of and advancements in AI for photo editing, sky replacements are becoming more commonly used in all types of nature photography, including bird photography. I believe that there definitely is a time and place to use sky replacements, but that fully disclosing the use of those sky replacements is imperative. Let’s dive in.

AI in photo editing

Artificial Intelligence, as it applies to photo editing and manipulation, is a relatively new phenomenon (at least on the consumer side). Many new applications have been developed that utilize AI to assist in photo editing, and other existing applications have been updated to add AI features to assist users.

One example of an entirely new AI application suite is Skylum’s Luminar software. This software has many AI features, which are easily manipulated with the click of a toggle or by adjusting a slider. This type of editing is not new, however. Everything that Luminar can do has been entirely possible to do manually in other photo editing software (for experienced users), but Luminar makes it much easier and more intuitive.

Adobe Photoshop has existed for a lot longer than Luminar, and has been the go-to image editing software for decades now. It has recently been updated to add AI features such as Sky Replacements. It wasn’t particularly difficult to replace the sky in a photo using Photoshop before (depending on the composition), but now it can be done with a simple click, enabling users of any skill level to replace skies.

Ethics of sky replacements

A hotly debated issue in recent times has been in regards to the ethics of heavy photo manipulation such as with sky replacements. A line must be drawn at a point where photo edits are not so extensive as to move into the territory of Digital Art. Specifically where that line is drawn, though, is mostly up to each individual photographer or photography enjoyer.

My Opinion

Let me explain where I personally draw that line. In my own photo editing, I utilize simple levels adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Adjusting Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Black and White Levels, etc. is so minor that it doesn’t meaningfully change the image. I also enhance colors a bit using Saturation and Vibrance sliders, however some old school film photographers think that’s too much.

I believe that editing with High Dynamic Range (HDR) is fine, since it only expands the amount of stops of exposure your camera can normally capture. Since the human eye typically can see a higher dynamic range than most cameras, this simply mirrors the way humans actually see the world. I use exposure bracketing on my cameras and compose HDR in post with Lightroom’s ‘HDR Photo Merge’ function, typically 3 shots with a +2/-2 EV range.

I will also remove minor distracting elements from a photo. This definitely crosses the line for a subset of photographers, but I don’t personally consider it a problem. I often remove power lines, fences, or clean up dirty surfaces. Where I strictly draw the line, however, is by adding elements to a photo. At that point, I believe it has leaped over the boundary between photography and digital art.

Herein lies the issue with sky replacements. You are technically adding a completely new element to a photo. I believe that makes it transcend to digital art, and should not be considered photography any more. Many people disagree, and that’s fine. This is simply my opinion. But let’s look at what some other people think.

Other Opinions has a few articles about sky replacements, here’s one. This article contains examples of why people are for or against sky replacements. The author seems to lean towards being against sky replacements. She compares it to ‘Deepfake videos‘.

Another article from fstoppers about sky replacements is titled ‘Is Sky Replacement Ethical in Landscape Photography?‘. This article delves into professional opinions from National Geographic and Ansel Adams. NatGeo has a rule where photos may not be manipulated past basic levels adjustments. Ansel Adams used the most extensive photo manipulation techniques available in the film era like dodging and burning. But, since he died in the 80s, we have no way of knowing what he would think about AI sky replacements.

Many photography contests don’t allow extensive editing for submissions, and once contestants get to a certain level in those contests, they must submit original RAW files to verify that the images aren’t overly manipulated. Here’s an article from PetaPixel that dives in to that subject; ‘Should Photo Contests Require Original Image Files?‘. Even though it’s from 2012 before AI photo editing became mainstream, it has some great information and opinions from photo contest judges.

The NPAA Code of Ethics states that:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

This mostly applies to photojournalism but could be applied to other photography niches.

Context Matters

In professional or commercial use (I.E. to make money), I believe heavy photo manipulation like sky replacements is not ethical. Unless of course that specific professional or commercial use is for digital art and not photography. But, how about for personal or casual use?

I think it’s okay to manipulate a photo any way you desire if it isn’t used in a commercial sense, as long as you disclose that it has been heavily altered. I have seen too many people online that see a heavily edited photo and believe it is completely real. This is disingenuous and manipulative.

It’s becoming much more commonplace now that any casual user can buy Photoshop or Luminar software and click a couple buttons to completely alter a photo. I would encourage anyone who does this to disclose that fact immediately upon posting.

AI in bird photography

Now that we’ve outlined the general idea of AI in photo editing, let’s talk specifically about the use of AI in bird photography. Due to the nature of bird photography compared to other types of animal photography, sky replacements are often used or desired. Birds are typically found higher up than other animals, meaning the sky will often make an appearance in bird photos.

For either birds in flight or birds perched in trees, you will often have the sky contained in some or all of the background. Since birds are animals that move, it’s much more difficult to shoot them with any type of HDR method, meaning the sky will often be blown out or completely white in the background. You must meter the photo for the bird instead of the sky. The bird will be exposed properly, but the sky often isn’t.

Blown out skies and skies with heavy cloud cover can often ‘ruin’ a bird photo, or at least make them less interesting. Even plain blue cloudless skies can make a photo less interesting. I’m sure everyone would agree with that statement. But, where people will disagree is if it is justified to replace the sky due to that fact.

Replace the Sky, or Change the Composition?

Here’s the real question. It is absolutely possible to take a bird photo that has an interesting background straight out of the camera. Should you heavily edit the photos with a boring sky background, or should you keep attempting to get a natural photo with an interesting background? I’m on the latter side.

There are many ways to compose a photo to avoid a boring white sky background. You can reposition yourself or find a different location to shoot where something other than the sky is in the background. Trees or mountains can make an interesting background.

You may have to get eye level with the bird for that to work, though. But, you should usually be trying to photograph any animal at eye level, because it typically creates the most interesting or natural composition. This can be difficult with birds for obvious reasons.

If you can shoot a bird flying low or if you can shoot a bird from a downward angle, you can get elements from the ground in your photo, such as water features or grass. These suggestions can typically save an otherwise boring photo without the need to heavily edit.

Tips for Sky Replacements

Way too many bird photos with sky replacements that I’ve seen look extremely fake or unnatural. If you feel you must replace the sky to fix a bird photo, here are some tips on how to make it at least look normal:

  • Relight the subject
    Keep in mind how light works. If your subject has shadows from directional light, the light from your replaced sky must match or it will look fake. Luminar AI has tools to relight your subject after a sky replacement.
  • Check the masking
    AI software automatically tries to separate your subject from the sky, but doesn’t always get it perfect. If you look at the before/after comparison above, some of the boring blue sky around some of the feathers is still visible. You may have to manually adjust the masking yourself, or use a photo with a subject that has more refined ‘edges’.
  • Consider scale
    Most default skies in AI software are shot from a wide angle lens. You cannot simply paste a sky shot with a wide angle onto a photo of a bird shot with a super telephoto. The scale will be all wrong. I have seen photos that look like the bird is Godzilla sized due to the scale of the sky. You can fix this by zooming or cropping into the sky to make it look more natural.
  • Stop using default skies
    Photoshop and Luminar have default skies included with the installation. There are not very many of these, meaning many people are using the exact same skies in their photos. You can purchase or download packs with more skies, or better yet, go out and shoot your own skies to use. You can do this by finding an area with an open, flat horizon, or by using a drone.

I will end this article by reiterating this one message; use AI sky replacements in your bird photos if you want, but make sure to disclose that fact if you do. Every time, no matter what context or platform the photo is presented in. Thanks.

1 comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.