Two Simple Methods to Enhance Sunsets in Photoshop

Have you ever photographed a great sunrise or sunset but the colors in your camera aren’t as good as what you saw? Don’t worry, this is actually quite normal. Luckily, there are many ways to pull out the details and colors that you witnessed. Some do it by using filters in the field, others do it in Lightroom or Photoshop. In this article we will be looking at two ways to enhance sunsets in Photoshop.

These methods are simple but effective when you want to do minor adjustments to your photos. While they initially are global adjustments, I’ll also teach you a few easy techniques to only affect certain areas of the picture.

Throughout both methods I will use the same image as an example so you can easily see how the different techniques work and perhaps also get an idea of what will work best for your specific image.

enhance colors in photoshop
Originally the colors in the sky are a bit dull and lacking contrast

Method 1: Use Curves Adjustment Layers

If you’ve been using Adobe Photoshop before, the chances are you’ve heard about curves adjustment layers.

Basically, the curves adjustment layer is impacting the contrast by adjusting Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 15.19.00points throughout an image’s tonal range. This is one of the most commonly used adjustment layers in Photoshop to adjust the contrast of the image.

Lightening or darkening a picture is another common use of curves and this is what we are going to do to bring out more colors and contrast from the sky, resulting in more color.

To add a new curves layer go to Create new fill or adjustment layer -> Curves. A new box, showing a line across the histogram, should now have appeared next to your picture. Grab the line at the upper corner of the first box in the histogram and slowly pull the line down. You’ll see the image is becoming darker and darker. Continue pulling until you feel 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.

Wait… Now the foreground is too dark!

curves

As I mentioned in the introduction these are global adjustments, which means that when we darken the sky, we also darken the rest of the picture. There are several ways of handling this, some easy and others extremely advanced. The easiest way to remove the adjustment from the foreground (but keep it in the sky) is to manually mask out the parts we want to stay unedited.

Next to the curves adjustment layer, located in the Layers Panel, there’s a white box. This is called a layer mask. Layer masks tells us which parts of that layer’s adjustment will be visible on the image. If you really want to improve your skills in Photoshop this is a very important tool to understand.

Initially, the entire box is white, which means that the adjustment will impact the entire image. However, if you paint on the mask with a black brush you can see that the adjustment doesn’t affect that spot anymore. This is because white reveals and black conceals. Remember that phrase!

Enhance Sunsets in PhotoshopYou can now manually paint out the areas you don’t want to be darkened by choosing a black brush and painting along the foreground. Not that hard, right?

Are there any disadvantages?

Unfortunately, yes there are. Like I said, there are both easy and advanced techniques to conceal or reveal areas of the picture by using layer masks. The drawback of painting directly on the mask, without any pre-made selections, is that most likely some of the adjustment will bleed on to the parts you don’t want it. In other cases, it’s the opposite that happens and you get a hard edge along the horizon or the two parts of the image.

I suggest using a soft brush and setting the opacity to 60-70% and brushing a couple times extra. This makes the transition smoother and reduces the risk of getting unwanted edges.

There are some advanced techniques you can use that will do the same job but avoid getting these nasty edges. Since some of them are very advanced we will do a tutorial on them in the future (let us know if there’s any interest for that). If, however, you wish to learn one of these techniques right away, I strongly recommend looking at Tony Kuyper’s guide to Luminosity Masks.

Method 2: Use Photo Filter

I have found this technique to work better on pictures that have more contrast in the sky than the one we are using in this article. Even though it has an effect on this image too, 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.

It can also be combined with the previous method just to add a little more glow.

Enhance Sunsets in Photoshop

Note: This technique is slightly more advanced but follow these steps and the result will be great! 

  1. First you need to open the Photo Filter by going to Create new fill or adjustment layer -> Photo Filter
  2. In the property box that appears select Warming Filter (LBA) from the dropdown menu. I’ve found this to be the filter that works best with sunset/sunrise colors.
  3. If the difference isn’t enough you can increase the density. Avoid a density of much more than 40.
  4. Again, this is a global adjustment so now we want to add the change only to the places we want. With a white color as your Foreground Color click cmd + backspace (control + delete on PC). You should see that the layer mask is completely black and the adjustment is not visible on the image any more.
  5. Go to Select -> Color Range… 
  6. Use the Eyedropper tool and select a spot from a cloud that has the color you want to increase. Set Fuzziness to somewhere between 50-80 depending on how much of the sky you want to change. Remember white reveals and black conceals.  Click ok.
  7. We have now made a selection and only this part of the image will be affected when you now use a white brush to paint on the black layer mask. As you can see the area which includes the color you want is being changed, while the other parts stay untouched.

What just happened…?

I told you this was a bit more advanced! Let’s look at what we just did.

Since the Photo Filter made an adjustment to the entire picture we needed to mask out those areas we didn’t want changed. We could have done the same as in the previous example but it wouldn’t be the best option for this technique.

If you have any blue parts of the sky, you saw that after adding the Photo Filter those blue parts got an ugly color cast that you most likely didn’t like. We then made a selection of only that color we wanted to change, to avoid getting a color cast on other parts of the image.

Had you not been using a selection it would be very hard to get nice transitions between adjusted parts and non-adjusted parts.

These are two simple methods to enhance sunsets in Photoshop. Do you have any other methods you prefer to use? Let us know in the comment section below! Also, let me know if there’s any interest in doing another article with an additional one or two techniques!