With Luminar 4 on the horizon, the talk about the ethics of sky replacement tools has never been more in the forefront. I’ve seen several social media posts slamming the technology, for being unethical and not showing what real life is like. At the same time, I’ve seen just as many posts supporting it, as it helps to enhance the creativity and artistry of a photograph.

I wanted to tackle this because I have several views on the topic. Let’s dive in.

When sky replacement is NOT OK

There’s one specific scenario when tools like AI Sky Replacement are deemed as unacceptable. Simply speaking, this is when you’re a photojournalist, or capturing something like an event for archival purposes.

As an event photographer, I wouldn’t change a dreary, cloudy sky to a bright, airy one because it doesn’t accurately represent the event. If I was photographing for a newspaper, I wouldn’t do that either, as again, it doesn’t accurately show the conditions I was photographing in.

For example, when I was out in Moab, UT to test the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III, I took a photograph of a 4×4 Hummer up on a hill. Back home, I played around with AI Sky Replacement for this, in Luminar 4. The sky replacement version is one I never put in the camera review. It didn’t accurately represent what I was photographing. But did I keep the sky replacement version, and use it personally? You bet.

When sky replacement is OK

If you consider yourself to be more of an artist than a journalist, sky replacement is certainly more catered toward you. In Michigan, we see A LOT of gray skies, especially in the winter. And quite frankly, most of my cohort is sick of winter by the time January rolls around. So when we go out shooting the pancake ice on the lakeshore, or other winter-esque scenes, we’re often met by flat skies.

Sky replacement is perfect for these cases, or when you’re traveling and it’s impossible to recreate a scene due to your timeline. With sky replacement, we now have control over what we see, making sure our vision rings true. In this case, it’s more about what we want than anything else. We’re creating for the sake of creating — not to necessarily capture a specific moment in time.

I spoke with Olympus educator Jamie MacDonald about this, and he agreed with me:

“I view photography as an art form, therefore the AI replacement tool in Luminar is just another brush right in a photographer’s tool kit. The photographer still has creative control over the final image by selecting what sky to substitute, whether it is one that comes bundled with the software, or one of their own creation. So even though there is some ‘automation,’ it doesn’t mean the finished product has less merit, does it?”

He goes on to say,

“Unless you are photographing for journalistic purposes, I don’t see how it is ‘unethical’ to create the image you want.”

And he has a good point. As photographers, it’s ultimately up to us as to how our images are finished and perceived.

What about client work?

This is a bit of a gray area. Obviously if you’re a photojournalist, sky replacement won’t be a tool you take advantage of. But if you’re shooting for a corporate client, or even for a magazine, you sometimes have a requirement from a client to deliver on something that might not be possible in the necessary time frame. In Michigan, this can happen A LOT. So having sky replacement as an option is certainly desirable, as long as it is done in a realistic way that achieves the client’s vision.

For me, I’ve used this on one client, who had a specific vision for a high-end catalog they were producing. I was given just a couple days to produce photographs, and thanks to Mother Nature, capturing the scene with nice weather was made impossible. AI Sky Replacement came to the rescue, then in an early version of Luminar 4.

Needless to say, you can have your own opinion about sky replacement tools. But just because one photographer chooses to use it and you don’t, doesn’t make them a worse photographer. Tools like AI Sky Replacement enhances the vision of the artist. It adds to the creativity. In the long run, isn’t that our goal as photographers?

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