Creating Realistic Clouds in Photoshop

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: April 28, 2020

Category: Retouching

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know that my Lockdown Project involves making, painting and photographing model World War 2 Aircraft and then creating scenes in Photoshop…

It’s times like this that I’m glad that I have taken lots and lots of photographs of cloudy skies over the past years because without them I’d be stuck seeing as the weather lately has been beautiful and sunny…but not a cloud in the sky.

There are some pictures I want to make where we’re looking down on the aircraft as it flies amongst the clouds and we can see the ground below; the issue though is that I don’t have any pictures of clouds / sky like this.

Times like this call for a bit of experimenting in Photoshop and I’ve come up with a technique that seems to work pretty well and with a few tweaks will only get better.


Step 1:

With my ground scene open in Photoshop I press D on the keyboard to set my foreground and background colours to their default of black and white. I then add a new blank layer.

Step 2:

Go to Filter > Render > Clouds

The result of this doesn’t look anything like clouds but to help this all we need to do is to grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool from the Toolbar and drag out a small rectangular selection in the middle of the layer…

Step 3:

With this selection active, hold down the CTRL key on Windows or Command key on Mac and press the letter J to put the selected area onto it’s own layer above. Rename this layer to clouds and then delete the layer you originally applied the clouds filter onto…

Step 4:

Zoom out of the image and then go to Edit > Free Transform and whilst holding down the Shift + Alt / Option key drag outwards on one of the corner transform handles to increase the size of the selection way beyond the boundary of the layer…

Press Enter / Return (or click on the tick in the options bar at the top of the screen) to commit the size of this transform and see now how we’re starting to get a much more realistic smoke effect…

Step 5:

If the smoke looks a little bit flat / too low contrast then go to CTRL / Command and press L to bring up the Levels properties and drag the black (far left) and white (far right) points in towards the centre a little so that at the very least they touch the outside of the histogram…

Step 6:

With the clouds layer active in the Layers Panel click on the fx icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel and choose Blending Options…

Then in the Blend If section in the bottom middle choose the This Layer and drag the black point over to the right until you start to see the kid of shape you’d like for your clouds as they reveal the layer / ground below…

Step 7:

Obviously this doesn’t look that realistic either so what we need to do now is soften the outline of the clouds and how they blend. We do this by holding down the Alt / Option key and clicking on the blacks point slider. This splits it in half so that we can now adjust them left and right until we get the exactly softening / blending that we want…

Step 8:

Now because we enlarged the cloud layer at the start this means we can (if we want) use the Move Tool and click and drag the layer around until we find a different part of the layer that we think looks better.

When happy with the position of the clouds and how they look, grab the Crop Tool and with the Delected Cropped Pixels options ticked in the options bar at the top of the screen, press Enter / Return. This will reduce the size of the file and also help with the next step.

Step 9:

Go to Edit > Transform > Perspective

Then drag the bottom left or bottom right handles out to the side to alter the perspective of the clouds so that they match the angle / perspective of the ground below. When happy, press Enter / Return.

Now you could just leave the clouds as they are now; they look pretty good however to add a little more depth / dimension and more of 3D feel as opposed to them being 2D, we could also do a little bit of dodging and burning to brighten and darken areas; you’ll most likely want to brighten areas though as darkening them will make them disappear because of how we used the Blend If slider.


Step 10 (optional):

Grab the Dodge Tool from the Tool Bar and in the Options Bar at the top of the screen make sure to have the following settings: Midtones, Exposure 10% (can use more or less if you like but I tend to do this at 10% and built up the effect) and put a tick in the Protect Tones checkbox…


So there you go, another little technique to add to your Photoshop Toolbox of tricks that you can call upon should the need arise.

Of course there’s so much more you can do with this such as making cloud shadows on the ground surface if you’re adding them to a scene where there’s bright sunlight etc so I’ll cover exactly that in a future post.


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