Sky and Sea Post Processing

A friend of mine asked for thoughts on post processing a nice photograph today. The main elements involved a sky with dramatic clouds, a shoreline in the middle of the frame, and a seascape in the foreground. It’s a nice composition, but what would I do? I started poring through my image library for something similar. Sure I’m loaded with coastline, but what we usually lack are the dramatic clouds. I had to dig for a bit to find something appropriate.

Here’s the starting point after some basic adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

A starting point

Here’s a photograph from 2015 at Pleasure Point near Capitola, CA. We’ve got dramatic clouds, seascape, and a coastline. Not a bad start and close enough to the kind of image that my friend was asking about. I started with some basic edits in Lightroom.

  • Update the version in Lightroom (the color process has changed since I originally photographed the scene).
  • Straighten the horizon a bit (note there should be a little curve here)
  • Bring up the shadows
  • Export to Photoshop

Now the fun begins

Here’s my approach to completing this photograph. Note something interesting though. For me the process only starts with pressing the shutter button. Lightroom is an intermediate step. The rest of the image is longer and more purposeful to bring out the intention – or the updated intention since this was from four years ago.

Add some groups

  • I’ve exported the image to Photoshop.
  • The first thing was to create groups/folders. I usually start with 3 or 4 and almost always end up with more.
Create some groups. Notice that I’ve nested “Group 1” and “Group 2” inside of “Group 3”

Adjustment layers

  • Add a Levels adjustment layer for color correction.
  • Place the Levels adjustment layer inside a group
  • In this one you can see that I’m moving the leftmost point of the red channel to the right just a touch. The goal is to bring that slider closer to the cliff of data in that histogram.
  • Repeat as needed for the remaining channels (red, green, blue)
  • Why am I doing this as an adjustment layer? Because it is nondestructive to the original image! I can play with this all I want and revert back any time.
Adjustment layer for color correction
  • Add a curves layer in the same group as the Levels layer
  • Here I’m darkening the image from the midtones. The sky is a little bright as is the water. Let’s start by dialing down the whole thing
Curves layer to darken the sky and seascape

Playing with masks

  • Next up I paint in the mask in the curves adjustment layer.
  • I setup a large soft brush
  • Select black for the brush color
  • Set the brush opacity 50% or less. That’s a suggestion of course. Do your own thing.
Paint in the layer mask
  • Brush into the white mask, revealing the image beneath it. This darkens everything but the sections you just painted in.
  • In this case I’ve brushed along the coastline and the foreground leading to the boy and his surf board.
  • I touched the paintbrush around bits of the clouds that I wanted to bring up very selectively
Mask detail: Here’s what I actually painted into the mask. I like to use a Wacom tablet for this.

Finishing touches

This has already been a big improvement. Keep in mind that I’m going lightweight into this. I’m not spending any time on this image removing distractions. But then this image is pretty good like that I think, so let’s not dive into the minutia.

For me the finishing touches lie in directing the viewer’s eye around. That includes a creative vignette and selective sharpening. I almost never apply sharpening globally these days.

  • Select the lasso tool and draw around where you want the viewer’s eye to go. I prefer an organic shape rather than a typical oval.
A selection with the lasso tool just before creating a mask from it. This is already a big improvement.
  • Create a mask from the selection.
  • Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool to make the mask
Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool
  • Invert the mask. (control-i, or select “Invert” from the “Adjustments” menu
Invert the mask so that the next steps apply only to the edges of the image
  • Apply a gaussian blur to the mask for gradual darkening.
  • The amount of blur I apply depends on a few things. More for my full frame camera. Less for my crop frame. This is totally up to you of course.
I photographed this scene with a crop frame camera (a Canon 7d Mk II this time), so I’m not applying as much blur as I would with my 5d Mk III.
  • Click on the curves tool and darken to taste!
  • … then consider backing it off just a little bit.
Darken the masked area by dragging down from the middle of the curve.

Sharpen the image

The amount of sharpening needed will depend on a ton of considerations. Mirrorless cameras don’t seem to need much sharpening, if any. There are technical reasons for this. (I’m going to stick with my DSLRs until I have a really good reason to move on to mirrorless. That’s another discussion.) DSLRs almost always need some extra sharpening. Images shot in RAW on a DSLR always need some sharpening. Images shot in JPG won’t benefit much because they’ve already gone through a sharpening algorithm in camera. Side question: why did you shoot that in JPG? You may have had a good reason, but I’d say that there aren’t many.

I apply sharpening very selectively. I use a couple of methods for this, but for this article I’m going with the simplest. Why selective? Why not sharpen the whole thing? Because not everything makes sense to sharpen; clouds, waves with motion blur, purposely blurry areas from a shallow depth of field, portraits, etc. Sharpening that portrait you shot at f/2.0 with the bokeh doesn’t make sense but sharpening your subjects eyes might.

  • Hide the vignette layer that we made earlier.
  • Create a “visible layer stamp” of the image so far (shift-cntrl-alt-e … or the Macintosh equivalent… )
  • Consider what your subject is in the image. What anchors it? In this case it’s the young boy with his surfboard in the foreground. I’m going to sharpen around him and some other details that make sense.
  • For this example I’ve chosen to apply an “unsharp mask” filter.
    • Choose an amount and radius that make sense for your chosen subject. Then back it off a little bit. What you choose will be up to you. If you start seeing a halo effect around your subject then you’ve probably gone too far.
      • I use words like “probably” a lot. This is art. There’s no “right” or “wrong”, you either achieved what you set out to do or you didn’t.
  • Apply a black mask to the image stamp layer you just created.
Create a black mask
  • Paint white onto the black layer mask to reveal only what you wanted to sharpen.
A detail of my mask. It’s not pretty on it’s own but you can see what I sharpened compared to the rest of the photograph.

The final image

A larger version of the final image can be found on my sales site:
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-6zBKF55/A

This is what I had in mind when I photographed the scene back in 2015.

Author: Sean McLean

Photographer from Santa Cruz, California. Sharing thoughts and photographs.

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