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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Create a mask from the selection.
Click on the Curves Adjustment Layer tool to make the mask
Invert the mask. (control-i, or select “Invert” from the “Adjustments” menu
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.
Click on the curves tool and darken to taste!
… then consider backing it off just a little bit.
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.
Paint white onto the black layer mask to reveal only what you wanted to sharpen.
This year’s trip into the Eastern Sierra was a little different. I planned well, had many ideas, and in the end had to scrap most of them and improvise. Winter and summer seems to provide just the right conditions for all the gold and yellow I could imagine. The reality is that it was, in what I would call using my extensive knowledge of the English language, weird.
The areas that I expected to be past prime were right on schedule. Sagehen Summit was mostly brown by the time I got over Hwy 120. What surprised me was how much of a mix of past prime and utterly green it was in the valley from Ellery Lake to Lee Vining. Usually when I’m rolling through here it’s popping with yellows, although it’s in the early afternoon and poor quality light for me. Debbie and I usually promise that we’ll stop here on the way home. This time it was obviously unusable.
This year I took my Subaru Forester with the plan that we could get into more remote locations. There are a few dirt roads near Conway Summit and this was the day to explore.
Typically I avoid elements like power lines. They’re not natural and they’re kind of an eyesore. This time I included them as part of the landscape helping lead the viewer into the scene. I didn’t want to get much closer to this grove because the dirt road had a section of deep mud that somebody obviously got stuck in the day before. Judging by the tire tracks he had much more clearance than I did and got stuck anyway. No thanks. I chose to photograph this scene with my Sigma 150-500 to both isolate my subject and bring it closer.
A few short weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry of Hollister, California. I was out here for a few reasons, mostly to spend some time with some of my favorite people. I was also there to explore some subjects that have fascinated me for years. Oaks on rolling California hillsides have a special place in my heart, but I never really thought about why.
To me this is another iconic California scene although maybe overlooked because it’s so common. I love to see twisted backlit trunks on hilltops. Why? Yes they’re naturally beautiful, but why else? I think it’s because I usually see them on some road trip. These signify the beginning and the end of trips east.
Debbie and I had talked about studying these scenes almost always when returning from some epic Yosemite adventure. We recognized that this kind of thing needed time set aside just for the subject. That opportunity arose just a day before another epic Yosemite trip to Tuolumne Meadows and Elizabeth Lake .
We camped here for a couple of days with Debbie’s husband Tom. We also got to hang out with my friend Elizabeth who made sure that our campsite was set aside for us.
We did photograph some other scenes since it was high Milky Way Season. I’ll save that story for another time. Hint: it involves a nest of hornets.
I can seem very busy when photographing a scene like this, especially when it took some effort to get there. This is a continuation of photographs made at Elizabeth Lake just outside of Tuolumne Meadows. I had just a few minutes to scout and get ideas for compositions. This photograph was towards the end of the good light just as the sun was dipping behind the ridge to the west, lighting the granite in the photograph with a warm glow.
This is another photograph made using a telephoto lens rather than my typical wide angle. The lens of choice today was my Canon L-series 70-200 f/4. I like that lens for landscapes because it does a fantastic job without being nearly as heavy as my 70-200 f/2.8.
A few days ago I went with a group of friends to meet up with Tara Magpusao in Tuolumne Meadows. She had just completed hiking a big portion of the John Muir Trail on a solo adventure. Debbie and I had hopes of photographing Elizabeth Lake since it was fairly close by and the conditions were absolutely perfect. It was a wonderful surprise that Tara and some of our other friends were willing to keep hiking with us for the next few miles.
The original plan was to get to Elizabeth Lake much earlier, scout around, and wait for the light to be right. A car mishap thwarted that idea hours earlier near Pleasanton, California. I probably knocked this loose somewhere in the Hollister back country on a related trip a couple of days earlier.
The idea was to get there with enough time to spare so that we could cook some dinner while waiting. It’s only a 4.6 mile hike but with all of the photography gear, dinner, cook kits, etc that meant lugging around something over 25 pounds of gear uphill to about 9500 feet. That’s just 900 feet in elevation from our starting point but I really start feeling the change in altitude once I’m over 9000 feet. (Side note to my friends everywhere else in the world: yes I know “feet”, “miles”, and “pounds” are stupid. I wish we could adequately use the metric system. Funny thing is that when I go running I think in terms of meters for shorter distances.)
I’ve been doing more landscape photography using telephoto lenses recently. They’re very good not only for bringing the subject closer, but also for isolating the subject. In this case the sky above wan’t very interesting, so I planned to crop it out in camera to include more granite and less bland sky above the subject. This was photographed using a Canon 5d Mk III and a Canon 70-200 f/4; f/16 at 200mm. I wanted the trees in the foreground while the granite in the background would have enough detail to be visually interesting. I probably could have done this at f/8 but at the moment I wanted a bit more detail in the background than f/8 would have given me at 200mm.
I have a treasured side gig taking pictures for a local magazine here in Santa Cruz. In November of 2014 I needed something for a gallery of photos. Usually that’s a collection of surf photos from some favorite spots. This particular day it was raining and there was nothing going on. I went downtown instead looking for anything interesting. I had a new lens that I was dying to put to use: a Canon 135mm f/2.0 L-series that I bought from Dan Mitchell. This thing is glorious and I rarely get to use it.
While I wandered around I spotted a beautiful young lady under an umbrella walking my direction. A quick decision on my part meant a ISO 800, f/2.0 for 1/500 second. I loved the result. The texture of the rain drops on her umbrella were what captivated me the most. The fact that I couldn’t see her face added to the story.
A nice lady who often commented on my posts on Google Plus (ahh remember Google Plus?) titled it “Bella And The Umbrella” and the name stuck.
I keep a version of this photograph as a wallpaper on my display at work (ahh that’s right, I don’t do photography full time. I know very few people who do or can). There’s a problem with that version that’s been bothering me since November of 2014. Wes Hardaker pointed out a severe problem with chromatic aberration throughout the photograph. I just had no idea how to fix it because it was so rampant.
I can’t unsee it
Once you see it you can’t unsee it. You start seeing it everywhere. Look at the high contrast areas. There is a green and purple fringe where light meets dark. And it’s everywhere in the picture.
Tonight I had some time and decided to tackle the chromatic aberration monster that tried eating my photograph. Lightroom alone is not enough in this instance. Helping this one meant opening the image in Photoshop.
Duplicate the layer
apply a Gaussian blur enough so that the edges are blurry but you can still identify the main subject
set that layer’s mode to “color”
The chromatic aberration mostly vanishes
Here’s where I get fiddly with it (that’s another term for “detail oriented” or some would say “anal retentive”… your call really). I don’t like how applying the color mode dulls the color throughout the image. I want this to be selective to the problem areas.
Create a black layer mask for the layer mentioned above
using a fairly small brush paint white on the outlines of the problem areas just in the black layer mask
“Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.”
The Cult Of Done Manifesto
That’s a pretty cool quote. In this case please ignore #3 just for me. Just this once. Please. This is photography; I edit everything. Even the line to the left about editing things. I edited that. Twice. No shit.
This photograph is available in different sizes and print methods on my sales site. Contact me if you’d like something customized.
Debbie and I visited June Lake at sunrise in October, 2015. This trip was so full of wonder and surprises. California was in the midst of a long drought and the water in the lake was low. We got here just before sunrise and it was cool but not freezing.
Thoughts about the process at the time
There are a lot of choices I made for this photograph, many that I “past me” and “present me” wouldn’t really agree on. For example the aperture I chose was f/20. I don’t think that was necessary and it had an undesirable result with focus. I was using my Canon 7D Mk II. It’s not a bad camera but today I understand how depth of field is different on a crop sensor than with a full frame sensor. The lens used was a Sigma 17-50mm. It’s not a bad lens, but it’s nowhere near the quality of a Sigma Art series or a Canon L series. I had my reasons for using the Sigma, mostly because I was looking for the highest quality I could get on a strict budget. The body/lens combination worked very well for me for a few years until the lens fell apart. No really, that lens fell apart. A screw came loose inside and it would no longer focus.
What would I do differently today?
I’d definitely use my 5d Mk III (a fairly new addition to my toolset and a L-Series lens). I might use an aperture more like f/16 and possibly stack exposures with different focus points. I’d also probably take it less seriously. I’d probably work less hard at it and enjoy the moment more.
Processing the photograph
I’ve been thinking about my next trip into the Sierra for the past couple of days. I went through my Lightroom library for photographs of June Lake that I could process differently. The color version has a slight glow to the mountains. The lake reflects the sky as a deep blue. That was nice but I really wanted a dramatic black and white. I fuss over my black and whites at length and I love doing it like that. No one-click filters, no one-size-fits-all approach. Each one is different. I dialed down the blues to a near black. I brought down the highlights to recover some details in the clouds. A slight s-curve was added to the midtones selectively to bring out some detail in the foreground rocks. A high pass filter and a layer mask helped with selective sharpening (note, different print processes will have very different results. I keep this as a layer so it can be disabled if it utterly doesn’t work in a print. Finally a vignette was added as an organic shape to draw the viewer’s eye around the photograph.
There are a lot more details to this longer story, but I’ll break that up into smaller posts. It’s only been 4 years, why not draw it out a little longer? Spoiler alert: this trip was legendary.
A lot of my photos are along the coast. That’s not a big surprise really since the Pacific Ocean has been part of my life for pretty much every day except for maybe 2 years when I lived in Las Vegas. I often hike among the tall redwoods here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They are difficult to photograph and almost impossible to relay their size without some point of reference. These enormous trees can be hundreds… thousands of years old. Here’s a sad surprise: these ones are probably less than 100 years old. Much of this area was clear cut to build around San Francisco after the earthquake and devastating fire in 1906. Much of the area is only now starting to recover from the logging. In recent decades responsible lumber harvesting came into practice, and now large areas are thriving again.
I don’t recall for sure but this photo was probably hand held on a hike around Big Basin Redwoods State park. I often hike or run along these trails. Anyway, thanks for reading. I know I rambled a bit here.
A few days ago I spent the night at Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara, CA. I haven’t been here since I was a little boy, so getting a camp site here was pure joy. I was greeted by dozens of these little Velella (“by the wind sailor”) . I’ve seen them along the beaches from San Francisco to Santa Cruz before, but I haven’t personally seen them this far south before. I think that says more about my travel habits than theirs though.
This weekend was the 2019 Do It Ourselves festival (DIO, no not as in Ronny James). I had the incredibly fun assignment of gathering pictures of… oh everything really. Here’s the gallery in no particular order. Keeping with the spirit of the Do It Ourselves festival, these photos are free for your personal use (maybe check The Fine Print at the bottom). Enjoy!
The photo gallery has been moved to my commercial site for display and performance reasons. They remain free for your enjoyment per the requirements of Do It Ourselves. I’m stoked about that.
The Event Imagery can be used only for the poster’s personal use and not for any other purpose.
The Event Imagery may be downloaded or copied only in accordance with one of three Creative Commons’ licenses that prohibit the licensee from using the Event Imagery for commercial purposes, including CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, and CC BY-NC-ND (available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/)
I will not license any Event Imagery that contains any nudity or partial nudity (including any imagery in which bare breasts, bare buttocks, genitals, or genital areas are visible) (ahem, there’s none of that on this page folks)
If DIO notifies me that any such images must be removed, for any reason whatsoever in DIO’s sole discretion, I will promptly remove or cause to be removed those images. DIO, as joint copyright holder, reserves all rights to revoke any Creative Commons license that was erroneously placed on Event Imagery in violation of these Terms and may cause the removal of such Event Imagery on any webpage on which it is displayed. I understand that use of the Creative Commons’ licenses approved herein does not supersede these Terms and Conditions, nor my responsibility as the photographer or videographer to obtain all necessary permissions from subjects and artists as appropriate.