This question is one debated by photographers the world over. On one side, if it isn't captured straight out of camera (SOOC), it isn't a photograph; it's something else. On the other side, anything goes in Photoshop! Of course, everything in between is legit, depending upon which end of the spectrum you start from. Sounds like politics, doesn't it?
In this post, I wanted to try my hand at illustrating my approach to a photograph, from SOOC to what I consider the "final" image. The word final is in quotes because an image is finished in my mind only at the time I stop working on it; I can return to it at any time with new vision, new technique, both indicative of a new interpretation.
As I was going through some of my older images from 2015, I came across a three shot group with an outstanding ocotillo cactus in the foreground and some spectacular boulders in the background, more or less silhouetted against the distant Superstition Mountains of Arizona. We had just finished an off road Jeep adventure and stopped to view the desert in Spring. Even though the light was quite flat due to an overcast sky, sensing that there was a photograph, I clicked off three overlapping vertical segments with my Nikon 1 v2 knowing I would have to merge them in Lightroom, the result of which you see below, unmodified and SOOC.
|Misty Desert Spring - SOOC|
Raw (NEF) file converted to DNG in Lightroom from 3-frame merge
Nikon 1 v2, Nikkor 10-100 zoom @ 62 mm, 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 800
When I import images to my Lightroom catalogue, I use a preset to automatically apply lens corrections and some sharpening (25,1,50,75), noise reduction (10,50,0), clarity (50), and vibrance (50). The numbers in parentheses are the settings I routinely start with in LR. I also apply a daylight white balance. A little creativity comes next to adjust exposure and contrast: In order of my usual process, for this image, I set whites (+57), blacks (-30), shadows (+31), and highlights (-52). If this looks good to my eye, usually I open the image in Photoshop; if not, I keep working on it until it does. Sometimes I abandon an image altogether because it might not look like it has potential. However, in this case, with LR adjustments, this image seems a bit different!
|Misty Desert Spring|
With Lightroom adjustments, ready for finishing in Photoshop
- Noise reduction. I noticed that the sky and mountains in the far background were a bit noisy; after all the pic was taken at ISO 800 on a camera not known for its low noise. I applied a Topaz Denoise filter only to the blue channel using a luminosity mask plugin from Tony Kuyper's TK Actions Set.
- Ocotillo flowers. Next, I added a bit of clarity along with red/yellow saturation only to the blossoms. It is subtle, but it adds a little much-needed pop.
- Boulders. I thought the rocks needed to stand out a little more, so I added clarity and saturation, applied strictly to the boulders with luminosity masking. To increase clarity, I have a series of steps that add clarity to increasingly finer details. But enhancing clarity can reduce vibrancy, which is why I restored it with a saturation layer.
- Fog. Now I was getting to the hard part; how was I going to add fog? I went to my window again, and studied what the fog seemed to do to form and colors. The first thing I notice was that objects, particularly those deeper into the mist, seemed to lose detail, so I applied a blur smart filter. The second thing I noticed was that things not obscured by fog, are whiter, not necessarily brighter, yet lose saturation, so I played with the saturation, brightness and contrast of the scene until I achieved what I thought was a believable level of all three, fading the effect in the foreground, increasing the effect with distance. The adjustments seemed a little strong, so I backed off on the opacity of the appropriate layers. Getting closer.
- Vignette. To draw the eye to the subject, in this case the ocotillo plant(s) and the boulders, I created a vignette around the image, darkening distracting items. Better, but still not where I wanted it to go.
- Dodging, burning, and coloring. I created some soft-light layers with which I could lighten (dodge) and darken (burn) specific areas to enhance or de-emphasize areas that needed it. I also wanted to warm up the central subjects, so I painted very lightly with a yellow brush, which helped the bush and boulders stand out more to the eye. I also painted the mountains and sky with light strokes of pure blue to darken and push them further into the background. Warm colors advance, cool colors recede; color theory. Nearly there!
- To finish, I tweaked the various layers for emphasis and to diminish the effects of distracting elements. Twenty-four layers in all! I was also wanting to find just that right combination of "believable unbelievability" that Vincent Versace talks about in one of his books. This was about as far as I wanted to go in Photoshop.
- Moving back into Lightroom, I applied some stronger contrast to the imported and now complete tif image. Voila!
|Misty Desert Spring|
Final version, taken in April 2015
Update 3/12/18: One of the comments I received on another site where I posted the final image was that the "mist" was not consistent with reality. I am not sure I agree with that because I think the thought has more to do with esthetics, which are personal and subjective. I think it looks believable, but that does not mean everyone would agree. All of that being said, if you go back to some of my opening thoughts in this blog, you'll see that there are those that believe that it must look real to be a photograph. I am not sure this is so. Nevertheless, I value such critical comments because they make me think a little harder and improve a little bit with each, whether I agree or not; it makes me a better artist!