Today: Less words, more photos. Enjoy!
Today: Less words, more photos. Enjoy!
By popular request, I will be attempt to document end-to-end how I generally edit a waterfall photo! This will include various techniques and processes.
This is very much a “behind the curtain” tutorial and I made sure to pick an especially bad photo with multiple issues to use as example for this so keep in mind this is, in no way, in a state that I would ever consider posting online aside from educational purposes!
The first step is the obvious one. Take the photo. I’ll assume that you have completed that task and we’ll go from there! My first step after the shoot is to import all the photos from my shoot into Adobe Lightroom. This software helps me catalog my photos as well as offers up Adobe Camera Raw [ACR] controls for basic editing functions. I use this for every single photo I take before bringing the photo into Photoshop. In some cases this tool completely negates my need for Photoshop especially with some of the new features. As of this writing I have not moved to Lightroom 5.0 yet which features even more tools to keep me out of Photoshop, but that is for another post.
Post-import I find the file in my catalog and open the Develop module of Lightroom. This is where the most basic edits of the file take place. I shoot exclusively in RAW format and highly suggest you do as well for multiple reasons. RAW format stores all of the information the camera is able to capture and with more data, you have more latitude when editing your files. This includes the ability to change your exposure multiple stops in both directions [varies between cameras] as well as being able to very quickly and effectively adjust your white balance if it isn’t quite where it should be which happens very often shooting waterfalls!
So here is what the file looks like fresh from the camera and loaded into Lightroom.
Ew! It’s dull, drab, and needs a lot of work! On top of that, you’ll notice the vignette in the bottom of the frame. This is due to shooting with stacked filters on my Nikon 24mm PC-E tilt-shift lens with the shift at -8 mm. The good news is, we can fix all of this and make this photo look a lot better!
First step is to use the sliders in the “Basic” section of the develop module to fix the exposure. Often I will hit the “auto” button to let Lightroom try to fix it automatically and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it gives a good starting point for me to work with. Shown below is the before and after of just letting Lightroom do its magic. It’s better, certainly, but still needs some work!
It’s brighter! Lightroom added a stop of exposure and made bumped the whites by +20 but otherwise left it alone. It’s a good start but it needs more work and this is where you, the photographer come in! You’ll note that “auto” in Lightroom does not adjust clarity, vibrance, or saturation at all. This is a “suite to taste” item but I do suggest taking note of these sliders and adjusting accordingly. Depending on which lens I use as some have better color rendition and contrast than others, I often will add 10 points of vibrance and 25 points of clarity. Vibrance will boost colors according to how “rich” they are. The least saturated colors get the most boost while the more saturated colors get less of a boost. This results in an even boost in color across the photo without going “nuclear” in any specific color which tends to happen when you simply adjust the saturation slider. In most cases I leave saturation at the default 0 or even a negative number depending on the scene and intent. My Nikon lenses generally need that +10 vibrance to obtain the level of color that my eye saw while my Zeiss lenses often need no boost at all and often need negative saturation applied to tame them down, especially the Makro-Planar series of Zeiss lenses. These lenses also have strong contrast, some of the best I’ve seen, and need to have the contrast slider taken down a few notches as well. This is very much a “salt to taste” area and you need to adjust the sliders until it gets to something you like. One final note on vibrance and saturation… a little goes a long way. Keep that in mind for all edits really.
Now we are getting somewhere! I included my Lightroom settings panels in the screenshot for reference. The one item not mentioned above that I also do on all files [and generally do this in import but am doing manually here] is under the “Lens Correction” section I “Enable Profile Corrections” which turns on Lightroom’s lens correction features. This automatically detects what lens you used and is able to often fix any distortion, chromatic aberrations, or vignetting caused by the lens. Note that you must click the “Color” sub-section of “Lens Corrections” to have Lightroom remove chromatic aberrations. Finally, you will notice that I made a small crop the the photo. The vignette from the stacked filters + extreme shift position can be fixed but I purposely shot the photo knowing I would crop it out. It vignettes roughly 2-3 stops dark and can be fixed in Photoshop with some work so I will describe how you would do that if cropping it off is not an option when we get to dodge and burn.
At this point I have completed all basic edits on the file that I normally would do in Lightroom. While it is much better than it was, it is still missing that last 10% to finish it. From Lightroom we will now open the photo directly into Photoshop. Simply right-click on the photo, pick “edit in” and pick Photoshop from the list. This method is the same for most any version of Photoshop, including Elements, so fear not if you are not using CS5! Also note that most everything we have covered prior to this is similiar in earlier versions of Lightroom. The main difference are slider names in the Basic section as they were named different in Lightroom prior to version 4.0. Also, the Lens Corrections section does not exist prior to 4.0. If you have trouble translating between the two, shoot me an email and we can work it out!
So now we are ready for the main event, Photoshop! I have an action that creates my basic adjustment layers and whatnot but for sake of tutorial, we’ll cover all of them now. You start out simply with a Background layer containing your photo. From here let’s add the following items in order from bottom to top on your layer list:
Your layer stack should look like this at this point:
Now that all the layers are set up, you can see why I record an action to do this for me! Several of the following items may not require changes if you already fixed the items in Lightroom, however if you are not using Lightroom you will definitely want to review each of these.
First up, Levels. This is an odd adjustment layer that most folks don’t use or don’t really understand what it does. Basically, it reigns in your tonal values. While Lightroom does a great job of this in the previous steps, I still add this layer and muck with it on each photo. If I did my job well in Lightroom, no changes are needed. When you select the layer you will notice it has a histogram with black, grey, and white arrows under it as well as a section for Output Levels. We’ll focus on the histogram for now. As you adjust each of the arrows you are moving the black point, grey point, and white point accordingly. Adjust to taste. This is ideal if you are unhappy with how the exposure lays across the photo. In our example, I change the black value to 5, grey to 1.15, and leave the white at 255.
Next on our list is the Curves adjustment layer. This is another section that often will stay “as is” if Lightroom did its job properly but is good to know. Curves allow you to adjust the contrast and light levels much like you did in Lightroom using the Whites, Blacks, Shadows, and Highlights sliders but with more granularity. Curves can be used to lighten or darken a photo easily but also adjust contrast. Photoshop comes with a few decent presets including “Medium Contrast” and “Strong Contrast” so adjust accordingly if needed. If the presets don’t quite do it for you, just grab the curve and adjust to taste.
Up next is the Exposure adjustment layer which, to be honest, is rarely used but does have some special uses depending. This is very straightforward and identical to the Exposure slider in Lightroom. Adjust brighter or darker if needed.
Finally we come to the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. This layer is extremely helpful for adjusting both the overall color saturation [but you did that in Lightroom earlier right?] as well as individual color channels. To be honest, everything here you *can* do in Lightroom and the interface is very much the same but with one exception… layer masks. Often I will find that I need to adjust colors in only certain parts of the photo and not the *entire* photo and this is where Photoshop really shines with layers and masks. For example, if we just want to adjust the leaves on the trees or the color of the water? Simple! First I will adjust the hue/saturation accordingly for the leaves to get them how you want. [brighter green, darker green, different shade of green, etc]. This will affect the entire photo as the default layer mask is solid white, which is to say it is not masking anything. Grab your brush tool [B] and press [D] to reset the colors to default black / white. Toggle between black/white with [X] and choose black. Adjust your brush shape, size, and flow to taste and paint black on any area that you *do not* want the colors changed or, conversely, click “Invert” in the Masks section to flip the mask to all black and paint white on the areas you *do* want changed by the hue/saturation color settings you adjusted earlier which in this example would be the leaves. The mask will contain the adjustment layer settings to only what is white in the mask. This is a great technique to use in conjunction with any adjustment layer for targeting just a specific portion of the photo. I will also use this technique to tone down the colors in certain areas of the photo such as overly green water.
So at this point we have a pretty solid photo. We’ve adjusted our colors. Our exposure is spotless. We have contrast and things are overall pretty good. But wait, there’s spots?
We move on with one of the three primary reasons I ever open a photo in Photoshop, spot healing. As you may have noticed above, this shot has a bit of dust on the sensor. While not readily apparent at web resolutions, I can see it quite clearly and it is something I do not want on the final print! Thankfully, this is incredibly easy to fix in Photoshop. Choose your “Background” layer and make a copy of it [ctrl-J] and name the layer “Spot Heal.” At this time hide the Burn Dodge and Sharpening layers as they will keep you from seeing the results of your de-spotify-ing work since they are higher in the stack. Select the Spot Heal layer and pick the “Spot Healing Brush Tool” [J]. Zoom in to the dust spots and adjust your brush size to be slighly bigger than the dust spot and click dead center on it. Poof! The content aware healing is amazing and will automatically blend the area and the spot is gone! Repeat the process on each dust spot. Tip: Sometimes Photoshop gets confused and if you heal and it comes out weird, just hit undo [ctrl-z] and try again. Often that fixes the problem. This should solve 99% of your dust spots and, combined with the clone tool, can also be used to remove unwanted items from the scene [but that is a different tutorial!]. Here are the dust spots after we have fixed them:
So I said there were three primary reasons I open Photoshop to fix photos right? The healing brush is the first one. The second one is dodging and burning. In laymen’s terms, the process of “burning” will darken an area while “dodging” will lighten an area. How is this useful? If you have a high contrast scene with dark areas that need lightened [shadows] and bright areas [sky, water] that need darkened this is the tool for it. There are many ways to do this but the method I will show you is my personal favorite and very simple.
Choose your Burn Dodge layer and make it visible [click the eye to the left of the layer]. Go to Edit > Fill and pick 50% grey and click OK. Now change the layer’s blend mode from “Normal” to “Soft Light.” What happened? I have an all grey layer?? Indeed you do. A 50% grey filled layer with a blend mode set to soft light does absolutely nothing to the photo. From here we will use our brush [B] tool to paint in lightness and darkness. Reset your colors to default [D] and adjust your brush to a soft brush with a low flow [I suggest 10%]. From here, any white you paint on the layer will lighten the area. Any black you paint will darken the area. Find any of your problem spots on the photo and paint away! Here is what my layer looks like after I have lightened and darkened various areas of the photo:
As you can see, I darkened the top portion of the photo that contains rocks which were in direct sunlight as well as the trees which were getting direct sun. This is a common issue shooting in forested areas but is easily handled. Note that there is a limit to which you can burn/dodge and if your layer is pitch black and still too bright you may need to combine this with an exposure layer and a mask to further darken or your exposure in generally is quite a bit off.
Last but not least is a highly debated and contested topic in photo editing: sharpening. There are a multitude of ways to sharpen a photo and while I will not cover all of them, I will try to cover two methods that I often use: high pass filter and smart sharpen.
The high pass filter method is quite simple and I adapt the process from the norm slightly for, what I think, are better results overall. Select your Sharpening layer and make it visible. Go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate [shift-ctrl-U] to change the layer to black and white. While you can do this method with a color image, making it black & white seems to help with edge detection and provides better results. From here, change the layer blend mode to Soft Light which will make your image look really odd but ignore that for now. Go to Filter > Other > High Pass and pick a radius between 2 and 5. Lower values are less sharpening, higher are more sharpening. You can pick different areas with fine details in your photo to see the effects in the preview window. Click OK to apply. You’ll now most likely have a super sharp photo and you can swap the layer on/off to see what it looks like with and without sharpening. From here you can either muck with the radius used in high pass by undo-ing the filter and applying it again *or* you can simply adjust the layer opacity accordingly. It is 100% by default and if you lower it to say… 50%… it will be roughly half as strong. This is another “salt to taste” area that people often disagree on so adjust it to your liking. To best determine the actual sharpness applied I suggest zooming in to 100% and toggling the sharpening layer on and off to see what it is doing. If things look way too sharp, tone it back. If they are not sharp enough, undo the filter and reapply it with a higher radius. I usually start with 5 on landscapes and adjust from there.
From here we can once again make use of masks and for water shots, I highly suggest you do so! While we may want the leaves, plants, and rocks sharp… it often is not desirable to have sharp water. For our example, the fix is quite simple and can be done by adding a layer mask to your Sharpening layer. The mask will be solid white by default which means it is not masking anything. Pick your Brush [B] tool and reset to black/white colors [D]. Simply take the brush and paint solid black over the water in the scene and any other items that you *do not* want to sharpen. Note that if your flow is still set to 10% you will need to hit the same area multiple times or adjust your flow to a higher value.
The smart sharpen method is one I have used a bit more lately as I’m more happy with the results of it in CS5 than in older versions of Photoshop. Take your Sharpening layer from prior and hide it. Select the Background layer, make a copy of it, and name it Smart Sharpen. Select that layer and go to Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen. The settings are fairly similar to the high pass filter wherein the radius will yield stronger sharpening with higher numbers but smart sharpen is far more aggressive. I suggest the following settings here:
You can even save these as a preset for future use! Click OK and you’re done. Same as with the high pass, you can toggle the layer to see the before and after and either adjust the layer opacity to tone down the effect or undo and re-apply the filter with different settings to try again. Adjust to taste.
That’s it in a nutshell. You can merge layers together to reduce the file size, especially the sharpening layers as every “copy” of the Background photo layer roughly doubles the file size. Adjustment layers add minimal size to the file so merging them does not save you much. Note that anything merged can not be un-merged so if you wish to adjust from there you are out of luck. I usually merge my sharpening layer down into the background and then keep all adjustment layers so I can adjust them if needed in the future. Be sure to save your file as a Photoshop file [PSD]! Here is the final product of all our hard work:
Hopefully you found this tutorial useful and educational. Feel free to email me with any questions, comments, or suggestions as always!
I can’t believe it is June already! I’ve unfortunately been dealing with some things on this end and haven’t been able to post nearly as much as I would like, or really at all as you probably have noticed! I can’t say we’re through the tunnel yet but here is a double-dose of photos to help quench your thirst. :)
From a recent trip to Aspen after fighting the rain and snow for several days. This is The Devil’s Punchbowl located near Independence Pass in the Rocky Mountains.
Just a little something I took recently. As usual, click for larger version!
Most people use a macro lens to take pictures of flowers but on this day I was out in the field with just a 500mm lens as I was photographing birds. What’s a guy to do? Improvise! This shot was taken at 500mm, f/16, ISO 2000 from about 15′ back. The problem with long telephoto lenses such as the 500mm and 600mm is that their MFD [minimum focus distance] is very large. In the case of the Nikon 500mm f/4 VRII it is 13 feet so you have to stand back quite a bit from your subject. For shooting things at a distance this isn’t a problem but it does look funny taking a photo of a flower that is 13 feet away from you! Despite being a long telephoto it doubles as a great flower lens oddly enough. The out of focus areas [bokeh] and sharpness are wonderful.