In May I photographed and published my image Southern Mist.
With the processing of this image, I decided to do two things:
- apply more aggressive, dark and moody post-processing; and
- use curves for most of my post-processing.
In this post I’m going to take you, step-by-step, through everything I did to produce the final result you see above.
A few preliminary words, though.
Firstly, it’s imperative to have a good source image (or set of source images). I was fortunate in that the low-contrast light and very moody, threatening sky made exposure easy and also made for pleasing imagery. Post-processing generally cannot turn an inherently weak image into a stunner. The light is crucial.
Secondly, I advocate as much as possible the concept of non-destructive processing. The only pixel-modifying work I do is final contrast and output sharpening after all other processing has been done, and this is done on a separate layer which consists of all lower layers merged.
Some details about the capture phase and equipment:
- Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II
- Lens: Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
- Filter: Lee 0.9 (three-stop) graduated neutral-density
- Focal length: 16mm
- Shutter speed: 13 seconds
- Aperture: f/8
- Sensitivity: ISO 200
The image is a blend of two images. One was exposed for 13 seconds and the other for 10 seconds. In the darker exposure (ie, 10 seconds) there was more water on the rocks, and it was visually more appealing, so I brushed much of that into the image. More on that later. From an exposure point of view, I didn’t need two images.
As part of this tutorial there are two screen captures to view:
- my raw source images (after initial processing in the raw converter); and
- my Photoshop layer stack (showing my various adjustment layers).
These will both be helpful when you read about the processing I did.
Here are my raw source images:
And here is my Photoshop layer stack:
Now, onto the processing.
Step 1 – Raw Conversion
I loaded both of my raw images into Adobe Camera Raw and made the following adjustments:
- Camera profile: Camera Standard
- Sharpening Amount: 65
- White Balance Temperature: 7,350 degrees Kelvin
- Clarity: +60
I then loaded the two raw images in Adobe Photoshop CS4.
Step 2 – Distortion Correction and Horizon Straightening
A 16mm lens (even a pro-grade lens) will generally result in the horizon bowing, especially if you compose as per the rule of thirds as I mostly do, and your horizon is therefore towards the edge of the frame.
When shooting in the dark and looking through a viewfinder (even a full-frame viewfinder) or live view screen with no grid as reference lines for straightness, the horizon is often very slightly crooked, by a matter of maybe only half a degree to two or three degrees. I am quite fussy, so I correct that as much as possible.
I fired up the Lens Correction filter (Filter -> Distort -> Lens Correction) and tweaked the barrel distortion and horizontal perspective sliders to correct the image as much as possible.
I then cropped both images and merged them into the one image, with two layers.
Step 3 – Water Blending
As I mentioned above, I wanted the water detail in one of my two exposures. On the top layer, I created a layer mask, inverted it and brushed in most of the water detail and a fair bit of sky detail from the second exposure.
Step 4 – Cloning
There were a few annoying elements in the scene which needed to be removed.
The first was a fishing boat not far off the shore positioned on the top right intersecting point that exists as per the rule of thirds. The light from the boat was blown out and was otherwise distracting. I created a new layer for cloning, and cloned out that boat using the clone tool.
There was another boat on the horizon whose light source revealed a spec of light significant enough to be annoying. Adios to that.
There was yet a third boat over on the right near the remote headland, so that got cloned too.
A specular highlight from the Kurnell oil refinery on the left headland was also visible enough to be annoying, so I made it vanish too.
Lastly, I had a few dust spots (yes, on my brand new 5D Mark II which has had only one lens on it for the whole time, and has in-built dust cleaning – this is obviously an outrage).
Step 5 – Rock Lightening
I wanted the foreground rock shelf to be brighter than it appeared in my base exposures, so I created a new curves adjustment layer. I inverted the layer mask to be black. I tend to do that so that I can brush an effect into the scene rather than brushing everything else out.
In the curve, I dragged a couple of points (around 30% and 65% horizontally) northwards so that I had a convex curve, thus lightening the rocks. Using the paint tool and varying degrees of opacity I cannot remember, I brushed the lightness into the rock shelf which really lifted it from the darkish scene.
Step 6 – General Contrast Increase
I created a new curves adjustment layer for general across-the-board contrast boosting, and lucked out with the Auto curve. This not only increased the contrast, but corrected the colour to my liking, so I tweaked that no further.
Step 7 – Water and Sky Contrast
I decided that I wanted to further boost the contrast for the water and sky only, as they lacked a bit of punch and I wanted to make these more broody and dramatic. I created a new curves adjustment layer and inverted the mask. On the curve, I dragged a point downwards from around the 25% mark (horizontally and vertically) and used the paint tool to brush in the curves effect on the water and sky areas. This darkened the water and sky to my liking.
Step 8 – Warming Filter
The image had a rather cool feel about it, and I wanted to warm up those rocks to contrast with the blue/grey hues of the water and sky. I created a photo filter adjustment layer, inverted the mask, chose an orange colour, dialled in 55% density and brushed in the warming effect on the rock shelf and the “island” rock on the left. This one step made a significant visual improvement to the image.
Step 9 – Saturation Increase
I felt that the rocks lacked sufficient saturation, so I added a hue/saturation adjustment layer. As I wanted to apply it only to the rock shelf and isolated rock, I already had a mask from my previous layer (warming filter). In order to use the same mask on multiple layers, I created a clipping mask, which bound the new hue/saturation adjustment layer to the mask I created previously in the warming filter layer.
This is a very handy feature. If you want to use the same mask on multiple adjustment layers, the clipping mask is your friend.
Back to the saturation. I boosted this to 16% and I was done. No brushing involved, as the mask was already locked in due to the clipping mask. A nice time-saver.
Step 10 – Vignetting
One technique used by landscape/seascape photographers like Peter Eastway and Brent Pearson is the use of a vignette to draw the eye into the scene. I don’t usually apply this to my seascapes, but have done with some of my portraits. This time I wanted a darker edge (in the literal sense) to the image.
I created a new curves adjustment layer, inverted the mask and then using a large brush, brushed in the effect around the edges and in a few brighter parts of the water. I used fairly aggressive opacity to darken those extremities.
Step 11 – Final Contrast and Sharpening
This is the destructive step I mentioned in my preamble. To do destructive editing non-destructively (yes, it sounds crazy, but bear with me), I created a new layer which was a composite of all layers beneath it. At this stage I already had nine layers.
The way to create a new layer consisting of all lower layers is to:
- select the top layer first (this is very important); and
- press Apple-Option-Shift-E (on a Mac) or Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E on a PC (I’m not 100% sure on that).
I then had a new layer combining all of the previous post-processing I did.
I applied the unsharp mask at 15% to increase overall contrast, and then using the magic wand tool, I selected the rock areas and applied the smart sharpen filter at 40% to boost the gritty sharpness of these areas.
So, there you have it.
Hopefully this provides you with a good insight into my post-processing workflow, and the results that are possible.
I repeat that it’s important to have good source material, as no amount of post-processing will turn an inherently bad image into a masterpiece.