I’m not much of a computer geek. I don’t enjoy spending hours in front of a monitor manipulating my images. I’d rather be outside hiking, mountain biking or making more photographs. Sure, I enjoy the creative endeavor of post-processing my images but when that involves more than about five minutes of work I quickly start to lose interest. But, every once in a while an image comes along that leaves me no choice but to get down and dirty in the digital darkroom. The image you see above, of the Fisher Towers and La Sal Mountains reflecting in the Colorado River, is one such image.
Last night I saw clouds developing over the mountains with a reasonably clear western horizon. Hoping for an epic sunset I threw all my camera gear into the FJ and headed east on the River Road after excusing myself early from a parent/teacher meeting at my son’s school. Priorities, right? I arrived on location thirty minutes before sunset and scrambled down the steep embankment still wearing chinos and a pair of casual boots whose soles offered little to no grip in the loose dirt. I was pleasantly surprised to only land on my butt one time before arriving at the edge of the mighty Colorado River. Naturally, just as I got my tripod and camera in position the sun moved behind a cloud that killed the warm, late afternoon light. So, I did what nature photographers do – I waited. Luck was with me as an unseen, narrow gap on the horizon allowed sunset light to squeak through at just the last moment. The snowcapped La Sals lit up with alpenglow and clouds streaking overhead turned a rich reddish-pink. The dynamic range was a bit too much for my Canon 5D Mark II to handle but was easily controlled with a Singh-Ray 3 stop soft-step graduated neutral density filter. I also used a Singh-Ray Vari ND filter at about 1/2 power to extend the shutter speed to 8 seconds, thus smoothing out some small, wind driven ripples in the water. An interesting side effect of the long exposure was more color in the clouds than could be seen with the naked eye and a bit of movement that is difficult to discern at this small size.
Back home, I eagerly imported the photos into Lightroom 3. Of the series I found only one that was razor sharp. The others were a bit soft, most likely due to movement introduced during the long exposures while handholding the GND filter in front of the lens. I made my initial edits in Lightroom, very slightly decreasing the exposure and brightness, increasing clarity by 20 points and vibrance by 10, a slight curves adjustment and a few tweaks to the HSL (hue/saturation/luminance) panel. Better, but not quite there. The sky and foreground were both too bright but I couldn’t make a global adjustment as each required its own independent adjustment to maintain exposure consistency. Enter Lightroom’s mega-awesome digital grad filter! I used one on the sky and another on the foreground. Much better! With the base image looking pretty good it was time to do some more work using Nik Software Viveza 2 and Color Efex Pro 4.
First up, Viveza 2. I made a few minor global adjustments by increasing the contrast and saturation by 4 points, and structure by 20 points. I decreased the shadows slider by 6 points, which resulted in deeper, richer shadows. One of the first issues that needed to be resolved was the color temperature of the sky. The clouds were nice and red, just as I’d remembered from a couple hours earlier. The area of open sky, however, was a dingy gray – not the soft blue it should have been. In Lightroom, using a white balance of 3,600 produced the correct color in open sky but the rest of the landscape and sky was far too cool. With a white balance of 5,500, everything else looked good except the open sky. I’d opted for a white balance of 5,500 since the majority of the scene looked good at this temperature. In Viveza 2 I dropped a couple control points on the open sky, linked the points, and then made a few adjustments to bring back the soft blue sky. Notably, I reduced the brightness, added saturation and, this is the main adjustment, decreased the warmth by about 20 points. Voila – the blue sky triumphantly returns! Since the blue sky was also reflecting in the water at the bottom of the image I copied a control point from the sky and dropped it on the area of water that reflected the sky.
At this point the image was coming along quite nicely but it still needed a little “ooomph”, which is a technical term I learned years ago. I opened the photo in Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4 and used one of my favorite filters, Tonal Contrast, to independently increase contrast in the highlights, mid-tones and shadows. The highlights already looked pretty good so I only gave them a boost of about 10. Mid-tones and shadows were a little flat, though. I increased each about 15 points, which gave them the “zing” (another very tehcnical term) I wanted. The shadows, especially, came alive. Muddy shadows are those that have detail but lack contrast. The Tonal Contrast filter makes it super easy to clean them up. I also used the Brilliance/Warmth filter in Color Efex Pro 4 to give the colors a little bit more “pop” (yep, you guessed it – yet another techno term). I increased global saturation and perceptual saturation by 5 points each.
Back in Lightroom 3 I again applied two digital GND filters to reduce the exposure of the sky by about 1/2 stop and the foreground reflection by about 1/3 stop as I still thought they were each a bit brighter than I liked. I guess I was going for a “dark and moody” look. With those final touches in place I sat back, blinked for the first time in fifteen minutes, and took a big swig of iced tea. There on the monitor before me was an image I was satisfied to have created in the field and perfected at my desk.
It took about fifteen minutes to completely process the image from start to finish, which is about three times as long as I typically spend post-processing a photo. But, when an image has potential I just don’t have the heart to give up on it. I can’t really call this a tutorial but I do hope you found the breakdown of my workflow somewhat beneficial. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. Just leave a comment and I’ll respond as quickly as I can.
Also, if you’re convinced that you need Nik Software’s Viveza 2 or Color Efex Pro 4, I encourage you to visit their website and download a trial of the software. If you like it and want to invest in it, use coupon code “BEDGE” at checkout for a 15% discount.
Bret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret’s creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images.
Bret’s work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.
While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit www.moabphotoworkshops.com. To view a collection of Bret’s images, visit www.bretedge.com.
Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia.