Using Lightrooms graduated filter and adjustment brush to correct a landscape photograph

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-Clouds-landscape photograph
My final corrected image of Mount Mansfield in Winter from a camera raw file.

The initial image capture is only the beginning

When we capture our original camera raw files we need to look at them as simply the start of expressing our artistic vision. We are doing more than  just making an image. We are gathering enough data in our raw files to be able to realize that start into a finished image.

The image editing process is different for everyone but all of the tools are the same. Like in cooking there are a thousand different ways to peel an onion but eventually we get to the same result no matter what method we use.

It is the same for our raw files in that there is no one correct way to get there but by using the power  of our raw files we can come up with a final, polished and corrected image.

How can we get there? What tools do we need to achieve our photographic vision. The answer lies in The graduated filter and adjustment brush in Lightroom.

Camera Raw files are boring

The raw files come straight out of the camera with no processing so what you’re seeing on import into your computer is exactly what you shot. Keep in mind though that unlike a JPEG which is processed in camera, Raw files are flat and boring.

They need processing to bring out all of the best data in the image so a well composed and properly exposed image is essential. While JPEG’s tend to get corrupted over time as they are an already edited image, Raw files can be re edited over and over until your final image emerges. Take for example my original image file for the above image and it’s histogram in Lightroom…..

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-camera raw file example
View of Mount Mansfield with fresh snow and clouds from a field in Underhill, Vermont
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My example image’s histogram from Lightroom.

Now this is a typical example of a camera raw file as it is straight out of camera. You can see that the image is rather flat with no contrast and there are some issues that need to be addressed in the editing process.

A scene like this can be difficult to shoot as the clouds bounce around bright light at times with the sun popping in and out from behind them. Couple that with it being Winter and the snow being really reflective and you have a pretty tricky exposure situation on your hands.

My Histogram is actually looking really good as the image was exposed to the right just before the highlights would be blown out. This is good as we can pull those highlights in during the editing process without messing up the shadows or making the image to dark. The issues I need to address are easily fixed but do require some time….

  1. The upper portion of the image with the clouds – It’s a little too bright at the top and you can’t really see a lot of the darker shadows in the clouds, Those highlights wash everything out and there isn’t much detail. The blue is washed out a bit as well even though when I shot this it was much closer to what the finished image looked like….That’s the trick really. Making our image look dynamic and just as we shot it without going overboard with out edits.
  2. The Mount Mansfield range in the middle ground – There are nice highlights there but it’s the shadows that are somewhat washed out due to some haze and the fact that in the image it’s snowing on Mount Mansfield itself as I was shooting. It’s really not bad but it just needs some work to make the image more appealing.
  3. The band of trees and forest below the mountain – Again this area is flat and has no contrast. The clouds were casting some interesting shadows in this area and it just isn’t dynamic enough for me. I need to add some contrast and depth to this area as the foreground draws you in and leads you through the trees and to the mountain beyond.
  4. The foreground – This area here is ok but it just needs to be brightened up with some contrast added.  All of the grass sticking out of the snow gets washed out in all of that white so I also would like to see some contrast here as well.

The graduated filter and adjustment brush tools

So we have our camera raw file and I am feeling pretty good about it but I know that this image can be so much better. The main tools that did the heavy lifting on this image were the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush tool. Both of these tools are great as you can target them to specific areas and use them multiple times within one image.

The graduated filter tool is very handy for corrections because unlike a traditional filter You can spin the tool 360 degrees making it more versatile for correcting landscapes. Manual filters and their holders are a bit more cumbersome in the field so I use them to get my images as close as I can then do more detailed corrections with the graduated density tool.

The other great thing about the tool is that you can use them multiple times in an image where this is not possible manually so it opens up some more opportunities in images that otherwise might not make the cut. I use them quite liberally because I can use one for a clarity adjustment in one area of the image but I can also use one to enhance color in the sky of a sunrise or sunset.

You can selectively use them for different edits just like you ca with the adjustment brush…..While the graduated density tool is used for more broad edits over bigger portions of the image you can use the adjustment brush for more targeted, precise adjustments in select areas to really build on your vision for the final, corrected image.

The adjustment brush work just like any other brush in Photoshop in that you can change its size and use it for specific adjustments in very localized parts of your image. You can also use it multiple times per image so say you want to make an exposure adjustment in one specific area you can just brush the area you want to change then move the appropriate sliders.

Using both tools on our image

Without getting into a very long conversation about my workflow I used three different graduated filters in the image to target the sky, the middle ground and the foreground. The image had a great deal of highlights to contend with and it also needed some contrast and haze adjustments.

Now these initial edits really improved my image however I performed four corrections with the adjustment brush to really make the image pop and take care of some of its flaws. One edit was made for some of the highlights in the clouds, another was used for the mountain to get rid of the haze and add in some contrast, Another was used on the middle ground forest and trees to add contrast and another was used on the foreground to bring out the contrast in the grasses and add some pop to them.

Essentially my workflow goes from a starting point which is a landscape preset I use on all of my images as an overall first step. I then hone this some more with some basic edits again to the overall image and then I dial in more concise edits with the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush.

Some images require more and some less and it all depends on where I want to go with the final outcome. Editing is as subjective as wine tasting and how we best utilize the tools at out disposal. This image was quite flat to begin with and originally I made a really nice black and white out of it but I also felt the color version was quite nice as I love the blue color in Winter scenes. Lightroom has a lot of powerful tools including ones that may be overlooked and the graduated density tool and adjustment brush can really help to lift your images from boring to exciting.

A Mount Mansfield reflection at the Lake of the Clouds in Stowe,Vermont

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Lake of the Clouds-landscape photography
Summit of Mount Mansfield and reflection with the shoreline at Lake of the clouds.

Hiking to a majestic Vermont photography location

 Lake Of The Clouds is a glacial tarn located on Mount Mansfield in the spine of the Green Mountains.

A glacial tarn is a glacial lake in a circular shape formed by glacial scouring or movement during the retreat of glacial ice.

This location was on my list to visit for many years and finally in 2013 I was able to make the hike and shoot one of Vermont’s most wonderful landscapes.

The hike to the “Chin” or summit of Mount Mansfield takes about three hours and for this image I started hiking up at 3 a.m. to catch the sunrise. I knew ultimately I would probably miss the sunrise by a few minutes and on the day I made this hike there just was no cloud cover whatsoever.

In the end I was ok with the conditions that I had to shoot under as being in the location without another soul around and taking in the silence and majesty of it all was reward enough for me.

Sunrise light and difficult exposures

The scene above on the day that I visited presented a number of challenges. As with any landscape shoot generally they are entirely dependent on the weather and this sunrise was no exception. I am not the fastest hiker when I have 20 plus pounds of camera gear on my back so I missed sunrise by a few minutes but with no cloud cover any color was non-existent from my vantage point. The difficulties in getting this image included…..

  1. The weather- As I mentioned while a little on the cool side for an early morning hike the clouds had dissipated overnight leaving me without much of anything in the sky to anchor the composition. This is the curse of a landscape photographer but not an insurmountable challenge by any means.
  2. The position of the Sun- The suns position was still very low in the sky and being that I was on Vermont’s highest peak meant that parts of the image would be in deep shadow and other parts would be in bright sun. My best course of action was to use neutral density filters, a polarizing filter and to shoot two images for blending later on. It was just really close to impossible to capture the range of light here in one image.
  3. The fragile landscape- The area here is surrounded with fragile and rare vegetation and as such I tread very lightly and try not to disturb the area. My compositions were limited but I knew I wanted a shot of the mountain summit reflecting in the water. In the end I chose this composition as it was a good compromise of foreground interest, giving the viewer a sense of place all while not including much of the sky and with no impact to the environment.
  4. The sky- No clouds meant that I would have to try and include as little of the sky into my composition as possible. I wanted enough to give some scale and to show the brilliant blue color but not so much that the image looked empty. There are times when you can creatively use a blue sky in an image but my personal preference is to not include it in this situation as it wouldn’t add anything to the final image.

How I shot my landscape for an exposure blended image

Exposure blending images can be very easy or very difficult depending on the composition. This situation warranted shooting two images but the difficulty came in combining them as trees and driftwood on the left side extended into the horizon line making a simple composition from the horizon impossible. Essentially I used an angled gradient, lots of brushwork and a lot of corrections in post to get the image right where I wanted it.

The first image here that I shot was made for the shadows. Because of the suns position the shadows were hard to bring up in a single exposure and as you can see the highlights are quite extreme. While not blown out they did allow me some wiggle room for my exposure blend……

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Lake of the Clouds-Landscape photography-exposure blend

 

My second image was made to control the highlights which were on the bright side with no cloud cover. Imagine a line from the top left corner of the image to the bottom right corner of the image and this is how I made my blend….Blending the best parts of the highlights and shadows along that imaginary line.

This is one of the reasons why this blend was on the difficult side as generally I try to have a clear horizon to make the stitching easier. In this image because of the composition I could not use a straight up and down gradient. The gradient to blend the images would have to be at an angle and this meant some more complicated brushwork would be needed. The highlight image exposure was pretty accurate to the conditions…..

 

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Lake of the Clouds-Landscape photography-exposure blend

You can really see the difference here in this image for the highlights and how much shadow there was in the left side compared to the right. With no easy way to get a single capture I had to shoot two and correct the lighting for both and try to match them as close as possible to the original scene. Both of these files are original, straight out of camera files that did need a lot of post processing. It really is amazing that camera raw files have such a tremendous amount of information that can be pushed to create a striking image.

Work with what you are given

After all is said and done you often times need to just work with whatever conditions present themselves.

Knowing that I would not be back to this location for a long time I made the best choices I could to come home with something exceptional.

With a three a.m. start time and a three hour hike up coming away with no images was not an option.

Words cannot describe what it feels like to be in this location early in the morning with no people and not much in the way of sounds. It’s one of those Vermont locations that can be a crap shoot in terms of weather but the experience of being there and seeing the peak of Mount Mansfield rising above the water just cannot be missed.

 

Titan

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View of Mount Mansfield from Spruce Peak and Sterling Mountain on the opposite side of Smugglers Notch, Vermont.

I love finding new vistas and exploring all of their photographic potential. In this case a photographer buddy of mine showed me the location for today’s image and it was quite the view! Years ago I looked for this spot as I had seen it on maps but it is quite well hidden at the top of a ski resort. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to hike up a mountain to shoot some snow and to finally see where this spot was located. The area here is just like home to me as I have hiked and explored it for years now. It certainly is a thrill to hike up a pretty icy trail to finally see this view at the end of the journey.

This view is exactly what you see when you walk up a slight incline through some tight trees to a view of the backside of Mount Mansfield and Smugglers Notch. I knew right away that this was going to be my shot of the day as the small tree with the imposing mountain behind really spoke to me when I first saw it. The view from here is just incredible with spectacular views of Mount Mansfield ,Smugglers Notch, Stowe and the Stowe ski area and even Lake Champlain off in the distance. This really is the heart of the Green Mountains!

The day that we hiked was blue skies and zero clouds so I made two exposures for blending here as the close trees threw the mountains beyond too out of focus for my tastes as well as the pretty intense sunlight making exposing for both challenging. If you look closely at this image at 100 percent you can even see three people standing on the top of Mount Mansfield in the background. It’s nice to be able to hike in these mountains ans see how they change form season to season. A nice hike on a warm day with some fresh, first snow of the season. It really doesn’t get any better than that!

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Mountains Shadow

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Autumn
Forest foliage at the base of Mount Mansfield in Underhill, Vermont.

This year during the foliage season I decided to take a different approach to my photography work. In years past I would head into the woods, Shoot waterfalls and trees, Then repeat over and over. Don’t get me wrong I love that type of work but this year I wanted to do something different and take a big step out of that box. I did much more scouting then shooting to prepare for future foliage photo ops but I also started to make more trips to random roads and places I have never been to before. I really believe that getting lost on a country road has a ton of benefits…One of which is finding new and unique compositions!

I focused a lot of my attention in the Mount Mansfield area this year and I was rewarded for all of my driving and hiking with shots like today’s image. The road I was on here is a dirt one and it skirts around the base of the mountain giving some impressive views of the peak. It was a blue sky day but I really liked the contrast between the colorful leaves, The mountain top and the tiny bit of blue sky I included in the top of the image. There is something special about Vermont’s mountains and finding views like this really leave you speechless.

The weather for this year’s foliage season I do have to say was fantastic with a few exceptions. My days of shooting fell into two categories…Either blue skies with no clouds or stormy days with mixed lighting of all types. Exposures were a challenge and with several weeks of little to no rain many of the streams and rivers were just not flowing. I made do with the weather I was given and found some new shooting locations in the process!

Tranquility

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Lake Of The Clouds
The top of Mount Mansfield reflected in the Lake Of The Clouds.

There are certain places here in Vermont that instill a certain amount of peace and tranquility in me when I am on location and making images. In many places around the world it’s rare to find places where you are totally alone and at peace with what you are doing there. I am fortunate here where I live to have many such places especially in the early morning hours. It’s nice to go and reset myself after a long week of work or if I haven’t been out shooting for more than a week.

This was my first time up here at The Lake Of The Clouds and it was quite a beautiful site. With the exception of a few overnight campers up on the very top of the mountain my hiking companion and I were the only soul’s here at the pond! A 3 a.m. start time brought us to this spot at about 7 in the morning and while there wasn’t a cloud in the sky it was still breathtaking none the less. A tough spot to shoot as the pond is in deep shadow and if you wait too long for the sun to add in some light your highlights can look a bit harsh. It can also be tough to predict what the weather will be like at the elevation here so often you have to run with what your given!

The water here is hardly disturbed by the wind so you can get some awesome shots here of Mount Mansfield’s distinct shape reflecting nicely in the water of the pond. The water is also very clear with many of the shoreline rocks visible so you can also get some great shots with different foreground elements in them. Made a simple blend of two images here due to the extreme exposure difference in the rocks and the mountains. The hike is quite a moderate one but your exertion will pay itself off with a great set of images!

Sharkstooth

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A section of Honey Hollow Falls on Preston Brook as it flows downhill.

The last time I visited these falls I came from downstream going up and I completely missed this section! I felt kind of silly looking up the actual location on Google being that I live here in Vermont but you do what you gotta do to get your image! Preston Brook runs downhill here to Honey Hollow Falls on what I can accurately describe as a very steep logging road. It is a fairly deep gorge with sloping sides of wet and slippery rock. You get some nice subdued light in the gorge but you must observe caution here as the walls are steep and difficult to navigate in spots.

The hike down is worth it because in this small section you have some interesting colored rock with several small pools and compositions. The only limiting factor here is a huge pine tree has now fallen into the gorge just off to camera right. The tree makes composing difficult at times and it will require a few more visits to fully explore the potential here. The day that I was here was overcast but the sun was peeking out of the clouds at times. Looking downstream you get this great tunnel view effect with sunlight filtering down through the green trees at the end.

The foreground rock is unique to the falls in that the rest of the rock has a blue/ grey tint with this really interesting formation. The falls here are narrow so after thousands of years the water has carved an interesting curving shape into the red colored rock. Lots more potential here but again compositions can be quite difficult due to the tight quarters in this gorge. This spot is always worth a visit as it’s only about a half hour away at the base of Camels Hump!

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 4 seconds. Two images merged for sharpness Foreground image was of the curved rock and water pool and the second was of the rocks and forest in the background. Shot with a Cokin Circular Polarizer.

Struggle for life

Canon 7d/Canon 17-40mm F4 L series lens, UV filter, Lee Big Stopper 10 stop neutral density filter. Processed in Lightroom 3. ISO 100 17mm F 16 @ 90 seconds.

I have been looking at this tree for a while now contemplating an interesting composition for it. The tree sits on a tiny spit of land on Lake Champlain in Oakledge Park and I have always admired its tenacity at surviving such a harsh environment.

I wanted to show lots of movement here and there is a little in the tree. With the whipping wind it would have been near impossible to capture the long exposure without showing the movement of the tree and branches. While an image of the tree not moving with the clouds speeding by would have been nice that was not my intent here. Have a good weekend…Let me know what you think of this one!

How to draw the viewers eye to subjects of interest with less than ideal skies in a landscape image

Barge poles at sunrise with light house,breakwater and mountains. Lake Champlain. Burlington, Vermont.

Landscape photography is kind of like gambling as it is so dependent on the weather.

You take as many precautions as you can, Do all of your research to get the best image and the weather can change on you in an instant leading to little to nothing to show for your hard work.

For me I have always looked at the pursuit of great landscape image like a duel between the Yankees and the Red Sox. While the games themselves are always filled with excitement they can bring you to these incredible emotional highs or lows.

Landscape photography is no different here in Vermont where we are always subjected to quickly changing conditions and challenging lighting scenarios. The real trick is how to overcome so-so conditions and pull a beautiful image out of what would otherwise be boring.

Can boring really be beautiful?

I have been through this scenario a thousand times shooting landscapes where you roll up to your intended composition and the sky just totally craps out on you leaving you with some decisions to make. Is there really nothing to shoot at the location? Do you leave? Do you continue on as a scouting mission? In the image that I captured above there were a few elements that drew me and made me want to stay versus throwing in the towel. Who wants to do that when you can employ all of your creative powers to shoot what others may dismiss….

The color palette- While the clouds crapped out on me the haze in the background sky caused the rising sun to create a lot of pink and purple hues in the sky. The sky may not be as dramatic without some big, puffy clouds in the background there certainly was some really interesting color.

The thin layer of Spring ice- Due to the air temperature while I was shooting there was a very thin sheen of ice which was covering the lake. The ice was reflecting all of the awesome color in the sky back up into the scene surrounding everything with this wonderful, purple color.

The weathered look on the barge poles- Normally during the summer season the area here is covered with boats making this image impossible except in the Winter time. These wooden poles take a lot of weather and abuse over the years but they have this time tested quality and weathered appearance that i did not want to pass up.

The elements in the background- There is almost an s curve in this image as your eyes move from the poles to the lighthouse and then on to the snow covered mountains beyond. The wooden poles draw you in front and center but the rest of the elements tell the story…..The lighthouse and breakwater are surrounded by water well above normal levels and you can clearly tell that Spring has come as the snow is melting on the mountain tops beyond.

Cropping- By cropping tight on the poles I got rid of any distracting elements including just a hint of clouds in the sky. Much of the scene here was on the boring side but the tight crop told the story of the image with just the right balance of elements better than a wide shot of really nothing in the sky. The purple colors act as a backdrop making the foreground really pronounced.

So how do we draw the viewer in?

There are a number of ways to move the viewer through the image but when it comes to challenging conditions it becomes much harder. This is a time when all of our time spent honing our craft comes into play as well as our artistic vision. You have to ask yourself in this situation how do I make something out of nothing? What is the best way to tell my story? In the image above I used a number of techniques to bring home a decent image including….

  1. Composition and the s curve- The s curve is a classic composition technique that is very effective for leading your viewer through your image. In my case here while not a typical s curve the ridges of ice just behind the mooring poles do form an s curve leading your eye from the poles to the lighthouse and then over to the mountains.
  2. Tight cropping- The original capture is not much different from this final image with the exception of a slight crop on the top and bottom of the image. The tight framing allowed me to get just three elements into the frame that tied together to the location while avoiding anything that made the image too busy.
  3. The change in seasons- Suggested in the image is the change from Winter into Spring. Here in New England this is a welcome change and the image includes ice, snow covered mountains, thin lake ice, and higher than normal lake water due to snow melt which is visible at the lighthouse and breakwater.
  4. Color- Color is always an effective way to draw in our viewers and here the image is dominated by shades of purple. The poles, lighthouse and mountains really stand out in all of the purple giving the image a lot of contrast.
  5. Dominate foreground- Prominent foregrounds are the start of our story in the image and begin to lead your viewer through it. Here the barge poles split the frame in half but the curving lines of the ice lead you from the bottom of the image to the poles then on to the lighthouse and the mountains in the background. The foreground puts the viewer in a specific place and they are not left wondering where they are.
  6. Contrast between elements- In my image there is some really nice contrast between all of the main elements in the image. While the wooden poles are somewhat dark in the foreground the lighthouse and mountains really standout as the foreground fades from dark to light in the background. The colors are subtly different in the lighting transition which adds a bit of drama and the white elements in the frame really stand out.

Conditions always change but your artistic vision does not

Weather and lighting conditions are constantly changing and something we will always have to contend with when shooting landscapes. There will be times and I can attest to this that you will simply get skunked when it comes to landscape work. While we are always free to walk away I personally love the challenge of finding an image in challenging conditions. It sharpens your artistic vision, Frees you creatively and when the time comes to make images in stellar light  you will be ready.

 

 

No Fishing: A simulated light leak effect in Lightroom 3

This first image is the original merged HDR image from Photomatix Pro 4. Canon 7d/ Canon 50mm EF F1.8 lens Induro 8m alloy tripod with bhd-1 ballhead.

The other day I saw a really great post by Mark Stagi at Digitalphotobuzz.com on how to create a simulated light leak effect from a toy camera within Lightroom 3. It was such great post and such a very simple technique that I link to the original article here. It sounded so interesting that late last night while editing images I decided to try the technique out myself. (I cannot claim credit for this idea but Link back to Mark’s article for the credit to him.)

Above is a HDR image I took a few weeks ago on Perkins Pier here in Burlington, Vermont. This is part of the waterfront area that sits on the shores of Lake Champlain. What struck me about the image was the no fishing sign on the side of the docks…They were still locked in some ice from the winter. After I processed the image I was happy with it but it seemed a little on the boring side.

I wanted to quickly describe what I did to produce the final image…

1. I imported the final HDR image into Lightroom 3 and edited with the following:

Clarity: 70

Vibrance and Saturation: +10

Medium contrast setting

Sharpening and Noise reduction both set to 30

2. Next I imported into Nik Silver Efex Pro and applied the Holga preset and a red filter to the image.

3. I then imported the image into Focal Point 2 adding a blurring effect to draw the viewer to the sign and dock.

4. Next I re-imported back into Lightroom 3 where I added two graduated filters to the left side of the image. I tried to place them so that the light leak effect looked random and off centered a bit. I added a bit of a red/pink tone to the image as well. I then added a post crop vignette of +15 which blew out the highlights just a bit in the image adding to the effect. Instead of the corners being darkened I think it made the light leak a little more interesting by lighting them.

5. Finally I added Grain/Size and roughness all set at 50 to give the image a vintage feel! See that’s all their was to it…easy and simple but a really cool effect. I must thank Mark for his original and great piece on this technique!

Here is the finished black and white image with the light leak effect!