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

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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.

 

Valley Of Gold

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Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley at Sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Charlotte, Vermont.

Lake Champlain spans quite a distance from the Canadian border along almost the entire length of the state sharing it’s shoreline with New York as well. The Champlain Valley is a low lying area with a lot of farms and rural areas and during the Spring this year I was able to capture a sunset from a new location. With several smaller mountains in the area there are a number of shooting opportunities but this location which sits in the middle of pasture land is wide open and provides more than a 180 degree view of the entire Champlain Valley. The views of this valley and the Adirondack Mountains beyond is quite impressive and not to be missed!

The area here is part of a network of hiking trails and an overlooked gem in the area. I myself had no idea of the potential here until recently when I talked with the people who were living on the property. The ridge that overlooks this scene was part of a working farm and there were some barns and a giant old farmhouse on the land. I was bale to get some shots of the barns however currently the house is in the process of being moved so there isn’t any access to the old buildings. However you can still go and explore other parts of this location as well as this view!

I shot this image in the early Spring so the tree growth was just beginning to come in. I was lucky enough to get some decent clouds and color in the sky as the sun was setting over the Adirondacks. Processing was minimal here with my usual standard edits but I changed the white balance slightly to emphasis the golden color that was present from the sun. I really love the rural feel to this image as it is a part of Vermont that is rapidly disappearing.

Erosion

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Cracked rocks and sunset over Lake Champlain from Oakledge park.

In the springtime along the shores of Lake Champlain you have a short window of time to make images with decent, rocky foregrounds before the snowmelt and rains cover them up. This image I made in early April and because of the heavy rains we have had this Summer, The rock here is now submerged in water. It’s something I have to watch out for and depending on how high the water is I have to wait some months to return to certain spots.

We have had so much rain this summer that a lot of the good foregrounds are covered up now including this one but I had the chance to shoot this section of rock before the rains came. The rocks here at this park have a ton of character….Many are cracked and pitted but some are smooth due to many years of the relentless pounding of the waves from the lake. The landscape here changes daily and I was lucky on this trip to catch a really nice sunset with clouds reflecting the beautiful light from the setting sun!

The image itself is a blend of two different shots. Both were made for focus and at different exposure settings to blend together exactly the kind of light that I was seeing while shooting. These exposure blends always require a different amount of work for each one ,Some are easier and some are a bit more difficult. Along with blending the foreground and background together like this image they will need a good amount of brush work to even out the exposure and to add in extra light where I need it. We certainly live in a beautiful world!

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ .06 and 1/15. No filters. Two images blended in Photoshop and edited in Lightroom.

Two Trees

Ice covered trees and rocks with sunset over Lake Champlain.
Ice covered trees and rocks with sunset over Lake Champlain.

It’s all about perspective when it comes to shooting images at locations you have visited many times. Changing your perspective several times and really working a composition always 100% of the time will lead to some surprising results! I am fortunate to live in a state where the locations I often return to change throughout the year. While it can be a challenge at times especially in the icy grip of Winter to get something new from an old location I never leave a composition without first exhausting all of its possibilities.

This image was shot during a fairly cold sunset over Lake Champlain at a park that I visit quite often throughout the year. The waves from the lake over the course of the Winter build up a fairly thick coating of ice on the shoreline in the area making it difficult to get down to the water’s edge in places. Not finding good compositions on the ice I stepped back several paces and found this composition looking out between these two trees. I liked the combination of the setting sun with the fading light striking the ice.

Here I had to do an exposure blend of two images. I wanted a certain level of light on the foreground as well as to preserve the light in the sunset something impossible to do in one exposure given the composition and the contrast between the light and dark areas. I try to keep my blends rather simple…..I placed the two images over each other and I used a brush set to about 30 to 40% opacity to blend in the color in the sky. Fine tuning is the key along the edges of the icy rocks and the tree limbs but I think the results were worth it!

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Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/4 and 1 second. No filters.

Transitions

Winter sunset during blue hour over Lake Champlain. Burlington, Vermont.
Winter sunset during blue hour over Lake Champlain. Burlington, Vermont.

Sometimes you get lucky with an image and you are in the right place at the right time. Here in Vermont you may get some frozen fingers and toes but if you can position yourself and your gear just right you can come away with some interesting images! I shot this image back in January and I forgot I had shot it but when I took a second look at this one I realized what a gem it was. I would say over the past four months 99% of my images have been shot in the hour before sunset, blue hour and the hour after sunset. We may not get all of the color in a sunset you may see out west but what we do get in the Wintertime is a certain crispness to the images.

In this image I managed to capture the fading light of sunset as well as the transition from blue hour and into night with some stars poking through the sky. It is really interesting to see all three events in one single frame. Cloud cover has been a bear over the past few months but here I got a nice touch of interest in the clouds that were present. I have to take advantage of skies like this as they can turn into an ugly mess in a heartbeat with our fickle Vermont weather!

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 13 seconds. No filters.

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Across The Pond

Tree silhouette with sunset over Lake Champlain.
Tree silhouette with sunset over Lake Champlain.

I like this tree. It’s one of only a handful that are on the Burlington waterfront. I happened to be out at sunset on another cold Winter night with little snow but I did get some nice color! I really wanted to frame the clouds with a silhouette shot if this tree but getting the right color in the sky with some good clouds seems to be the real trick this Winter. You just have to keep going back day after day and often I am rewarded with a shot like this.

Nothing fancy with this one… I wanted to have the tree dominate the frame and catching some of the light on the ground around the base of the tree. I use the term Pond in the title loosely because Lake Champlain is quite large. Not as big as the other Great Lakes but equally as impressive.

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/4. No Filters or blending.