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
Lightroom-histogram-camera raw file-example raw file image-landscape photography
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.

20 More Ideas To Improve Your Landscape Photography!

 

Vermont-Charlotte-Old Barn-Storm
An old barn and field with gathering storm clouds in the Lower Lake Champlain Valley. Charlotte, Vermont

A few years ago I wrote my original blog post 25 ideas to improve your landscape photography and I felt with my improving skills that I should update that post! I have learned a lot along the way through much trial and error and I wanted to pass along some of the knowledge that I have learned along the way. Often times the best teacher is experience and I try to shoot as much as I can as often as I can. In any given month I can shoot anywhere from 100 to 500 images and I feel fortunate if I get five or six really strong images that are worth sharing, submitting to magazines, etc.

While the road to becoming a full-time professional Landscape photographer (My original goal/ Not quite there yet but you have to keep moving forward!) has been a long one it’s nice to have a platform on this blog to be able to share what I know and help others along the way! Some of these ideas may not be new but they will always be worth repeating.

*If you like the image above and would like to purchase a copy you can view it here on Fine Art America!

1. Go on scouting missions: If your time is limited always have a plan. Use maps, do research on the internet and during your photography down times go and scout your chosen locations. See how the light interacts with your composition at different times of day and weather conditions. It may seem like you are losing valuable shooting time but in the long run one stunning shot is better than 10 mediocre ones.

2. Bad weather is a photographers best friend: Do you want to be the person that sits at home all the time when the weather is terrible or the one who gets a killer shot? Motivate yourself to go out when it’s cold, at night or when storms are brewing. You will be rewarded with some great light especially at the beginning and ending of storms and unique images that no one else has.

3. Put your tripod where other people won’t: Never be afraid to move and shoot where other people are not shooting. if you are bold and plant your tripod in another spot where no on else is or has shot you will surprise yourself with all of the new compositions you can find. Move around, Don’t get stuck shooting the same compositions and subjects that other people do. Set yourself apart from the pack and your images will get better!

4. Always look behind you during sunrise and sunset: While the light can certainly be amazing when pointing your camera towards the sun at sunrise and sunset always look behind you. The color and intensity of the light will be much different in the opposite direction and can be just as amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I have been out shooting and done this and been more attracted to what’s behind me than what’s in front of me!

5. Always strive to make your next shot better than your last: Never get too comfortable with your work. When you go to make an image ask yourself how can I make this one better than the last one I shot? What can I change to make an average shot an exceptional one?  Always analyze what you are doing and how you can improve upon what you have already done.

6. Don’t snap. Take time to study your subject: Weather your shooting a landscape or a portrait always evaluate what you are shooting. Be patient and take your time with your chosen subject. While a snapshot does have its place you may miss a much better composition if you take some time to study what you are shooting.

7. Always think foreground to background: Ask yourself what is going to draw the viewer into this image? A good foreground starts the story in your shot and the mid and background serve to enhance it. Compelling foregrounds tell what your image is about and lead the viewer into your image. Everything else in the shot helps the viewer to know “where” they are in the shot. Look through your viewfinder and take the time to make sure all the elements…Fore, mid and background are compelling.

8. Don’t forget about the corners: Along with number 7 above make sure to check the corners of your composition. We can often forget about the corners but here is where we can eliminate anything unnecessary in the frame. It’s an extra step but a critical one to coming home with a keeper. Many times I have shot something only to get home and wished I had checked the corners!

9. Study the work of landscape masters: Buy some books or research online for any of the masters of landscape photography. Study their work and learn why people gravitate to those images. Find out what makes their work so compelling and learn about all of the hard work that goes into a great landscape shot. Stunning works don’t just happen and if you are in a rut take a look at all of the masters that came before you and learn the history of landscape photography.

10. Shoot at the beginning or ending of storms: Watch the weather and try to anticipate when storms will pop up. I personally feel that the light at the beginning and ending of storm systems is just phenomenal and not to be missed. The build up of a storm system and its last gasps as it passes by and dies out can yield some great shots so never miss out on those storms! I have shot some of my own favorite images this way…The atmosphere of storms adds some great mood to a landscape shot.

11. Learn to shoot at night: With the birth of my daughter last year came the challenge of finding time to fit in my photography work. I had never made night images before but shooting at night was a perfect fit for me. While my wife and daughter are sleeping I can get in some shutter time and keep making images. It takes a great deal of practice to produce some decent night work but the hard work will pay off.

12. Perform an ISO sensor test with your camera body: Set your camera up outside, Point it up at a clear, blue sky or something without a ton of distractions and take a series of shots starting at the lowest ISO and moving to the highest on your camera body. Review these images without any edits at 100% to see where your threshold is for the grain becoming objectionable. On my camera it’s at ISO 1000 which at times I will push higher but only if I am shooting the night sky. Doing this will allow you to know in what situations you can and cannot shoot in. Know your gear and it’s limitations.

13. Practice using graduated and neutral density filters: One thing that will improve your landscape work tremendously is to start learning how to use graduated and neutral density filters. While not a cure-all they can help you to balance exposures between the land and the sky which are often very far apart in exposure values. Using them either hand-held or in a filter holder you will not be disappointed as the amount of keeper shots goes up. I was against using them when I first started shooting but quickly learned their usefulness and my filter sets are always in my camera bag.

14. Don’t be afraid to shoot during the middle of the day: This is not something I like to do but sometimes it is the only time I have so I have to make use of it for photography work. If I know I am going to be shooting during the mid day hours I make sure that the skies will be overcast or partially cloudy. Sometimes the mood strikes me and I shoot on clear blue sky days but for the most part I personally need some interest in the sky. Don’t let the mid day hours be a barrier to getting in some shutter time!

15. Talk to people: I can illustrate this one by explaining the barn image at the top of this post. For years I have looked at this property but I always thought that it was on private property. It turns out that I was wrong as I had a very nice conversation with the people who live in the farmhouse on this piece of land. A handshake, an introduction and a conversation got me access to a really stunning view of Lake Champlain and the valley’s around it. I always ask permission when it comes to shooting on private land and you may just meet some interesting people in the process!

16. Learn everything there is to know about your camera gear: Take some time and learn everything there is to know about your gear. The last thing you want is to be fumbling around with your setup out in the middle of nowhere missing some great light or on a paid shoot for a client. Read the manuals, shoot a ton but know your gear inside and out including its limitations.

17. Add motion into your images: I really like those shots that have a combination of static and moving elements in them. Cloud and water movement are two of the most obvious choices for this but you can use you imagination and shoot whatever you like! Panning techniques is another great way to add in some motion and make some interesting images. I love these types of shots because they are a challenge to pull off but adding in motion to a still frame just adds a whole new dynamic to the composition!

18. Self edit and be critical of your work: Both are important skills to learn as not every shot is good nor should they all be shared. Learning these skills will train your eye and allow you to become better at picking out the best compositions. You have to take a step back from your work at times and ask yourself tough questions about its quality. It’s a tough task for sure especially with magazine submissions as oftentimes you can only send in a certain amount of images. There is an emotional attachment to everything we shoot but step away and look at your images from the viewers or buyers perspective. Yes you shoot because you love it but you should also have a critical eye on your own work.

19. Get out of your car and of the beaten path: While you can get perfectly acceptable images this way I think more compelling images can be had away from the car and out in the middle of nowhere. Taking the time to get away from man’s modern conveniences can really add some real emotion to your images as you now have some time to quiet yourself and reflect on what you’re doing photographically. Walk away from what you know and into the unknown!

20. Hike and shoot with a partner: Shooting with a photography friend leads to some interesting images as you both can feed off of each others creativity. Usually we practice our craft alone which for me is about 90% of the time but there are times that I do enjoy hiking and shooting with other photography enthusiasts because you can’t shoot alone all of the time. The other person sees the world differently than you will and often may see a composition you never even noticed!

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.