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.

A Winter sunset on Lake Champlain

Winter sunset with clouds on Lake Champlain looking towards the Adirondack MountainsDuring the Winter months here in Vermont we go through cold snaps and this year has been no exception. In December of 2017 we had a few weeks where the temps ranged from zero to well below zero on a daily basis.  Difficult shooting conditions for not only your body but all of your camera gear as well. Armed with plenty of cold weather protection I went out on a 20 below zero evening to shoot the sunset over Lake Champlain.

Generally when it is that cold with wind you don’t really have a whole lot of time to make images. I was only ably to stand it for about an hour but I did manage to get this image as the clouds wandered by. As the sun was setting the clouds started to dissipate but luckily the ones that were around reflected some really nice light around the scene. I did not have a ton of time to hunt for compositions as this light was fading fast and the cold made it tough for operating the camera.

Despite all of the challenges in shooting during bitter cold temps I was able to use this foreground rock to anchor everything else in the background. Sometimes with lake ice due to wave action it gets pushed up against the shoreline even with the rest of the lake not entirely frozen over.  I think it adds some interesting contours to the scene and it does add to the cold, Winter feel. The pop of color in the sky at least adds some much-needed warmth. Typically these scenes shoot towards the blue side with the snow and ice and the sunset gives it another range of colors and interest.

The image here is a blend of two images that I shot, One for the foreground and one for the sky. In most situations it can be hard to match up exposures as the foreground is always going to be much darker so two separate exposures are needed so you can see the detail in the foreground. I also used a three stop graduated neutral density filter to hold back some light in the sky and pull out some of that color.

Blended landscape image from Photoshop before lightroom edits are applied
Here is the two exposures blended in Photoshop but before any Lightroom editing and cropping. The camera doesn’t always pick up all of the color that my eye can see both in the sky and the foreground. using my artistic vision I have to interpret that and apply it to my photograph.

The advantage of shooting in raw is that I can bring the image back to what my eyes were seeing. The camera at times might not accurately pick up the color happening especially in the foreground snow. In this case I wanted to lighten up the foreground and add a touch of color to the light that was reflecting off of the snow.

A Winter landscape on Lake Champlain at sunset

The long waitIce formations and snow at sunset on Lake Champlain in winter

Generally during the holiday season I get a few weeks off at the end of the year from work and I try to get a good deal of photography work done during that time. The weather can be a fickle, Cruel mistress here in Vermont during the winter season and I had two weeks of disappointment waiting for some decent weather to role in. I suppose it’s the bitter irony of being a landscape photographer as you get fooled day after day into thinking the conditions for shooting are going to materialize and then they never do.

That’s probably the most frustrating thing about doing this kind of work and what challenges you to be a better photographer in the face of adversity. For example today’s image was shot around a half hour or so before sunset and the weather conditions were brutal even though you don’t get any indications of that from the image. I had left my house about an hour before sunset and the sky was clear blue but with the help of some trusty apps and my intuition it really paid off to go out and shoot on a miserable day. Sure enough as soon as I left my house the wind really kicked up but as the sun set more and more clouds rolled into the area assuring me of a decent sunset.

Before editing image example of a winter sunset on Lake Champlain
This is the original image file before editing which consists of two images, One for the sunburst and sky and one for the foreground snow and ice. The sky image was shot at ISO 500 F22 @1/100 and the foreground image was shot at ISO 500 F11 @ 1/250.

The challenging image

This image presented a bit of a challenge as the wind was really whipping around and the sun was setting making me have to decide about how best to shoot this scene. Normally I don’t point directly into the sun but in this case I felt like changing things up. The sun was creating excellent shadows in the snow and the glancing light on the ice made for some nice color versus all white in the snow. Because I was losing the light and with the windy conditions I bumped the ISO up to 500 so I could get some fast shutter speeds. I added in a three stop graduated neutral density filter on my lens to tame the sky and made two exposures….One at a high aperture for the sunburst and one to add some light to the foreground.

I wasn’t expecting to get anything sharp but I managed to get a few sets of keepers despite the windy conditions. In Photoshop I blended the two images together with a gradient but with the irregular shape of the icy shoreline I had to zoom in at 100% and tweak the middle ground with some brush work to fully refine the blend and make it seamless. The camera doesn’t always interpret what your eyes see accurately and that’s where my eyes and mind take over in the editing process.

I always wait to perform any edits until after the two images are blended together seamlessly. I did a slight crop of the top and bottom and added in a bit of color in the highlights and shadows that was present but the camera recorded more on the blue side. The highlights in the snow are quite strong in a few spots but not really all that distracting and pretty typical of winter scenes here.

I was really happy with the final result even though this image did present some issues with the jagged horizon in the middle ground. Generally you will have some areas that lose focus and there were a couple of small spots in the middle ground but nothing that wasn’t easily blended with the sharp sky image. Wind and blowing snow can be challenging but shooting in these tough winters for a number of years now gave me the experience to overcome.

 

Home

Vermont-Winter-Snake Mountain-sunset
Sunset over the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain from Snake Mountain in Addison, Vermont.

There are lots of things that I love about the Vermont landscape. It is in a constant state of struggle between Modernization and the rural, farm life of days past. There are so many places to explore and a lot of them happen to be short distances away from where I live. I feel blessed to be able to jump in my car and within a half hour bear witness to scenes such as this sunset. This was a new location for me but the sweeping views of Lake Champlain and the lower Champlain Valley are just not to be missed!

The view here is from Snake Mountain which is 30-45 minutes away from where I live in Burlington. An easy drive to a small mountain requiring a hike of an hour or so to the top. At the top of the mountain is remnants of an old hotel foundation and a clear lookout of more than 180 degrees both North and South along Lake Champlain. From here you get quite the impressive view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains on the New York side of the lake. This image was shot in March as Spring was approaching with a bit of snow still left on the valley floor.

Sunset happens fast here because as the sun sets the valley floor gets progressively darker and you lose the good light. You really have only a few minutes to catch this glancing light in  the Lower valleys as the sun dips behind the Adirondacks. If you get up top early and are patient then the best light will be yours for making images!

Tracks

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-ski tracks-Winter
Ski tracks on a sledding hill with forest and Mount Mansfield in the distance.

It has been quite awhile since I have done a proper black and white and the conditions were just perfect on the day that I shot today’s image to do one! The light and weather conditions were looking really good so I grabbed my gear and headed out to a few spots that I have been wanting to shoot for some time. The location here sits at the base of Mount Mansfield on the road leading to Underhill State Park. I have driven by this scene countless times and with a good coating of snow it was ripe for a few photographs.

The area here is a small hill and hay-field that gets quite tracked up after a good snow so it can be quite difficult to get to this field while it is still untouched. In this instance I really wanted to show the various tracks around the hill as that’s the areas purpose in the winter….Sledding, Skiing and fun times. I thought what better way to highlight the dramatic clouds and mountain in the background then to put these ski tracks front and center in the foreground. I thought they made a nice leading line into the distance and they drew me into those clouds above Mount Mansfield.

This image was part of a series that I though I would blend for focus but as it turned out this image was really sharp front to back so a blend was not needed. The focus point was roughly two-thirds into the image and it worked out well with a lot less processing for me. The sun was coming in and out of the clouds while I was shooting but there was just enough cloud cover to soften the light as it created some interesting shadows on the scene. I worked with what the scene gave me and while the snow was tracked up I think the tracks really added something special to this shot rather than a bland field of white.

Whiteface

Vermont-Whiteface Mountain-Winter-2013
Whiteface Mountain and the Sterling Range.

Here we are in 2014 and I wanted to start things off right with a shot of a remote Vermont beaver pond. The pond here is quite a trek to get to requiring some driving on dirt roads and a two and a half mile hike into the mountains! Normally hikes like this are no problem for me but I was not up to snuff at the time with a pretty severe cold, sore throat and cough. Conditions while sunny on this day were quite cold and in the single digits but thankfully there wasn’t much wind which made the long hike that much more enjoyable.

The pond here sits at the bottom of Whiteface Mountain with Sterling Mountain and Smugglers Notch ski resort off to camera left. It is a difficult hike in the Summer as the trail and beaver pond are quite wet and tough to navigate. The Summertime brings a huge amount of bugs which is why it’s much easier to make the long hike here in the Winter…No bugs and the ground is frozen! This spot is off the beaten path and hard to find but the images were well worth the effort. I had just enough time to do an hour or so of shooting before the clouds started to roll in but this is quite the majestic view.

The image is a three shot composite as I had to crawl out onto the ice to get the shot! I was really taken with the circular patterns in the ice so I took a shot and crawled out on my belly and set my gear close to the ice. Luckily it had been really cold for a week prior to this shot so the ice held and I was able to realize my vision for this one. I blended two shots for the ice and one for the background mountains getting a nice and sharp shot from front to back. This was shot in early November when we had out first cold snap and snow in the mountains….Much success to everyone in 2014 and happy shooting!

Turning Towards Heaven

Sunset, Lake Champlain, Burlington, Vermont, Clouds
Sunset over the Burlington, Vermont Breakwater on Lake Champlain.

Usually the sunsets here in Vermont are just fantastic one day and then followed by several days of bad weather and overcast and flat skies. You have to make the most of the short windows you have especially at the end of Winter and in the early Spring. Every year is different of course but we seem to be in this pattern this year. We had a warm up followed by a cool down with more snow several weeks ago and the sky opened up just a bit for me to shoot this sunset.

Here in Burlington we have a huge open area park with quite an expansive view of Lake Champlain. The inner breakwater at the bottom of the image is used in Wintertime to store boat docks and off to camera right is Burlington’s Coast Guard station. The clouds here formed into one giant blob of darkness soon after I shot this so time was of the essence for this sunset. You can see to the last of the lake ice with some seagulls perched on top! In the background you can see the majestic Adirondack Mountains…I feel lucky everyday to be able to drive 5 minutes to see sites like this!

You can always fine me on Google Plus here!

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/80. No filters.

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!

Hiking to nowhere

Shoot and be positive

Sometimes I have all of the best intentions to get some good photography work done but I do have those days where the resulting work is not quite what I expected. I can hike to a location, pre-visualize  the composition, read maps, check the weather and plan all I want but there are times when you just can’t “find your set” as I call it. The despair sinks in as I hike and hike and look in all direction for just the right composition but it is nowhere to be found. It’s a hard to describe feeling but probably most like a painter who does not have any paints to create with.

It is a strange sensation on that one day every so often where the creative mojo just is not flowing and you end up hiking for hours with maybe one or two shots to show for it. I try to handle these days in a positive way, Telling myself at least I came out and looked, got some exercise in the process, and tried as hard as I could to work on my images. For me it’s a simple matter of keeping my focus with photography and going out rather than sitting at home and complaining that I did not get any work done.

Winter hiking can be a crapshoot

In the Winter months I often find myself hiking in the Mount Mansfield State Forest around the Smugglers Notch Ski Area. This is a favorite area for me as most importantly it feels like home when I go there. I have spent many years snowboarding at Smuggs but also the last four years exploring the area quite extensively looking for some good photo compositions. Route 108 runs from the town of Jeffersonville up to the Smugglers Notch Ski Resort and the base of Mount Mansfield. It continues through the notch and down the other side to the Stowe Ski Resort and Stowe village. After the first snow this road is closed which makes it even easier to have access to this area for hiking.

On a rushed drive in early November 2010 for a short window of ok weather before a “winter storm” of warm temps and rain moved into the area. Normally I don’t come out at this time of day but I wanted to try to get some work done and the weather was going to become uncooperative soon. The day itself was very overcast with not a hint of sunlight anywhere. The clouds were flat and lifeless making wide-angle shots with the sky pointless. With no sunlight the light on the snow had no contrast making everything look grey, difficult exposures but not impossible.

Hiking into the lower valley the snow was up to my knees making it slow going. The trees themselves were trying to stop my progress grabbing me and my backpack at every turn. It was almost as if the forest was trying to say “Not today son.” With the temps being warm the snow had the consistency of “good snowball snow”, easy to compact when you walk on it. I had to be  careful where I walked as I didn’t want to ruin the snow in any possible compositions. My location was a stream which runs through this valley and down into the Brewster River a few miles downstream. The snow had covered much of the rocks in the stream with those awesome domes of snow making for some great compositions.

Always look on the bright side

Being that it is early winter here the compositions were difficult as along the stream there wasnt many places to set up for some decent shots. The ice was not that thick and several times as I stepped down to the water I broke through. I tried many different angles and compositions along a pretty long stretch of the stream. Bad light, No contrast and a host of other factors made this one of the days where no matter how hard I tried I could not get the image I was after. In total after three hours of hiking I got four images. I did not look at this day as a failure though. I always try to look at the positives of any shoot versus the negatives, No day is the same and I take it as a learning experience. The one thing that I always tell myself is “If you come away from the shoot with just one image you are proud of then the day was a success.”