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

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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…..

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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.

Bear Pond on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont in black and white

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Hiking to a remote Vermont location

I knew about the existence of Bear Pond for a number of years and finally I was able to visit this remote location.

The pond sits in the spine of the green Mountains on Mount Mansfield and requires a roughly four-hour hike from the base to reach. Bear Pond can be visited by a trail that is no longer maintained so the trek in to it is not for the faint of heart.

It’s a treacherous scramble over moss-covered boulders and down some steep slopes so a partner is essential.

While much more remote than Lake of the Clouds if you can find someone who has been there to use as a guide your efforts will be rewarded. You won’t meet another person there but you will certainly find enough photographic diversity to keep you busy while you are there.

How do we craft an image in one shot with multiple points of depth and focus?

The trick with this image is to make it sharp and in focus from front to back. I chose this particular composition because there was a lot of depth to it with multiple points of interest for the eyes and it really told a story of the location. It showed remoteness and unspoiled beauty but getting it all into sharp focus would be my challenge.

This image has a flow to it where you move from the foreground grass and dead trees to the middle ground logs and finally to the background and clouds in the sky.  First I needed to identify  my areas of concern and how best to get critical focus where I wanted it to be and my best course of action would be to make multiple exposures at various focus points within the image. This way I could choose the best, sharpest images and blend them together manually ensuring that the image is sharp from front to back.

My concerns about the image

  • The foreground – These alpine grasses and petrified trees make for a really interesting foreground but if I place a focus point there specifically it will throw a good portion of the image out of focus. I really wanted this area of the image to be there as I think it really leads you into the rest of the photograph. The textures and shapes are fantastic but I do not want to crop out this section.
  • The middle ground –This area is problematic as there are three different petrified trees all on different planes within the image. If I focus here the fore and middle ground will be sharp but the background will be soft. That is unacceptable to me  as I want sharpness throughout…..I felt anything less would be too distracting for the viewer.
  • The background – If we place our focus here then the fore and middle ground become much to soft and not what I want for my image. Due to the lack of clouds on my visit I want the ones that did happen to float by to be nice and sharp as well as being able to discern what is in the background. I want to see everything in a landscape and my eyes in particular like when things are nice and sharp.
  • Multiple depths in the image – When your dealing with multiple depths for instance where all of the different logs are sitting, It can be difficult to place where you want to focus in the image. You will have to make a compromise somewhere and usually that means something will not be sharp. The depth in the middle ground is my biggest problem here and focus blending will be my choice to overcome it.
  • Wind movement – While the water in the pond was very still creating a mirror reflection there was a very slight breeze blowing across the grass in the foreground. I had to wait for just the right moment for the grass to settle down in order to get my shots without any movement in the foreground. This would make blending the images manually in Photoshop much easier.
  • Interest in the sky – While not a huge concern on the day that I was at this pond their were clear blue skies so I had to make a choice to exclude a good deal of the sky from the composition. I was fortunate that while I was composing some clouds wandered by into the frame and I was able to add some interesting shapes from the sky into the shot. The clouds added shape and form to the reflections in the water and added some calm into the scene.

A three image exposure and focus blend

Generally when I shoot images of this type I make a series of test shots for my exposure values. Sometimes one exposure will work for the entire scene and other times I need to make separate exposures for the highlights and shadows.

Once I have my composition set I will make a series of exposures starting at my bottom focus point and working my way up through all of the middle focus points in a straight line. Generally this is enough to cover sharpness throughout the image but here and there you will always have to make adjustments.

In this case I made a total of three exposures with a focus point set in the foreground, One for the background and a last one for the middle of the pond and the three logs.

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My first exposure with no edits that was made for the foreground grasses and logs.
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My second exposure with no edits that I shot for focus in the middle ground. My focus point was right on the log in the middle of the pond which kept the entire middle portion of the image very sharp.
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The third image I shot in my series for exposure and for focus on the distant background. Notice the dark foreground but the lighter background.

As you can see in the progression of the images the first two are exactly the same with the exception of where I placed my focus point. These two images I used to blend together the fore and middle ground into one image and the last image was blended in for the focus and exposure in the background.

These images will always need some post processing work in order to blend everything into a smooth, coherent image. I try not to shoot my exposures so far apart that you have to push the processing to the extreme, I just want to process enough to make the lighting look natural and how it was when I shot the scene.

The final look of the image

Once I import all of the images into my computer I always first do the blending and then as my final step I will edit the combined image. I find that it’s easier to do it that way and match the exposure them it is to edit all of them separately and then combine them. In a series of three images like this one or if there are several images I will always break it up into two image chunks so I don’t get lost in the editing process. Most of the images will be so similar that it’s very easy to forget which one you are working on.

Here I took the fore and middle ground images and combined them and once I was happy with the blend I would add in the final background shot and blend that in as well. Especially in this particular shot there are s lot of elements so there was quite a bit of brushwork along with my usual gradient process to get everything looking just the way I wanted to. The final image after processing is what the scene was like and the lighting is accurate. While I don’t always do these exposure blends as at times it’s not necessary but it is a tool that we can utilize.  In  this image we have an example of how to get multiple depths and focus points into one harmonious photograph.

 

Off The Path – Kettle Pond. Groton State Forest. Groton, Vermont.

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Driftwood and Autumn foliage at Kettle Pond in Groton, Vermont.

I made a couple of visits to Kettle Pond in Groton State Forest this year and it is a pretty stellar location for landscape photography! The weather and lighting were not as good as I had hoped for but I made do with what I had to work with. You wouldn’t know it from the road that this location was even there as you pull into a small, unassuming dirt parking lot with a small trail leading to the pond. The trail is a small portage to a boat launch but turns into a three-mile hike around the pond for the adventurous photographer.

I am always up for finding something new to shoot so when I got to the pond on my first visit instead of walking the trails I wandered off trail just a bit and found this small outlet for the pond loaded with really old driftwood. I have seen a lot of photographs of this pond but never any from this spot. To me there was opportunity as there were a ton of decent compositions and angles here. Textures, shapes, lines and form all came together here and although my time was limited both times I shot this panorama to give the spot a sense of scale.

I stitched 15 images in Photoshop cc to make the final panorama which came out to be 4469 x 11997 at 306.82 mb. I did some basic tweaks in lightroom but no major editing was needed to bring out all the best in this shot. I got skunked with no clouds when I made this panorama but I enjoyed the process and the final image. The lines and texture of these old trees really drew me into the shot and I wanted to show how big the spot actually was.  I have not shot a ton of pano’s recently but for some reason I shot several during this Autumn’s foliage season and all of them came together nicely.

Walking On Giants

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View of “The Chin” on the Mount Mansfield ridge line with building storm clouds.

I had a chance recently to hike Mount Mansfield from the Stowe, Vermont side and spend an overnight shooting the sunset, the stars and milky way at night and then the sunrise in the morning. I usually only get the chance to do one or two hikes like this during the year so I jumped at the chance to do this one. I have hiked on or around this mountain many times over the years but this was my first time going up the toll road on the Stowe side and hiking up the ridge line from the visitors center. There are two ends to the ridge line one of which is called “The Nose” and at the other end is “The Chin.”

The Nose which is located next to the small visitors center unfortunately is no longer accessible for hiking as there are several cell towers located on it. You can still shoot around the area but hiking isn’t allowed. The Chin is Mount Mansfield’s other distinctive feature and sits at the other end and the entire ridge line forms a very distinctive shape that is well-known here in Vermont. This entire area is a black and white photographers dream providing a wealth of compositions no matter where you look.  While the color file looks great I felt this image really would be a stunner in black and white. This was one of my first shots of the evening a few hours before sunset and I saw the clouds building up over the Chin.

There really wasn’t much work to be done to this file to get it ready at all. I did a very slight crop on the top left corner because there was a small bit of blue sky that I wanted to minimize slightly. I did my usual tweaks for exposure, clarity, contrast, etc and some lens correction because the Canon 17-40mm has distortion at every focal length. The black and white conversion was done in Silver Efex Pro 2 and here I toned down the highlights a bit because the setting sun was shining into the trees on this face. The clouds building behind the mountain is what caught my eye on this one. The mountain top was a great foreground to them!

The Watchers

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Hay field and trees overlooking the Champlain Valley and the Adirondack Mountains at sunset.

*If you like this image it is available for purchase right here!

When looking for new locations going on scouting missions and researching the area thoroughly is always a good skill to have but talking to landowners is also another. It can be nerve-racking going up to someones door that you do not know but a handshake and introducing yourself can go along way to shooting property that is otherwise inaccessible.  The property in today’s image I have driven by thousands of times and have wanted to make some photographs there for a long time. One day this Spring I finally got the gumption to go and shoot on the periphery of the property when one of the owners saw me shooting and came out to talk to me!

I was a bit surprised at this but I nicely introduced myself, shook his hand and we had a pleasant conversation about photography. (Turned out he was a photographer himself although with people and not landscapes!) He told me all about the property and behind the hay fields you see here is actually a nature preserve with trails and a sweeping view of Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley. The driveway through the property which turns into a dirt road through the hay fields is a right of way for the town where I shot this and it was perfectly fine to walk onto the land and shoot!

The property itself contains an old farmhouse with a couple of really large and old barns with some pretty fantastic views all the way around. I made this shot of two trees that sit on the edge of the hay-field and they reminded me of guards or watchers as they look out over Lake Champlain. The setting sun was providing some nice light on the grass fields and just as I was about to move positions this rather large cloud floated directly over the two trees! Sometimes you get lucky and other times you make your own luck.

Tracks

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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.

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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A Curious Rock

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Honey Hollow Falls at the base of Camels Hump mountain.

This is a pretty interesting set of waterfalls located near the base of Vermont’s other well-known mountain Camels Hump. On really old maps of the area the mountain is listed as Camels hump and no other name due to its distinctive shape looking like…You guessed it, A camels hump! The falls here are a short drive from Burlington, Roughly 30 minutes or so. The falls are part of a larger stream system that runs directly alongside one of the steepest logging roads I have ever seen. You can drive up it but only in the late Spring Summer and fall. I wouldn’t even attempt it in the Winter months without some serious 4wd. These falls are in a fairly deep gorge with sloping sides of very slippery rock.

The careful decent is worth it as there are a series of smaller falls leading to the final, large falls with small pools, circular pools and good shots facing either up or downstream. The only downside to shooting here is that a huge pine tree has fallen into the gorge making some of the downstream shots almost impossible. The rock here is rather interesting because of its red color but due to the force of the water over many years it forms a pretty graceful curve back behind the camera position here. It’s an awesome foreground subject and here I am using it for the smaller upper falls!

The image is a two shot composite for focus and exposure. I made one exposure for the falls and one for the red rock in the foreground. I blended the two together with some simple brush work…No gradients or anything else were needed. This is one location as long as you are careful and aware can yield more than one image. Be aware of the slippery rocks and you will be rewarded with some nice waterfall images!

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 2.5 seconds for both images. Shot with a Cokin Circular Polarizer.

Giant

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Giant boulder fallen from a cliff that is part of a thrust fault that runs under Lake Champlain. Burlington, Vermont.

The Lake Champlain valley is a pretty diverse ecosystem with a wealth of photographic possibilities. In my earlier post “A Thrust Of Earth,” I introduced you to a rather unique location on Lake Champlain and another spot with wealth of photo ops! This area is a thrust fault which runs under the lake and is the only spot in Burlington with massive cliffs and rocky outcroppings. There is a ton of visual interest at this location but on the day I was here for my first visit the sky wasn’t great and it was more of a scouting mission.

I took what nature gave me and made several long exposures…One of which is this giant boulder which sits at the base of the fault. The boulder broke off from the cliffs above and now sits in the water on a very small bit of loose rocky shoreline. The location here is very tight with not much room to manuever for compositions but with more time and the right weather conditions this location is prime for some landscape shooting.

The windy conditions allowed me to break out the Lee Big Stopper for some long exposures. The sun kept poking out making some bright spots in the clouds but I think this shot came out nicely. The boulder with the still living trees growing on the side make for an interesting component to a landscape shot! The weather has been less than ideal but when the conditions improve I will return to this location. I have the ideas for some shots in my head, Now I just need Mother Nature to cooperate.

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 90 seconds. Lee Big Stopper.

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.