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…..

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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.

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.

 

Phoenix Rising. Charlotte Town Beach. Charlotte, Vermont.

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Sunset over Lake Champlain and the Charlotte Town Beach in Charlotte, Vermont

I think as photographers we all want to make that one image, That one money shot that will define us as artists and keep people talking. A challenge that I think gets overlooked all to often is making the everyday, the mundane look extraordinary especially in a photograph. With the Winter sun setting so far south right now here in Vermont it can be difficult from where I live to shoot a decent sunset over Lake Champlain. In the first week of January I made a quick trip south along the lake to see what I could find. This day was particularly grey and uninviting for photography but my photography sixth sense kicked in when I noticed some small breaks in the cloud cover. I had a feeling that some great light was going to come my way during this sunset and I found my way to the Charlotte Town Beach in Charlotte, Vermont.

This beach is a small one 15 to 20 minutes away from where I live in Burlington and this was my first visit to the location. The beach is more of a rocky one than a sandy one and at first glance you wouldn’t think that there would be much to shoot. After investigating compositions for a while and getting a feel for the location I started to really notice some nice lines and curves in the sand along the shoreline. As I was shooting in the opposite direction to this image I was keeping a watchful eye on the sky and sure enough the clouds started to break a bit as the sun was setting. I turned my attention to this tree which looks south down Lake Champlain and for about 5 minutes the sky opened up with some pretty amazing color!

A very small window of sky and color opened up framing this small tree that sits on one end of the beach. The suns position really made the oranges and pinks pop and I really couldn’t believe it. Winters can be quite harsh here and this Winter we have seen very little in the way of snowfall so getting to witness this was quite a boost to my spirits! With very little time I was frantically running around on this rocky beach and settled on this composition. I really didn’t have much time and after shooting several frames this beautiful light and clouds got swallowed up by more clouds dashing this great sunset. There hasn’t been many times that I have been made speechless as a photographer but this was one of them.

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!

A Colorful Song

Winter-2014-Lake Champlain-Sunset-Vermont
Melted and re-frozen ice on Lake Champlain at sunset over the Adirondack Mountains.

Sunset on Lake Champlain just does not get any better than when you have some ice to reflect all of the wonderful color coming from the sunset! We had several freeze/thaw cycles in Burlington and on the lake this year which made for some really great ice formations and photography compositions along the shoreline. I was able to get out and capture a few of these spectacular sunsets and this one really did not disappoint. I come to this spot quite often as it offers up many types of compositions but a really grand view of New York and the Adirondack Mountains.

With all of the wave action on the shoreline at times it can become quite built up with ice humps making getting closer to the water difficult. Here I went for a wide shot to get some of the clouds in the sky but also because it was hard to get down any lower in this particular spot. The ice was at an interesting angle to the shore verses in a straight line and I thought this added some interest to this wide shot with the mountains and sunset beyond. The reflected color really added quite a bit of drama to this one!

Here in this image I made a blend of two shots, One for the sky and background and one for the foreground ice. The foreground was quite a bit darker than the sky and I wanted to pick up all of that reflected color from the sky in the ice which was hard to pick up on from the exposure difference. The two images were blended in Photoshop with some tweaks to the colors and white balance. A few simple edits really brought out those colors and made this one shine!

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.

Ice Wave

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Shore Ice on Lake Champlain at sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Burlington, Vermont.

Finally after a tough start to the Winter I feel like I am getting into a photography groove again! The weather is still hit or miss and 9 times out of 10 I get skunked with the light but I feel that I am still getting out to shoot as much as I can and making some decent images despite all of the complications this Winter. Last week we got a few snow storms and in between the two storm systems the light and clouds cooperated so I made my way down to the lake to finally get some ice shots at sunset.

The lake has been in a cycle of freezes and thaws which create these really fantastic shapes in the ice as the waves move it toward shore. When there is no snow cover on the ice it is a great opportunity for some great foreground interest in a photograph at sunrise or sunset. Another bonus for shooting ice or snow at sunrise or sunset is that they take up whatever color is in the sky and you can get some really brilliant color if the light is right. In this image I did not get that effect as much because I was pointed a little bit away from where the sun was setting but the clouds here were pretty awesome!

I focused in on this cracked piece of ice sticking up from the water and setting my tripod low to the ground I crawled out onto the ice to make the shot. I took a risk here on the ice closer too shore as I could here ice cracking everywhere and you could feel the movement of the waves in the ice. However it was quite strong here in the image so without any danger I shot a few frames for focus and exposure and blended them together. The clouds really gave this one a painterly quality as they were drifting in straight lines off to the north and not directly overhead. Images like this make sitting out in the cold on lake ice worth it!

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Frozen Tides

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Ice on the Lake Champlain shoreline with clouds at sunset.

Finally we are getting some favorable conditions for Winter photography but for quite a few months I was worried we wouldn’t have much of a Winter here in Burlington. I shot today’s image a few weeks ago during a warm spell that broke up a good portion of the lake ice that we did have. Now we have a good deal of snow and Lake Champlain is completely frozen over for the first time since 2007! It has been a tough Winter for me with lots of different things keeping me from shooting regularly but I do what I can and go out as often as I can.

As the warming temps here a few weeks ago broke up the lake ice the waves push the leftovers ashore into these really interesting formations among the rocks of the shoreline. For the first time in weeks we had a decent sunset with some nice clouds and I was really looking for a nice bit of ice to use as a foreground to the clouds and color of the sunset. Needless to say even with the warm temps the ground around this composition was quite icy but with a little care I was able to pull off this image!

This is a blended image of two frames that I shot for sharpness and exposure as the foreground ice was much darker than the sky. I merged the two images in Photoshop, equalized the exposure between the two images and made my usual general corrections to come up with the final piece. The clouds were moving quite fast at this point so I had to shoot fast to catch them before they were gone along with the color! The view is looking North from Oaklege Park to Rock Point.

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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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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!