Though clear now, the skies of Washington State, and indeed most of the Pacific Northwest, have been very smokey almost the entire month of August. The smoke is from wildfires, both in the United States and Canada. I fear, with climate changes, this may be our new “normal” for August, as smokey skies have been prevalent in August the past several years.
As long as the smoke is not too thick, smokey skies can have some advantages to landscape and travel photography. Though I tend not to, some people like the sunsets provided by smokey conditions. I do, however, appreciate that smokey conditions can soften light and can extend golden hour conditions by changing the color of sunlight. On the other hand, they can also dim sunlight so that the light during the actual golden hours is weak.
In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh any advantages gained. I am fond on blue skies and wide vistas. Smoke can suck the blue out of the sky and obscure views with haze. I also like to use telephoto lenses to pull in distance subjects. Obviously, this does not work so well if there is a lot of smoke.
On my trip to the Palouse last month, the skies were quite smokey. Not smokey enough to totally ruin the trip, but I certainly did not have ideal conditions. The Palouse is known for its blue skies with great clouds. On my last trip, the sky, though clear, was more of a dusky gray. It was also cloud free on except for one day. So much for the wide sky shots I often favor, such as this one I posted on instagram. I found myself following several techniques to minimize the effects of the smoke.
1. Limiting distance in my compositions – instead of including distant hills and vistas in my compositions, I selected relatively close subjects, or chose compositions where the distant background was less important. For example, on my August visit to the Palouse, I did shoot one evening from Steptoe Butte. However, with the smokey haze, I chose one of the lower viewpoint instead of going to the top, and I mostly shot compositions with subjects relatively close to the butte rather than subjects thousands of meters away.
2. Eliminating or limiting the amount of sky in my compositions – with the sky not the blue color one expects, in many cases, I tried to either totally eliminate the sky from my composition or at least limit the amount of sky in the shot.
3. Processing using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom – I often use the dehaze slider in lightroom, and not just to remove haze; I like the microconstrast it adds to images. However, smokey conditions are what the dehaze slider was made for. While processing images from the August Palouse trip in Lightroom, I found myself adding more dehaze than I normally would.
4. Adding blue back into the sky in Lightroom – I typically do not do selective color corrections in Lightroom. Typically I’ll set the color balance for the entire photo and let well enough alone (saving selective color adjustments for Photoshop if I want to do them at all). But with new masking tools for the gradient and brush tools, I found it relatively easy to add some blue back into the sky in Lightroom. Typically, I’d make a fairly tight gradient (or perhaps the brush too) and apply it to the area of the photo containing the sky. Then, using the range mask tool in color mode, I select a wide portion of the sky. This usually masks most of the non-sky areas, but to be sure, I’ll check the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox (which uses a red tone to indicate where the gradient is effective). Depending on the image, I may or may not need to do some cleanup of the mask with the eraser brush). To correct the sky, I’ll move the temperature slider toward blue, typically move the exposure slider down about 1/2 to 1/2 a stop, and move the clarity slider down as well. Depending on the image, I may also increase the dehaze slightly. Sounds complicated, but it is fairly easy with a bit of practice. This technique does a nice job on restoring sky color (see the examples below).
Adobe recently updated Lightroom, in the process creating a new version of the program. They renamed the old version Lightroom Classic CC, while the new version took the previous name of the old version: Lightroom CC. Confused yet?
If you have the photography CC subscription service (currently at $10/month), either version is available to download – but you can only have both if you fork out an extra $10 per month. The new Lightroom CC is the wave of the future. It’s main feature is that your Lightroom catalog and all your photos are saved to the Adobe cloud so that you can work on them in Lightroom from anywhere with a internet connection. Sounds like a great idea. The service comes with 1 TB of storage on the cloud. Unfortunately, I would need about 4 times as much space to upload all my photo files. And while I’m sure I could rent extra cloud space, I’m not sure I ready to give Adobe more money yet.
I have my own somewhat convoluted way of working in Lightroom on multiple computers. I export selected portions of my Lightroom catalog with smart previews to the 20GB of cloud storage that comes with the old Lightroom (and the Lightroom Classic), then work with that catalog when away from my main desktop computer. When finished, I import the catalog back into my main catalog. So, for now, I’m sticking with Lightroom Classic.
Plus, Lightroom Classic received a nice upgrade. Reportedly its speed performance has improved, but what I really like is the addition of range masking. Now, any mask made by the adjustment brush, gradient filter, or radial filter can be modified by color or luminance. Simply first create a rough mask using one of the three tools. Then, at the bottom of the Mask dialog, there’s a new setting labeled “Range Mask” with the default setting of off. Change the setting to color, and you get an amount slider and a color picker tool. Only want your blue sky to be selected, use your mouse to select the color picker, move it to the blue sky and click – the other colors are deleted from the rough mask. You can shift and click to select multiple colors and click and drag to define a “box” of colors. It helps to have the Mask Overlay selected to see how your mask changes.
The luminance setting for the Range Mask works similarly, but with brightness instead of color. It does not including a picking tool, but has a “two-handled” slider for defining a brightness range and a smoothness slider. With your mask overlay on, it is easy to play around with these two sliders to see the effect.
The photo above, that I took in mid-October in northeastern Washington, provides an example of the usefulness of the new range masking. I actually first tried developing the image without the new range masking tools. And while the result was nice, it did have problems. Specifically there was some haloing around the aspen trees, I couldn’t get the brightness of the leaves and tree trunks to what I wanted, and the sky color was not totally natural. I probably could have corrected these issues with Photoshop, but thought I’d try the range masking tools in Lightroom to see if they could help.
Below is a progression of how I developed the image in Lightroom Classic starting with the original image with default Lightroom settings.
Adobe added a new Transform panel in Lightroom CC in June, and since I typically don’t check what is new in each Lightroom upgrade, I didn’t see this new panel until last month. When I did find it, I thought it was amazing. So much so, that from now on, I’ll be checking each upgrade to see what other new features might be available to improve my workflows.
The old transform was under the Lens Correction panel in the Develop Module under the Manual tab, where there were sliders for you to manually adjust lens, vertical, and horizontal distortions; rotation, scale, and aspect ratio. I made wide use of the vertical and horizontal sliders, but not so much the others. I found it was easier to correct rotations or change the aspect ratio with the crop tool and I usually don’t change the scale of an image except upon export. And while these transform tools where very helpful, sometimes I couldn’t get the results I wanted.
With release 2015.6 of Lightroom, Adobe removed the manual transform sliders from the Lens Correction panel and placed them in a new Transform panel (located directly underneath the Lens Correction panel, see the first screenshot below). The lens distortion slider is gone, and two new sliders, for X and Y offsets, are added. But the best new feature is the addition of automatic or guided distortion corrections. There are six options: off, auto, guided, level, vertical, and full. The pop-up help in Lightroom for each of these options states:
- Auto: “enables balanced level, aspect ratio, and perspective corrections”
- Guided: “draw two or more guides to customize perspective corrections”
- Level: “enable level corrections only”
- Vertical: “enable level and vertical perspective corrections only”
- Full: “enable full level, horizontal, and vertical corrections”
There is also a guide tool in the upper left-hand corner with a guide tool. This tool essentially works identically to pressing the Guide button. In both cases, a guide tool becomes active which allows you to place guides on the image to show Lightroom what should be level and vertical. You are allowed to add up to four guides.
I’ve illustrated the use of this new features with an image I took in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris last year. The space is small and crowded, tripods are not allowed, and a wide-angle lens is needed. These conditions make it quite hard to a decent level and perspectively correct shot. The original image, shot with my 28-300mm zoom lens set at 65mm (at 1/20 second, f5.6, ISO 6,400), is shown here below after all Lightroom corrections except those under the Transform panel.
The next image, below, is a screenshot showing the Transform panel open in the Lightroom Develop module. No transform corrections have been selected – the Off button is active. Please note, that when using the Transform corrections, it is best to have the lens profile corrections already active in the Lens Corrections panel.
The images below are the results of selecting the Auto, Level, and Vertical buttons. In this case, the results from the Full button is identical to the Vertical button.
Below I show the steps in using the Guided correction either by guide tool or selecting the Guided button.
I recently was completing some long over due editing from shots I took in 2013 and came upon this image. I had not touched it since importing it into my Lightroom catalog nearly two years ago. I decided to see what I could do with it. Below is the original file as imported into Lightroom and the version after processing in Lightroom. The feature image is the finished product out of Photoshop.
I was originally attracted to the image because of the pattern of the yellow grass and the scattering of the red leaves. The scene was in shade on the afternoon of a late fall day in November – there was not much available light. I can’t remember if I was without my tripod, or just too lazy to use it, but I took the shot handheld. To have a fast enough shutter speed to not have camera shake, I upped the ISO to 1600, which resulted in a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. It wasn’t enough. Viewing at 100% in Lightroom showed the image was not sharp.
I thought it might be saved with the shake-reduction filter in Photoshop, so I opened up PS. Indeed, the shake-reduction filter seemed to work wonders. My workflow is normally not to bring an image into Photoshop until I’m done with it in Lightroom, but rather than go back to Lightroom, I opened up the camera-raw filter and attempted to do my “Lightroom” processing there. (Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom reportedly have the same capabilities.) I was quickly reminded why I like Lightroom better than Adobe Camera Raw and scrapped the image and started fresh again in Lightroom.
In Lightroom, I started, as I normally do, by doing a default lens correction and adding noise reduction to counteract the high ISO noise. Following my normal workflow, I went to the Basic menu and worked on the tone and presence. I started by reducing the exposure by about 1/2 a stop, warmed up the temperature to rid the image of blue tones from the blue sky reflection and adjusted the tint to add a bit of green. I then adjusted the clarity (to the mid 20s) and vibrance (to the mid 30s) sliders to punch up the colors a bit. That’s a bit more vibrance than I normally use, but it seemed like it needed it. The vibrance wasn’t helping the reds enough, so I also added a small amount of saturation.
I then set the white point with the white slider and adjusted the highlights slider down. I normally set the white point, usually increasing it, as a way to improve contrast. It often results in the highlights being lighter than I want; such was the case here – thus the reduction of the highlights slider. It took several iterations to get it where I liked. I then set the black point with the black slider (and thus finish the contrast improvement without using the contrast slider, which I normally leave set at zero – as I did here).
At this point, there was one leaf in the upper half of the photo that was too bright and distracting. So I used the brush tool to dim it down a bit. With that bright leaf now dimmer, I made one final adjustment to the white and highlights sliders. Made a final adjustment to the temperature slider, and punched up the image a bit more by using the dehazing slider and added just a touch of vignette to help focus the eye into the image. The result is the second image below.
At that point, I exported to Photoshop and re-accomplished the sharpness fix with the shake-reduction filter. After working that shake-reduction magic, I followed my normal Photoshop workflow for nature/landscape shots by working Tony Kuper’s triple play actions on the lights and darks (these actions use luminosity masks to affect the contrast, brightness and detail definition – in this case I was most interested in the detail definition).
From there I worked on targeted adjustment to bring my final vision out for the image. I wanted to yellow grass to really stand out, so I made mask for the yellows and used it on a levels adjustment layer to make them brighter. I only wanted this effect on the yellow grass in the center of the image, so I placed the levels adjustment layer in a group and masked the group, allowing only the center portion to be affected.
Next, I thought the greens were too bright, so I again made a mask from the greens and used it on another levels adjustment layer to darken them up a bit.
In looking at the image, I still wasn’t happy with the reds, so I added a hue/saturation layer and bumped up the saturation just a bit on the reds only.
I finished it off by adding a dodging/burning layer, and painting black to darken, I darkened approximately the upper 1/4 of the image as well as a bit on the sides and bottom. This improved upon the vignette I had placed in Lightroom. The result – the image you see above.
It took much longer to write this than to do the actual work in Lightroom and Photoshop. I think, in total, it took about 20 minutes. In looking at it now, I think I may have overdone darkening of the shadows. But that is the beauty of Lightroom, I can easily open the PSD file made by Photoshop and lighten up the shadows a little. Maybe I’ll do that if I ever decide to print it, but otherwise, it is ready to print now.
As always, your thoughts and comments are most welcome.
One of the challenges of shooting in RAW format is deciding what and how much processing to do. (Tangent – why is RAW capitalized? It is not an acronym such as JPEG or TIFF. It simply means unprocessed. In Wikipedia, it isn’t capitalized. But somehow, it doesn’t look right to me. I’m usually a stickler for correct writing – just ask anyone at my day job where I edit everyone’s reports; they may even call me a grammar nazi – but leaving it uncapitalized when every other file format is capitalized seem wrong. So grammar nazi or not, I’m capitalizing it.) When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does the processing for you. You can always tweak it later, but the majority of the work is done. With RAW, you should do the heavy lifting and process the image yourself, at least if the default processing by your RAW converter program (Lightroom in my case) doesn’t do a good job. And it is rare when I find I can’t do a better job processing than the default.
But the question remains, what to do and how much? Some might answer, just enough so that it looks like it did in real life. But what is that? Take, for example, the images presented here. These are shots of water seeping out of sandstone near Moab, Utah. I’ve included both my processed versions and the original RAW versions from Lightroom with zeroed developing (with all the sliders set to zero – realize, however, there still is some processing involved, it is impossible to present true RAW images, some processing must occur to translate the images into something humans can view). I took these images in the shade on a sunny, blue-skied morning. So these were naturally lit by a broad, blue sky, which cast a rather flat, blue light onto the sandstone. Does that flat, blue light truly show what I saw, or do my processed versions show what I saw? The answer is up to me as the maker and you as the viewer. Did I go too far?
Well, what did I do to turn the RAW images into the finished images? They were first processed in Lightroom, correcting for lens distortion and chromatic aberration. Then I set the white point and the black point to add contrast, took a little off the exposure, and adjusted the highlights and shadows to bring detail into the blacks and whites. I added some clarity to add a bit of sharpness and some vibrance to add saturation. I then adjusted the color temperature, increasing it to remove the blue tint. I then added a radial filter to lighten the water patterns and darken the rest. And finally, made minor changes to many of these adjustments to fine tune them. I then took the images to Photoshop, performed Tony Kuyper’s triple play to add punch to the highlights and shadows, lighten up the orangy-browny vegetation on top, and added a “smart glow” to punch up the color a bit. In total, it took about 10 minutes each to do all this work.
I’d think the most controversial of these changes would be the changes to the color, in particular adding vibrance and the smart glow. The rest is pretty standard old-school darkroom photography made digital (except perhaps the Kuyper triple play, that doesn’t really change the images that much). The problem here is deciding what is too much in terms of the color. Because the subjects were in shadow, it is difficult to determine what the colors would look like in the sunshine. And of course, what sunshine are we talking about? Sun at noon? Sun at sunset?
I guess the answer is it depends. Did I take it too far? I don’t think so; you may. But these are close to what I wanted to show when I took the images. So for me, the answer is no; I processed them as I thought proper. For you the answer may be different. If you think so, let me know your thoughts.