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In Photoshop CS5: Landscape Photography, Ben Long outlines a full, shooting-to-output workflow geared specifically toward the needs of landscape photographers, with a special emphasis on composition, exposure enhancement, and retouching. This course also covers converting to black and white, using high-dynamic range (HDR) imaging techniques to capture an image that’s closer to what your eye sees, and preparing images for large-format printing. Learn to bring back the impact of the original scene with some simple post-processing in Photoshop. Exercise files are included with the course.
Learning to use the tonal sliders in Camera Raw, Blacks, Exposure, Contrast, Brightness, this takes practice. Hopefully, you're finding that the histogram helps both in diagnosing problems and in creating solutions. Let's look at a few more examples. Obviously, this image needs to be rotated. I'm going to use the Rotate button at the top of the Camera Raw dialog box. By now, you should readily recognize this image as being low-contrast, both because it looks like it has a low contrast and because you can tell from the histogram that there are no blacks. You've already seen that you can use the Blacks slider to push image data down into the blacks of the image.
I'm going to do that right now. What we get is a pretty contrasty image. In fact, it's an image that's possibly too contrasty for the subject matter. So, as much as I've been harping on the histogram as a tool that lets you understand what edits you can make to an image where you might need to make to an image, you also have to keep an eye on content. This is a sand dune in bright sunlight. That's a pretty pastel subject. Even if you weren't there, even if you don't remember, you should still be able to recognize this i=as something that doesn't need to be super-contrasty. Nevertheless, where we started is not contrasty enough.
It is washed out, and the image did not look like this in real life, either. Let's look at the difference between using the Blacks slider to improve this contrast and using the Contrast slider. So, you've already seen that if I stretch this out here, my sky gets very saturated, but the main thing that I want you to focus on is this area in here, the relationship between this tone and this tone and this tone. These have gotten much darker, but the overall relationship between these three areas has not changed that much. I'm going to put Blacks back to where it was before.
Camera Raw has a default black setting of 5. Sometimes, when you pull in an image, that's actually too much and you want to back it off, but here we're going to leave it there. Now, I'm going to take the Contrast slider and increase it to add contrast to the image. That's as far as it will go. Now, if you look at this tone and this tone, there's more variation between them than there was when I simply changed the Blacks slider. Let's put Contrast back to where it was, and move the Blacks slider out to here. The dune overall has darkened, and this and this have been darkened pretty much by equal amount, so there's not been an increase in Contrast here.
If I drag the Contrast slider to the right, it's subtle, but the tones are changing a slightly different way. This image still needs a Blacks adjustment. I'm going to push this over here. Now we're getting back to an image that's a little more normal. Now, I do have black, which is showing up over here, but I have a broader range of contrast. Which one is correct, that's up to you. When I do it this way, it feels like this gradient here has lost some subtlety.
It's not a really smooth gradient from this darker tone into this lighter tone. Let's put things back to where they were and now simply increase the Blacks. Now, there is more tonal variation in here, just a little bit; these are very slight, subtle differences. So which is correct? Well, one thing that I don't like about the Blacks images is that all of these midtone values have gone very dark. I can use the Brightness slider to punch those back up. Now, I'm possibly starting to sacrifice some things over here. This is what tonal adjustments are.
It's a lot of balance and compromise, and we will use all three of these sliders together. The image is looking too contrasty now. I've got a couple of options. I could back off the Blacks slider, but if I do that, I'm going to lose this nice black that I picked up over here; instead, I'm going to use the Contrast slider to now lower the contrast. What's happening now is these midtone values in here are being pushed back together, and I'm getting a sand dune that maintains its kind of nice pastel quality. I've got good blacks overall in the image, and I've got a level of brightness that keeps the image from being a little bit dull. I'm going to boost the blacks a tiny bit, pull back a little bit more on the contrast.
I think that's looking pretty good, and that looks a little more like a shadow off of a sand dune should look. Let's take a look at another image. I'm going to hit Done. I don't want to open this one right now. I just want to store those edits away. Open up the Eureka Dunes, just sticking with our sand dune theme here. This image again is low contrast-ish. The histogram shows that I don't have strong black, I don't have strong white, and you can see that the shadow is not truly, deeply black. I think that this shadow shouldn't be truly, deeply black.
Again, we're in a very pastely environment. If I follow the histogram to the letter and put my Blacks way over here, obviously, now I've got an image that's too contrasty. Even if I back off halfway, I'm still getting a little too much dark in here. So again, the histogram is a guide. It's not the end-all be-all final say in how an image should be adjusted. I'm going to hit Done again to save those edits, and return to this image, which we had adjusted before.
This is a case where following the histogram does work very well, as we saw. At this point, I want you to notice the difference between having Blacks here - Now, what's black in the image? There is a lot of little highlights down in here, and there is this dark shadow right here, which is not truly black. Now, you may look at that and go, well, it looks black to me, particularly compared to those light browns over there. No, that's not black. That's black. Black is a quantifiable phenomena. Black actually is an objective state. Sometimes it's very important to understand that when you're looking at a print and going, that looks a little dull, but there's black in there.
There may not be black in there. Photoshop can tell you the color value of an image of a pixel. You can simply mouse over it. Over here, you'll get an RGB readout. So, this still is not quite black. Black would be 000. We don't need to go that far. Actually, this is too far for this image. I want some detail in there, and I don't want the image to be that contrasty. As you practice, over time, you'll develop an eye for true black. You'll be able to immediately spot when the blacks are off by even a small amount. This will make it easier to assess Contrast, and to know when should sacrifice shadow detail for better black.
But you'll also learn when the lack of black is okay. There is one more tool in Camera Raw for adjusting blacks. That is the Fill Light slider. Open the Saline Valley image. It's an image that has some vignetting problems that we could correct, and it's also plainly got some black issues. I don't have a good, strong black point right here, and yes, the air was filled with sand and haze when this shot was taken, which means it's inherently going to be a low-contrast image. Nevertheless, this foreground detail could have some more contrast in it.
It could have stronger blacks. So, I'm going to bump the black up, and what this image is really about is this wonderful gradient in here, and this color in here. In fact, this image could use a crop. Let's quickly take out some of that sky. This is interesting! My crop has dragged out, and is constrained to 3 to 2. This is because the last crop I did was a 3 to 2 crop. I want a free crop, so if you're ever dragging the crop around and getting frustrated that it won't go where you want, go up to the Crop tool and make sure that these are set properly; either true as an aspect ratio that you want, or just put it on normal.
That gets you back to the full cropping controls. Again, I want to balance where the horizon should be. I've got a little too much foreground here if the focus of this image is supposed to be this area in here, but I really like this lit-up little shrub here, so I'm going to maybe try and keep the foreground right about there. So, I'm adjusting the black point with the idea of increasing the contrast in the image overall to bring out a little more definition in here, and to add some saturation to the sky. The problem now is this stuff has gone way too dark.
I've lost detail in all these little plants up here, and that's no good. I could try the Brightness slider, but Brightness adjusts midtones, and these are shadow values, so, I'm not going to pick up much from adjusting the Brightness; in fact, I lose the sky before I get any adjustment on this stuff down here. I could use Exposure, but that's going to adjust everything. I can't use Blacks, because I've already set my black point where I want it. So, I'm going to use the Fill Light slider, which is roughly akin to having a gigantic flash on my camera. It's going to fill in just the shadows.
Notice that these areas are brighter, but my black point hasn't really changed. I didn't get a contrast change up here. It's as if I fired a fill flash into this area. I don't think I want to go quite that far, but just for the sake of example, I wanted you to see how much it can brighten the shadows, and how good it is at identifying what is a shadow, and what is something that is merely black. So, I'm going to put that back here. That's looking pretty good! Also, I forgot to take my crop. I'm going to double-click on it to go ahead and commit to that crop.
Again, hit Done when we're finished. One last image to take a look at: Sky and Clouds. This is one we took a brief look at earlier. This is an image that on first glance - there's not much here. As I mentioned in an earlier lesson, very often you might open an image and think, why in the world did I take this? It's just this big, dull mount of dirt. But as I look at it, I remember that I was struck by some contrast and texture detail that's not necessarily here in the image right now.
I really like this repeating pattern here mirrored against the same repeating pattern in the sky. That's not showing up in this image. I don't necessarily know right now how to get there, which means I need to just start trying some things. First thing I need to do is take out that little bit of lens flare, which I'm going to do with the Spot Removal tool. As you learned earlier, I'm just going to click on it, and that pretty much takes care of that. So, I can see, from the histogram, that I'm lacking a black point that's strong.
I'm going to go ahead and put that there. I'm imagining this is going to be a pretty high-contrast image. Next thing that's happening is now this is going a little dark compared to this, but I'm going to not worry about that right now. Now, I'm starting to see more contrast in the sky. These lines are coming out a little bit more, which I like, but these are staying pretty flat. What it would be nice to be able to do is brighten up some of this without brightening this any further, and then maybe even go little farther and brighten some sides of these, while darkening the others to bring a little more contour to the image.
We don't know how to do that yet. So far, all of these tools that we've been looking at are global. They apply to the entire image in a uniform manner. So, our next task will be to learn how to locally edit tone. The reason I'm bringing this up now is it's important when you're working globally to not get distracted by the fact that this still isn't looking right. Yes, there may be more steps, but I can still look at overall contrast ratio with an eye towards what I might need to do later. Hopefully, what you're getting from these examples is the contrast, and therefore black levels, are one of your primary concerns as a landscape photographer. Yes, you will face the occasional overexposed highlights, and sure, some images will need midtone adjustments, or overall brightening, or darkening.
But ultimately, if your blacks aren't in place, your image contrast ratio is out of wack, the Exposure, Blacks, Brightness, and Fill Light slider can work together to define your tonal range. There are no hard and fast rules for tonal correction. I can't give you a formula for how to get good tone on every image. Instead, you have to look at each image on its own, and determine what it needs. Sometimes, you'll make this decision based on purely technical concerns, and other times, you'll make adjustments based on what you want to achieve aesthetically with an image.
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