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Photoshop has a lot of useful image editing tools and features, to say the least, and learning how to use the ones that are useful to a landscape photographer is only half the battle; just as difficult, sometimes, is knowing when to stop using them. Photoshop offers so much power and so many options, wrapped up in so many choices, that it's easy to become paralyzed with end decision when editing. Should I do this to an image, should I do that to an image? I know I need more contrast, but how much? While many of these decisions are subjective, there are some objective measures you can use, as well.
So there is a finite amount of editing that you can do to an image before you start seeing deleterious artifacts in your scene and other problems. Let's return to this approaching storm image and look at an example. I am going to zoom in here. This part of the cloud that I was increasing the contrast on earlier, as you'll recall, with this adjustment layer right here, I am going to turn it off, I have gone from there to there by way of making the cloud a little more dramatic. But I can go a lot more dramatic than that. If I continue to push the black point, the cloud gets more and more contrast-y.
So where's the point that's too far? If you watch the shadow area here, you can see it go from this, which is very finely defined gradient of ever so subtly darkening tones going from here to here, I can go from there to this, which is a great reduction in tones. Now, I've got mostly just three or four intermediate tones. That nice smooth gradient that's been in there has dropped out into almost bands of color, and a whole bunch of intermediate tones have fallen out to a complete black.
From a purely subjective standpoint, that just looks too dark. It doesn't look realistic. But setting that aside for the moment, we can also look at a more objective benchmark, which is the reality of this situation was a fairly fine, soft gradient. I don't want to get too far from that. I don't want to lose too many tones in there. Tone breaks and posterization, the process of a fine gradient being reduced down to just a few simple number of tones, that's a sign that an edit has gone too far.
I don't want to go much farther than here, even though I've got all of this range over here that I can drag through, but I am bumping into the limits of what's going to preserve a decent gradient. This is going to be true on clouds, on pieces of chrome and flesh tones. For a landscape shooter, particularly dealing with skies, particularly dealing with the very subtle gradients that can appear in a sky, it's very, very important to keep an eye on when those gradients are breaking down into a far simpler set of tones.
If you hit that point, then you've pushed your edits too far, and you need to back off of them. If you have reduced the glow of the sunset on a horizon down to a single shade of orange, you have created an entirely unrealistic image, and created edits that defy what the viewer is expecting to see. You need to back off from those. When you're using that as a benchmark, you suddenly find yourself in a much more limited editing environment which is good in some ways because it means you're not overwhelmed by all the possibilities that could arise from all of these different tonal adjustments.
I've got the realm of possibility narrowed down to these fairly slim latitudes of what makes up a good gradient and good tonal content. So that's an excellent way of knowing when your edits have gone too far, when it's time to back off a little bit, and knowing when to back off will perhaps get you out of that paralysis of too much choice, and decisions that are too difficult.
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