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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.
As you've probably discovered by now, with many landscape shots, global edits - that is edits that are applied to the entire image - often don't work, because landscape shots usually have a lot of dynamic range. If you've got a big, bright sky in the upper half of the frame, and a dark foreground in the lower half, you're going to have trouble finding a single tonal adjustment that works for both the bright sky and the darker foreground. Now, while you can shoot with a graduated filter on your camera to try to even out the exposure, these days it's much easier to correct the problem later by using some localized edits, and Camera RAW has a couple of really good localized editing tools.
So let's look at this image here. I have not yet done anything to it. I've got a plainly bright sky, and plainly a dark foreground, and what's going on over here is the sun was setting off in this direction. And so the ground is already in shadow, so it's completely dark, but the sky is still lit up. A storm had just broken up, so I was getting these very dramatic skies, just as the sun was setting. A lot of people when the weather turns bad, they think, ooh! I've got to put my camera away and not go shooting. And that is absolutely 180 degrees the wrong direction to be heading.
When the weather turns bad, get your camera out and go shooting. You're not going to hurt your gear, and that's very often when you're going to get the best light, or certainly the most unusual light, and you're going to get a lot of color, and your sky is not going to be empty. One of the tricky things about landscape shooting is you tend to go, oh, it's a beautiful day out. I'll go take pictures. But if the sky is empty, you've then got this big empty thing blue on the top of your image, and it's often very boring. Bad weather is a great time to be out shooting landscape photos. The problem with really cool, weird, tricky light is that it often means that from one part of your frame to another, you've got a tremendous variation in overall brightness.
That's what we've got here, a lot of dynamic range, and it's going to be hard to get it under control with a global edit. Let's say we want to brighten up the foreground. Well, I could do that by hitting the Exposure slider, but I lose my skies. Let's say we want more contrast in the sky. Well, I could do that by moving my Blacks slider, which gets the sky looking really interesting and menacing, and now I've lost even more of my foreground. The sky and the foreground are just not editable with the same adjustments. Fortunately, I have this Gradient Filter tool up here.
This allows me to apply and edit to one part of an image, and then roll that edit off along a gradient into the rest of the image. So when I select the Gradient Filter tool, all of my controls over here change. What I'm defining right now is the edit that I want to make. Unfortunately, I don't get a preview of any kind, as I'm setting these sliders, so I'm just going to ballpark it. It's probably going to be wrong, but that's okay. I'll be able to adjust it later. I'm going to bump the Exposure up with the idea of brightening this area. So, one of the tricky things, normally, about getting an adjustment into a particular area is how do you mask it off and keep it from impacting somewhere else? One of the great things about landscapes is very often there is a subtle change in brightness as you recede into the distance, just because of the atmosphere.
It creates a tone and color- obscuring haze most of the time. So, just creating a gradient from here to here is going to help us a lot. I'm going to click here, and I start to drag, and right away you can see that I've got a lot of brightness coming into the image. This control is a little bit tricky to handle at first. But I'm going to drag it up to about there. So, from the green, this line and below is getting the full strength of the adjustment that I've dialed in, and it's slowly being ramped off over a gradient out to here, which means above this line is getting no adjustment at all.
So, you can tell that this part is not being brightened as much as this part, but it looks okay. It looks correct to our eye, because our eye writes it off as, well, that part was in shadow, and this part is lightening or not getting as light just because it's farther away, and so on and so forth. So it's an edit that makes sense. Unfortunately, this particular edit is a little too strong, so I'm going to back off on the Exposure adjustment here. And as you can see, as I'm making these adjustments, they're constrained just to the area defined by the Gradient tool. I want more contrast in this area.
I don't have a Blacks slider in here, which is a little bit frustrating. All I can do is hit the Contrast slider up. We'll put some more brightness in here. I'm also going to work with the Brightness slider itself, which is going to goose my mid-tones a lot. Now, I'm also going to go ahead and do some color adjustment while I'm in here. Once I leave the Gradient tool, I can come back and adjust these further. Again, this is the miracle of nondestructive editing. So, I've got sunset, which is always a very orange-y light, as the sun shines, more atmosphere bouncing off of these clouds onto the ground.
The ground is not normally red. It was actually being illuminated red by the light bouncing off the clouds. I would like to increase that a little bit. I could do that here. I could crank up the Saturation, and I'm getting more saturation here, but not here. But this is a case where I want a global saturation adjustment, not a localized one, so I'm not going to do a saturation adjustment here. I think I'm done with my gradient edits. So if I just switch back to the Magnifying Glass, or the Hand tool, I'm back to my normal controls, and I no longer see that Gradient tool there.
So, now I've got a more even exposure. The image overall is still off. You can tell it's still low contrast. It lacks a certain punch. And if I look at my histogram, I see why. There is no black, and the blacks and the shadow tones aren't down far enough. But my exposure is at least even. That's what the Gradient tool has brought me. So now, I can go in and just work normally to get my tone and color where I want it. I'm going to increase Blacks to get the contrast up, and right-away, my sky is more interesting. The ground looks great. These colors are kind of matching here. It really does look like light reflecting off of the sky.
Let's see what happens if I expand the contrast. I'm wondering if there's more and more subtle, little detail to pull out of all of these striations in the clouds. So, I'm going to just - there we go. Now I'm getting somewhere. I pulled out some nice stuff here and around here, so the sky is getting really pretty. In the process of doing that, I'm wondering if the foreground has now gone just a tiny bit dark. If I again do a global adjustment, well, now, I'm sacrificing some of that cool sky stuff that I got.
Let's go back to the Gradient tool, and now I can have multiple gradients on an image, so each one will show up with this little handle thing here. I'm going to select this one to get access again to the controls for that particular gradient. That's looking pretty good, back to the Hand tool, and now I do think that maybe the image needs just a tiny bit of overall brightening. I'll do that with the Brightness tool to protect my highlights, and we're in pretty good shape. The Graduated Filter tool is often all you need to equalize the foreground and background in your images, but there are other localized editing tools at your disposal, and we'll take a look at those.
Hopefully, what you've also seen here is the thought process of thinking about where light is in your landscape, and how it might need to be realistically represented. If you say, well, is this really that realistic? It's closer than it was for sure, because your eye, as we've discussed, has a much greater dynamic range than your camera did. My eye should actually be able to see detail in here and detail up there.
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