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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.
Now that we've gone through all of the tools and most of the techniques that I typically use when I am working on landscape images, I thought we'd just take a moment to look at some images and talk about my approach to them, not necessarily in terms of technical why I moved this knob and push this button, but just what I was thinking and why I edited them the way that I did, along with a few mechanical details. This is a shot in Death Valley. As you probably noticed by now, I spent a lot of time in the desert, especially in Death Valley. It's a really spectacular place, but don't tell anyone, because one of the things that is so spectacular about it is that no one is there.
Again, a storm was not so much breaking up as just a lot of clouds were going through. This is a sandstorm out here, way in the distance. As I mentioned before, scale in Death Valley is very, very strange. This is probably 20 or 30 stories high. Great light coming, because the sun was setting, but I was also standing in a place where a shaft of light had opened up in the foreground. That was not what caught my eye. What caught my eye was the sandstorm. Light at dusk changes very quickly. I knew I had to act quickly. I was driving down the road, I stopped, I got out, and I knew that I wanted to get a shot of this sandstorm that was all lit up.
I was worried that it was dark in the foreground, because it's a strange thing to have a dark thing in the foreground. I thought I need to find a subject. I just started walking around until I found this rock, and I planted it in the foreground. So I've got a foreground, a mid-ground, and a background. While the background was actually what had caught my eye, you would think that's the subject of the image. Of course, the rock kind of ends up, being the subject to the image. I like the shot. I am not entirely sure what I think about it. I am not sure that I haven't edited it a little too far. It looks little bit like a diorama. I kind of feel like there should be a fake neanderthal standing here or something.
But I do like that there is a context for this thing that had caught my eye in the first place. This was as in HDR, a bracket of three shots merged with HDR. I then did a lots of masked levels adjustments to paint in brightness here. I darkened this a little bit, and brightened up the foreground a little bit, with some isolated contrast adjustment here and there. This is just a geometric exercise in symmetry. I was walking along, and just noticed that the light was hitting this cloud of dust directly above a similarly-shaped dark mount.
This was originally a rectangular image. I cropped it square, because I thought that that highlighted these two things more. Pretty simple contrast adjustment, just wanted to be sure that this stuff stayed dark to bring this out. But this cloud was actually very visible in the scene. We've spent a lot of time talking about contrast, and how you got to get true black and have lots and lots of contrast. Here is an example where that's not true. Sometimes low contrast works really well. The original image was very contrasty. As I started working with it, I realized I just really like the dark tree standing out against the white background.
That made me realize this image is about luminance; therefore, it's a black-and-white image. So, I converted it to black-and-white, but the background is so contrast-y that it was hard getting separation. So, I thought, well, I'm going to lower the contrast of the background. I did that with an adjustment layer, a masked adjustment layer that lowered the contrast of the background, and then I increased the contrast of the tree a little bit. So, the tree is somewhat normal contrast, but the rest of the image is not. I think it works. Again, the light changes very quickly. This image should actually be cropped about here.
I saw that this cloud was being lit up by the sun. I noticed that the airplane when it was about here, and I thought only airplane is going to fly right through this. That's going to look cool. Landscape photography, like all photography, is about keeping your eyes open, and about being willing to wait. Sometimes you have to stand and wait for the light to change, and you've got to stand there for a long time. There are landscape photographers who plan a single shot months in advance. They will just be out hiking somewhere and see an area, and go, boy, this particular scene would look great in the late fall.
I know that because I know the light will be coming from this direction, and so and so forth. They will go get an almanac and figure out when the sun is going to hit that particular geographic location really well, and they will I plan to trip around it. Landscape photography is very often about almost working at geologic time. You're waiting a long time for shots to happen. Another low contrast shot, although not one where I've manipulated the contrast. This was an area where the low contrast of the scene just really caught my eye. I haven't done a lot to this. It was just very, very, very pink this evening.
This is at sunset, obviously. This is a shot that's about the light. It was just, oh, my gosh! There is this incredible pink. I've got to find something, and jumped out of the car, and simply tried to compose geometrically with all of these different elements that were there. Another shot that's entirely about light. I mentioned before that empty skies, though they're great for walking around and not getting rained on, are not the best thing for photography. So sometimes just seeing a contrail on this sky, can really be something you can work with. Still, what attracted me first was, wow, this light is really beautiful, what can I do with it? What I find to shoot? Then when I saw the plane coming along, I thought, okay now, I got something to work with.
I framed the shot, again, with some symmetry going on. I don't know that it really works, but sometimes you follow these ideas, even if they don't show up in the final image. I like this line versus this line here. But again, it's very often that you will see the light first, and then have to find something to shoot it in. Landscape photography is very often more of an impressionistic approach of "I'm not actually taking a picture of a particular landscape; I'm just taking a picture of the light." All photography is like that, to a degree. In case you hadn't guessed, this is an HDR image.
This is one of my more HDR-ish images, but I actually don't mind how much extra HDR nonsense is going on in this image. Shiprock, this is something that we were working with earlier. The sky was great that day. I've done a lot of post-HDR processing on this. I've painted a great highlight into the middle of the image. It's almost achieving a vignetting effect, except I didn't want to darken the sky, because I liked the wide-open sky. I didn't want the viewer's attention being brought into the middle. I wanted to keep this expansiveness up here.
But I did want it to look like a hole in the sky had opened, and a bunch of light was being cast here. So, this is a fairly complex, circular gradient that's creating a field of light right here. Another way you could have achieved this would be to add a vignette to the image, and then composite it with a second image, and remove the vignette from it. This is a fairly just geometric form. This is an example of very exaggerated blacks. My eye can actually see full detail in here and full detail in the tree. But what's so great about this tree are these weird snake-like arms that it has, and I wanted to really exaggerate that.
So, I fixed the sky with a levels adjustment. That's got a gradient coming down this way. I painted in just lots of darkening by hand. This is using a very broad, very soft brush to get darkening where I want it, painting then with gray in here on the mask. Then I darkened up the tree some by hand. This is another rather extreme HDR image, but I think this one works just because it was a very dramatic day. This is behind Ubehebe Crator in Death Valley. I am telling you that specific location simply, because I wanted an excuse to say Ubehebe.
Ubehebe Crater is a volcanic crater at the northern end of Death Valley. That's very dramatic. One of the things about it is the landscape around it is all this volcanic landscape that's very baren and moonlike. I happened to turn around just right as the sun was breaking through and casting these incredible shafts of light down onto the ground. Do not keep your lens cap on when you're landscape shooting. Keep your camera powered up, your lens cap off, and your most flexible lens on your camera. I had about 15 seconds to get this shot. I managed to get my camera settings set accordingly, that was get it in Drive mode, get in Aperture Priority, set my aperture, put it on Auto Exposure Bracketing and get the shot.
If I had had to take the lens cap off, and change lenses, or even just turn the camera on, I might have missed it. Another HDR image. My taste has changed since I did this image. I would do this image differently now. I would back off on some of this background detail. I like the sky, and I like the fact that it really did kind of feel like this when I was there, not at all a literal image. Driving down the road, I realized, wow, this was weird. This road has half black and half white. Mostly, that's all that had caught my eye. I was driving pretty fast.
So I had got into the bottom of the hill, before I had slowed down enough to take the shot. Then I realized well, there was a moment up above where I noticed black and white road with this mountain behind it. So I turned the car around. That's a technique that we have not detailed in this lesson. But one of the most important photographic techniques you'll ever use is the U-turn, whether that's a three-point turn or a five-point turn, or if it's a really narrow road maybe even a seven point turn; it doesn't matter. You've got to go back and get the shot. When you get that hit of "I think there is a picture back there," you've just got to turn around and go.
Sometimes they= hit is just a flash. It's a very, very, very subtle impulse that just hits you. It may take you half a mile to decelerate and get turned around and go back, or find a place where you can turn around safely. I had taken more images after U-turns than any other type of image. It's a critical photographic technique. Because this image had originally struck me as this contrast between the left and right side of the road, and the darkness of these up here, it then became very obviously to me a black-and-white image. This is pretty much the exact opposite.
Again, an HDR image, but this as one where I think the extra HDR oomph actually does add something. However, the image did not come out of the HDR converter looking like this. I've done a whole lot of painting. Same thing, the bulk of what makes this image work is I've painted a big pool of light right here. Again, your job as a photographer is to guide the viewers' eye through the image. If there is a subject to this image, I don't believe it's this road. I don't believe it's the dramatic sky up here. I think it's this pool of light. Even though this part of the image is completely empty, your eye is just guided right into here, and then it just follows the road.
This is more of a definitely just atmospheric tonal piece than anything else. Another example of low contrast working very well: I've added a bunch of contrast into the mountain, and then pulled it way back. This is kind of what it looked like while I was there. I was really struck by just this strange kind of ghostly mountain off in the distance. I also did some work of adding a gradient to darken this as it recedes, to create more of a sense of death. This one was pretty easy. It just looked like this. The sky was breaking up, and this road was all lit up. I've done some contrast adjustment to exaggerate those tones, and to knock out some of the foreground.
That's it. As you can see, it's mostly about thinking about light. As we said at the beginning, that's what landscape photography is. Very often, you're not taking a picture of a landscape; you're taking a picture of the light that just happens to be around that landscape. You're looking like mad to try to find something in the landscape to anchor that light to.
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