This editing technique is something every landscape photographer should learn. This can be especially useful when approaching an image with some technical flaws.
Landscape photographers focus a lot of energy on capturing scenes with as much technical detail as possible: multiple exposures, focus stacking for perfect sharpness, or even using tripod heads for flawless panoramas. The reality is that often you just won’t have the time or the conditions won’t allow for any setup. In this tutorial, we’ll be using an image I took that would have benefited greatly from being able to use a tripod or even try a bracketed image by hand. The high gusts of wind combined with the close proximity to the ground meant that I could barely hold my camera still enough to get a sharp image. The result is an image with a lot of benefits, but it contains a completely blown out part of the sky that is not salvageable.
We’ll cover all of my editing processing through this image, but this tutorial isn’t specifically about any technique, tool, or feature in your editing suite. This is something bigger that you will find yourself using in all your edits.
How to start each edition
Asking for advice on how to approach and start an edit is probably the most common question I get regarding landscape photography. There is an ocean of tools and techniques for your editing process, but only a small pool of ideas for approaching your footage in an edit. Begin each edit by asking yourself “what does this image need?” This is something I recommend and continually remind myself of, but I also recognize that the answer is not necessarily simple. However, the more you practice this technique, the better you will approach difficult images in the future.
Ironically, images with issues are much easier to approach to answer this question, which is exactly what we’ll be covering in this edit. Above is the raw image with just a few color adjustments. I start each edit by tweaking these settings first, but I’ll come back to tweak them if that’s okay with me.
Once I’ve done that, I check exactly how clean the data I have in the image is by increasing my exposure to +3 and checking my shadow detail, then decreasing my exposure to – 3 to see my highlight data. As mentioned above, this image is overexposed, which is the basis of how we’ll approach this edit. Let’s edit around this limitation and use it to our advantage knowing that we have to edit around this overexposed area of the image.
First, I’m going to create a linear gradient (M on your keyboard) applied to the sky. This gradient will add haze to our sky, but can also be used later to manipulate color temperature or other specific parameters. Dehaze has a nice effect on color gradients in the sky, but I’m also adding this first to know how much I need to correct in the area where we’re missing data. Note that if I decrease my highlights with this selection, it will bring out our sunspots, so we need to get more creative.
Next, we’ll create a radial gradient (Shift+M) around our sunny/breathy area. Select Invert to manipulate all areas outside of the sun and adjust accordingly, in this case just decreasing the highlights. You will notice that this diminishes our highlights throughout the image, which we need to fix.
To fix this, we’ll select “subtract” in our mask tool and select a linear gradient. We’re going to drag this linear gradient as if we wanted to apply it to the sea. What this will do is subtract that part of the image from our mask, thus resulting in a mask that only affects part of our sky that we are trying to adjust.
Our final mask will be added to adjust our foreground. This is accomplished by adding another linear gradient (M) to the entire bottom half of the image. I slightly increased the exposure with the whites. I could go back to this selection to adjust blur and clarity as well if I felt these needed it later in the edit.
This completes the local adjustments and bypasses the problematic area of the sky, but keep in mind that you may need to go back and readjust them once you add global adjustments. Editing is a dance, and sometimes you have to go around specific points after each edit you make.
We’re going to brighten the whole image by adjusting the whites and add more contrast in the bright areas by slightly lowering the highlights. Increase shadows significantly to get detail in rocks. They will darken once we add contrast to the image. I remove some clarity to help with the ethereal, soft feel of the coast that I enjoy. Finally, we’ll add some blur to the entire image for some pop.
Next we will add some contrast in the image using the tone curve by selecting medium contrast. Once I’ve done that, I’ll be back to tweak some of our local and global tweaks to make sure the skies are still clear.
My final setting is always saturation. Almost any slider you fiddle with will inadvertently adjust the color of your image, whether it’s contrast, whites, blur – you name it. So, I save this balance for the end. I start by removing some blue saturation from my HSL settings. Then I decrease the saturation for the whole image, adjusting according to my own taste for the specific image. I also add sharpness before exporting, usually around ~70 depending on the image style and what I’m exporting for.
The cropping of this final image depends somewhat on the medium in which it is shared, such as print or social media. Above you’ll see our before and after image with a little crop and straightened horizon. This edit probably took less than 10 minutes once I knew what the image needed, which came in handy.
Editing a different issue
Let’s quickly look at a different example, but I won’t walk through the entire editing process, just reiterating the process of asking what an image needs and showing a solution to that question.
This image does not lack data, but it lacks light on the flower, which does not represent what I saw in the field. So, let’s create a pseudo light source and really bring this image to life.
If you want a full description of this technique, you can find it here, and it will tell you everything you need to know. Typically, I darken my image overall and add light using a radial filter, but in this case our image is already dark, so all we’ll have to do is add a radial filter. You’ll want to zoom out on your image until it’s almost thumbnail size. You can do this by holding down the Shift key and dragging your cursor to the left or by selecting around 12% on your navigation panel.
Next, we’ll add a big radial filter (Shift+M) to mimic a light source entering the image. Drag the center of it outside the photo; you can adjust it according to your preference. Then lighten your image accordingly. In this case, I increase the whites, increase the exposure and adjust the shadow and black values. Finally, I remove the dehaze to create a fuzzier look; this is explained in detail in the full tutorial.
You’ll notice that the top half of the image is a little too bright, so we’ll repeat the same technique from our previous edit, removing that effect a bit using a linear gradient. Once you have your mask selected, “subtract” a linear gradient, but only apply the softened area and adjust to whatever suits your image.
Here’s the final edit compared to the unedited image once I’m done. It’s not close to a portfolio image, but it was a great example of an image that I’m sure many of us have captured in our work and just couldn’t figure out what to do once we sat down to edit it. Knowing that some light was needed and having the tools to do so made the approach much easier.
I started this tutorial with the intention of tackling imperfect images and editing around them. What I’ve found is that you can tackle nearly every one of your edits like this if you just repeat the practice. At first you probably won’t know the answer for some of your images, but if you practice and continually develop a wider variety of solutions, it should gradually become easier to sit down for an edit. I still have a hard time knowing the answer sometimes. What I usually end up doing is walking away from an image until it comes to mind.
Above is a great example of having more data than needed but not using it because of how I wanted this image to look. I put this image in brackets and have a lot of data I could use in the shadows, but I really liked the underexposed presentation of this image. So in my edit I worked around the light and didn’t worry too much about the underexposed parts of the image. I wanted the result to be darker, and I based all my editing on that.
It is important to know that not all images you take will be perfect. Sometimes you’re going to take interesting photos that have limiting factors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them work. We are surrounded by what looks like perfect images: perfect exposures, every detail in focus, or once-in-a-lifetime conditions. I hope this is a good reminder that no matter where you are in your journey, sometimes things won’t be perfect. My catalog is full of imperfect images, and sometimes just knowing what they need can really bring them to life in an edit.