Meadfoot Beach: Post Processing Walkthrough

Meadfoot Beach: Post Processing Walkthrough

Walking through the post productions stages of the landscape photograph “Meadfoot Beach”.

About This Image

Although at first glance straight out of the camera it appears dull and lifeless, this image has a lot going for it. It’s shot at 0.3 sec which has caught some really nice motion in the foreground waves. Looking closely at the larger version of the shot (not shown here) the light in the haze over the cliffs right in the background is also worth exploring and there’s some nice colour to be had in the mid and background sea.

It’s also better exposed than you’d think . I exposed for the sky and the bright sunset sky hasn’t burnt out and there is shadow detail in the rest of the shot, it just needs pulling out. It’s helped by having been shot in RAW format. I think it’s pretty much a given these days but shoot RAW. Especially on a shot like this with such a wide range of brightness. You just need the dynamic range that the extra bits give you.

Photoshop and Non-Destructive Editing

There’s nothing fancy about what we’re about to do with this shot, we’ll just be taking the good features and finding ways to bring them to the fore. That will mostly be selective brightness and contrast adjustment and a bit of colour grading. Just traditional darkroom work but with the increased control that comes from working in the digital domain. But we’re going to do it non-destructively. That is, we’re going to our processing in layers on top of the image without actually changing the image itself and in such a way that we can always go back and edit the changes we’ve made.

If an image requires overall adjustment I’ll often do my basic tonal and brightness adjustments in Lightroom. Lightroom works in the full dynamic range of Camera Raw, which preserves quality and for just getting overall tones and exposure right it’s often quicker. It’s also non-destructive and it’s a great place to quickly try things out or see how far you can push an image before it breaks. Photoshop, though, is better where you want very fine control, particularly if you need to apply adjustments with very fine control. In this case, as we’ve already discussed, the image overall was as well exposed as it was ever going to be and I went directly to Photoshop but there’s no reason not to make some base adjustment in Lightroom first, if you like.

Your eye isn’t always the best judge of tonal quality in an image; it’s very good at making comparative, side by side judgment but it can often get it wrong when looking at the whole image. That’s why my first point of call is always the histogram where I can look at the numbers.

From the Photoshop main menu bar I select Window->Histogram to bring up the Histogram window. I work mostly with the Luminance histogram using the Channel, dropdown at the top of the window, I’m interested in the overall luminance, not that of any particular channel.

A Histogram is a graph of pixel value (horizontal axis) against number of pixels of the given value (vertical axis). It’s a plot of how many pixels of each value there are in an image, a graphical representation of the tonal density in the shot. The histogram for this image (above) is telling us we have a good few pixels with values in the lower end of the luminance range (left half of the graph) but fewer in the brighter range (right half). A lot of dark, not so much bright. And the low values at the very right are telling us there’s virtually no white in the image as it stands

It gets better. If I select a particular area of the image with the lasso tool the histogram will give us a graph for the selected area (Don’t be misled by “Entire Image” being selected as the source. This refers to the image’s full layer set). We know, of course, that the sea is a bit dull and the sky is not bad but by selecting these areas one at a time the histogram can tell us just how dull and how not bad, which in turn gives us a pretty good idea of where we need to work and what me might need to do. We can see, for example, that while we thought the sky looked well exposed, there’s room for getting some better whites in its highlights. The clouds could look whiter

Boosting the Shadows, Fixing the Sea

The other thing the histogram is telling us that there’s probably no clipping of highlights or shadows which is sometimes tricky to spot just by looking at the image. If there were then you’d see peak values rammed hard against the left or right of the histogram.

I prefer to use Levels adjustment layers for my brightness and contrast editing. I like them because you can adjust brightness range, exposure and contrast all in one go and, importantly, the levels histogram shown for every levels adjustment layer gives valuable feedback about what’s going on with the luminance in your image. It’s also possible to use curves in the same way, though.

It doesn’t really matter how you do this, you can just add a levels layer (Layers->Adjustment Layers->Levels … or click the Levels icon in the Adjustments window) and paint. But if you roughly select the area you’re interested in with the lasso tool then create the layer, Photoshop creates a layer mask for you based on the selection and you can start adjusting straight away (the layer mask is a channel that masks the effects of the levels adjustments you’re making; where the mask is transparent there will be adjustment, where’ it’s not (pink) there will be no adjustment). The mask edges will be hard and it probably won’t be in the right place but the beauty of masked adjustment layers is that it doesn’t matter, you can soften it and tweak it later. Roughing out your adjustments and refining them later, when the adjustment layer stack is built is a good way to get an overview of your edit right from the start.

Here’s our before and after, along with a grab of the layers histogram after I’ve adjusted it and a snap of the mask, after I’ve done a bit of painting on it. Red shows the areas of transparent mask where the correction won’t be applied. Normally the mask is hidden but you can show in pink and hide it using the ‘\’ key.

Pay particular attention to the small triangles under the histogram graph. These handles are what we use to adjust the tonal ranges in the image. When the layer is first applied the outer ones will be hard to left and right and the middle one will be bang in the centre. It’s not a bad idea to mess with them, see how the image changes as you do. Again, this is a non-destructive action, you won’t break anything and you can always trash the layer and start again if it all goes wrong.

It’s nicely boosted the colour of the sea in the middle ground. Looking at the image on the right you wouldn’t believe there was that much colour in there but the sea around here really is that beautiful turquoise. All it’s taken to pull it from a rather dull and underexposed image is a bit of contrast and brightness adjustment.

As when we viewed the whole image histogram with an area selected, the levels layer histogram shows a graph of the masked area, in other words, the sea, sea wall and cliff area. It’s very flat over in the right half of the graph and we want to remap this so the pixel values are spread right across the available brightness range. We do this by dragging the right hand handle over to the point just around where the graph starts to rise. This stretches the existing brightness range up, bringing the highlights up where they belong, making them nice and white. I’ve also pulled the centre slider over to the right a bit which pushes the contrast up by pushing the middle tones down, pumping the contrast a bit and generally improving the tones

It’s mostly the sky that we’ve masked off but you’ll see I’ve held back a part of the sea wall to right of shot because it was lightening just a bit too much and becoming flat. Notice also that the mask doesn’t exactly fit the skyline along the top of the cliff. Masks used like this work better when they’re soft edged and don’t fit. If you try and make an exact mask – and Photoshop has some very fine mask cutting tools should you need to – large adjustments tend to look harsh and and of place. Often it’s better to expand and soften the boundary a bit and blend the adjustment and often a little bit of halo along horizons can work well. It’s like burning and dodging in a film darkroom; accuracy often doesn’t matter.

Already the shot is looking a lot better than the original but we’re not done yet. I’m not happy with the sea wall in the right middle and foreground, the way the top of the wall sits against the darker cliffs behind it is just wrong, it’s flat and stands out uncomfortably. I used two levels adjustment layer to darken the wall and boost its contrast a touch, one layer to address the top of the wall, the other for the lighter area below it. Pretty much what we did with the last layer. Here are the before and after, mask and histogram adjustments :

Although it’s better, that top edge of the wall still looks a little pasted on. Darkening it much more would make it almost black we’d lose it completely. I tried lightening the cliff behind it to make it match better but it was just too underexposed and it went grainy, there just isn’t enough information there even though we’re using 16 bits. I always cover myself when shooting scenes that might be problematic by shooting a series of brackets. One over and one under, a couple of stops on either side is usually enough. In situations like this, I can pull some shadow from the over exposed shot or some highlights from the under exposed one.

The shots should more or less line up but they don’t usually need to be exact because the edges will be feathered off helping to mask differences and you can always rely on the Photoshop alignment tools to help out if you need to. Many cameras these days have an auto bracket feature where you set the width of the bracket, fire off three shots and the camera takes care of the exposures for you. If you shoot quickly they’ll be closely aligned enough for most purposes.

The new shadow detail image is loaded into Photoshop and copy pasted just above the background image in the layer stack. The idea is to remove the parts we don’t want to see and reveal the master image beneath. Using the erasure tool to remove unwanted bits is possible but doesn’t sit nicely with our non-destructive mind-set because once you’ve removed something, it’s gone and you can’t get it back. Instead I used a layer mask. A layer mask shows or hides the layer it belongs to according to the density of the mask. Where it’s opaque (white) it allows its layer to show, where it black, or transparent, the background shows through. Any grey areas mix layer and background according to brightness or darkness. You can modify the mask, just like the masks on our adjustment layers above, using any of the Photoshop brushes or filters.

Selecting Layer->Apply->Reveal All from the Photoshop menu bar will apply a white mask the to current layer, just paint away with a black brush to reveal the master layer below it. Alternatively, Layer->Apply->Hide All will create a black layer mask and you can paint white to reveal hidden image. Either way works.

Here’s how it looks before and after, along with the painted mask used to reveal the brighter region of the cliff. The red areas of the mask are revealing the background.

The next thing to attend to is the sky. It’s not bad but it could definitely do with some drama. Again I’ve used a levels layer, masked so only the sky is affected. This time I’ve pulled the left handle toward the centre of the histogram which nicely boosts the blue in the sky and accentuates the clouds. Not too much because we don’t want the sky to go too dark, it is the sky, after all. Again, accuracy on the mask isn’t that important so long as it’s soft and it gives a nice halo along the horizon and around the cliffs.

So now we’ve got a nicely balanced, well toned image but there’s one more thing I’d like to do. Film images have a warmth and subtlety, in part because they are rarely neutral in colour and the amount of colour cast is often different across the brightness range. Shadows can be tinted slightly to one colour, highlights to another. Digital images, on the other hand, are perfect; whites are white, blacks are black and greys are grey. It can look a little clinical and I like to throw it off a bit with some colour correction, in this case by warming the highlights and cooling down the shadows. It warms the shot, improves the contrast and gives it character.

Colour Adjustment

I used Photoshop’s Colour Balance tool, again in an adjustment layer. You can mask this too, holding back or completely excluding parts of the image from the effect of the tool but generally I find it can jar if it’s applied selectively and I prefer to apply it to the whole image. Once again, here are the before and after. The Colour Balance tool has settings for shadows, midtones and highlights and I’ve included grabs for all three so you can see how I’ve modified each tonal range. Effectively, though, I’ve boosted yellow in the highlights and midtones and pushed blue in the shadows.

And that, more or less is it. Although this is a shot run-through the techniques discussed here are, broadly speaking, the ones I use for most of my images. They’re fairly general methods for editing images that you should be able to apply usefully to your own images and I hope you enjoy doing so.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions in the discussion section below.

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