Photoshop processing sometimes gets a bad rap. There’s nothing inherently pure about a jpeg file, and because a jpeg is processed by the camera, it’s actually less pure than a raw file. As a general rule, the less processing an image needs, the better, but sometimes raw capture followed by Lightroom/Photoshop processing is the only way to a successful image.
I’ve always considered myself a film shooter with a digital camera. But that doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to processing an image—in fact, processing is an essential part of every image. But just as Ansel Adams visualized the finished print long before he clicked the shutter, success today requires understanding before capture a scene’s potential, and the steps necessary to extract it later Lightroom/Photoshop.
A couple of weeks ago, while co-leading Don Smith’s Big Sur photo workshop, our group had an early morning shoot that was equal parts difficult and glorious. The plan was a Garrapata Beach sunrise featuring the moon, one day past full, dropping into the Pacific at sunrise. But high tide and violent surf banished us to about 500 square feet of sheltered sand, and the cliffs above the beach (it’s bad for business when workshop participants get swept out to sea). Compounding the difficulty, the most striking aspect of the scene, a nearly full moon, was too bright for the rest of the scene. But despite the morning’s difficulties, I set to work trying to make an image because, well, that’s what photographers do.
As much as I wanted to be on the sand, aligning the moon with the the best foreground from down there would have made me a sitting duck for the waves. So I made my way along the cliff to an off-trail spot above a group of surf-swept rocks. It turns out the higher perspective was perfect for emphasizing the reflected moonlight that stretched all the way to the horizon.
With long exposures on a tripod, photographing the moonlight and beach wasn’t a problem. But adding the daylight-bright moon burning through the pre-dawn darkness made capturing the entire range of light in a single frame (a personal requirement) difficult, and perhaps impossible. Nevertheless, I spot-metered on the moon to determine the maximum exposure that would retain the ability to recover overexposed lunar detail later in the Lightroom raw processor. But even after maximizing the moon’s exposure, I didn’t have nearly enough light for the rest of the scene without first darkening the sky further using five stops of graduated neutral density (stacking my Singh-Ray three-stop reverse and two-stop hard GND filters). So far so good.
Satisfied that I could make the exposure work, but with very little margin for error, my next concern was finding a shutter speed that allowed enough light without risking motion blur in the moon. Because I needed sharpness throughout the frame, from the beach right below me all the way out to the moon, I couldn’t open all my aperture all the way. Whipping out my DOF app, I computed that focusing twenty feet away at f8 would give me sharpness from ten feet to infinity. Bumping to ISO 400 at f8 brought my shutter speed to four seconds, a value I was confident would freeze the moon enough. I clicked several frames to get a variety of wave effects, ultimately choosing this one for the implicit motion in foreground wave’s gentle arc.
In Lightroom, I cooled the light temperature slightly to restore the night-like feel. Using five GND stops at capture required significant Photoshop brightening of the sky to return it to a reasonable range. A few years ago this would have introduced far too much noise, but the latest noise reduction software (I use Topaz) is amazing. As expected, even after all my exposure and processing machinations, I still needed to process the raw file a second time to recover the highlights in the moon. Because the two versions were the same capture, combining them in Photoshop was a piece of cake.
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