Color in nature

Red Sky, Oak at Sunset, Sierra Foothills

On consecutive nights last week the post-sunset sky featured a conjunction between the waxing crescent moon and Venus. This event had been on my calendar for a while, so when the first date arrived I was a little concerned to see thin clouds assembling in the west. Nevertheless, my camera and I headed to the foothills south and east of home, hoping to catch the celestial show above silhouetted oaks.

While the moon was too thin to penetrate the clouds that evening, the crimson sunset made my drive absolutely worthwhile. Here I used my 100-400 lens to isolate a hilltop oak  (it shares this perch with a mate just out of the frame to the left) against the sunset. To hold the color and ensure that the tree and hillside remained in silhouette (totally black), I spot-metered the sky and set my exposure to +2/3 (above a middle tone).

In contrast to my previous post (a dawn moonset on the Big Sur coast), this image required virtually no processing. While I may have spent close to an hour preparing the Big Sur moonset image, this oak tree at sunset probably required less than five minutes from opening the raw file to saving a completed version, ready for output–and the bulk of that time was (tedious) cloning to remove sensor dust. No layers, no levels, curves, or saturation adjustments, no dodging and burning–nothing. But I know what you’re thinking: How do you get color like that without processing? I thought you’d never ask.

I’m convinced people forget how vivid color is in nature. How else to explain the skeptical looks and cynical questions when I post an image like this? To these people my brain thinks, “You don’t get outside enough,” but my mouth politely suggest that soon, very soon (tonight?), they install themselves on a vantage point with a good view of the western horizon about 30 minutes before sunset, and not take their eyes off the horizon until at least 30 minutes after sunset. No camera allowed. Just focus on the color, and I don’t think you’ll ever doubt sunset color again.

Does this mean that nobody exaggerates color in Photoshop? Of course not. I love color, and actively look for it when I shoot, and do certain things at capture to ensure that I get it. But I’m pretty sensitive to the difference between natural and manufactured (manipulated, enhanced, or whatever you want to call it) color. I find manufactured color is usually incongruous with the rest of the scene. For example, I’ve noticed that many HDR images often have an impossible combination of vivid reds and greens.

One of the most common causes of “lost” color is overexposure–not necessarily blown highlights, but hues washed out by sunlight. Left to its own devices, your camera’s meter might attempt to extract some detail from the hillside and tree, which of course would add exposure to the entire scene and dilute the red in the sky. Which is exactly why I never let my camera make decisions for me.

5 Comments on “Color in nature

  1. Beautiful shot. I was out shooting these same trees on one the first of two brilliant sunset days. I spotted a photographer with a light-colored SUV the second day with a telephoto shooting across the road at these trees. I wondering if that was you!

      • That’s the road to and from work for me. I was in a rush to get to another potential spot when I think I might have spotted you. Those were 2 great days of sunset clouds!

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