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Let’s see, this day included an eight hour drive, a torrential downpour, lightning, and a rainbow, all sandwiched between breakfast in Barstow and this sunset. Just another day at the office….
Many people spend a tremendous about of time pursuing beautiful images with little or no regard for the half of the scene. They end up with a beautiful scene beneath a bland sky, or a tremendous sky above whatever happens to be in front of them. Combining foreground and sky takes a little bit of preparation, a little bit of good fortune, and a fair degree of sacrifice.
But when sky and foreground do come together, your ability to share the beauty starts with appreciating it personally. Don’t get so caught up in photography that you neglect to take a deep breath and take in what you’re witnessing. Now, with the proper sense of awe in place, it’s time to figure out how to do the moment justice.
I find that images from the most special moments are those that engender the most skepticism, that generate the looks, comments, and queries that really all ask the same question: “Did you Photoshop that?” Of course the obvious answer is, “Of course I Photoshopped it.” Photoshop is to digital photography as thunder is to lightning. But since the people asking this question have identified themselves as the people most likely not to understand that there hasn’t been an image captured in the history of photography that wasn’t subjected to processing of one form or another (many actually believe that a jpeg is an unprocessed image), acknowledging any processing at all usually just evokes a condescending (albeit ignorant) nod that says, “I knew it.” These skeptics’ real concern is that I’ve somehow deceived them, and to that I can plead emphatically, with a clear conscience, not guilty.
We all have our own rules for what is and isn’t an appropriate way to handle an image. And regrettably, there are photographers who have no qualms about deceptive processing. But there are many less justified reasons for skeptical scrutiny of dramatic images. One is that that many people simply forget how vivid color is in nature. Also, because the best conditions for photography are usually the worst conditions for being outside, relatively few people actually see the world at its most beautiful. And finally, many people (photographers included) hold a photograph to an impossible standard: to reproduce the world exactly as they experience it. Dynamic range, range of focus, motion, a scene’s depth and boundaries are all different to a camera than they are to you and me. Understanding and using these differences is the key to transcendent photography.
My personal standard is to remain true to my camera’s reality and to apply my creativity in my camera and not my computer. While I refuse to add things that weren’t present at capture (this doesn’t make me unique), I nevertheless love the control Photoshop gives me, control that I never had in my 25+ years of shooting color transparencies. Much as black and white photographers have done for years, I can now photograph a difficult scene, one that would have been impossible in my film days), in a way that anticipates the processing necessary to reproduce it. And even though I can’t see it in the small jpeg reproduction on my LCD, I know when my raw file contains everything I need to complete my vision, just waiting for Photoshop to finesse it out. Ansel Adams labeled this capture-to-print approach “visualization”; it was the cornerstone of his success.
When the setting sun fanned crepuscular rays that bathed the Grand Canyon in golden light, my first thought was that nobody will believe this. Sigh. But my more immediate concern was how to deal with the extreme difference between the brilliant sky and shadowed canyon (dynamic range). I knew that without assistance I’d have to choose between capturing the canyon’s layered detail beneath a white sky, or the sky’s rich color above a black canyon. Since I (stubbornly) refuse to use HDR (high dynamic range blending of multiple images), that left my graduated neutral density filters as the best option for neutralizing the scene’s extreme dynamic range.
The biggest problem with a GND is hiding the transition between the dark and light halves of the filter, but locations like the Grand Canyon, with its straight horizon lines, are ideal for GNDs. In this case I started with my 3-stop reverse GND and checked the exposure. Not enough. I added a 2-stop hard-transition GND and checked again, confirming that 5 stops of ND did indeed subdue the brilliant sunlight enough to capture its warm color while allowing a foreground exposure that revealed canyon detail. Unfortunately, this recipe rendered the clouds from dark gray to nearly black. Nevertheless, the histogram showed enough shadow detail that I was confident I’d be able to rescue the clouds in processing.
The difficult light and use of 5-stops of neutral density required far more processing than typical for me. I started with basic Lightroom processing of the raw file, tweaking the color temperature (warming slightly), adding a light touch of vibrance and clarity, and applying a little noise reduction and the standard lens correction. Then it was on to Photoshop, where I found the processing for the foreground remarkably simple—pretty much adding a little contrast and slightly dodging some of the darker shadows.
The sky was a different story, demanding probably 90 percent of this image’s processing. While I was able to bring up the exposure in the clouds, this introduced lots of noise. In general clouds lack fine detail and can stand quite a bit of noise reduction, and that was (fortunately) the case here. Not wanting to touch the canyon half of the frame, I created a layer for the clouds and applied a heavy dose of Topaz Denoise. This left the clouds a little more homogenized that I like, but it’s nothing I can’t live with.
With the noise out of the way, I went to work with my dodge/burn brush, working carefully (painstakingly?) to smooth out any evidence of GND use, and also to fine tune the clouds. I referred to the original, unprocessed raw file with the exposure cranked way up (to make the differences more obvious), doing my best to brush in the actual relative lightness/darkness of the numerous cloud layers.
Finally I went after the color, which, while not enhanced, was to me was too intense in its unprocessed state to make a credible image. (Sadly, I’m rarely present to defend nature’s color to dubious viewers). So I created several layers to desaturate and lighten the blue sky and gold sunlight. I also removed a slight blue cast from the canyon’s shadows.
The finished product is an image that pleases me greatly. While it lacks the depth and dynamic range of being there, it does convey to me the majesty of this moment that ended a memorable day, when the sky opened and heaven poured through.