Exposure – a worked example

Landscape photographers have often encountered a subject where there is a very high dynamic range. Typically, skies are too bright and shadows are too dark if you expose for the mid tones. One way to overcome this is to bracket several shots with a range of exposures and blend these later in post-processing, often using HDR software. However, as cameras improve the dynamic range they are capable of rendering we now have other options. I have a Canon EOS 5D Mark 4 which boasts a dynamic range of 13.6 EV. This means that I can record a scene with a single frame where the difference between the brightest and darkest areas can be almost 14 stops.

Taking the Picture

My intention was to photograph in a single shot, the glorious autumn colours at Gosford House in East Lothian. I had already decided how I wanted to process the image. The image below is the original RAW file with no editing whatsoever.

Typical exposure with over-bright highlights and dark shadows

A typical shot with over-exposed highlights and under-exposed shadows.

Gosford Woodlands RAW (Unedited)

The original, unedited RAW file taken at 100 ISO at 1/160 second with an aperture of f8.

I had set my exposure so that I could retain all detail in both sky and shadow areas. My histogram let me know that no information had been lost and I knew I would be able to recover these details in post-processing. In the original RAW file, the sky looks washed out and the shadow areas are a bit muddy, so how best to recover all the detail that I knew was there?

Gosford Histogram

Histogram of the RAW file. Although the highlights extend to the right hand edge, no information was lost.

Editing in Lightroom

One approach would have been to edit the shot in Lightroom and use the graduated and radial filters to reduce highlights and open up shadows. This seemed like very hard work and I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to achieve the result I wanted because I wouldn’t have the level of control I needed. A much more effective solution had already sprung to mind.

I began by creating two virtual copies of the RAW file in Lightroom. I edited each of the 3 frames separately.

Gosford Woodlands Highlights Unmasked

The first frame was edited with the sky in mind. I reduced the highlights, increased the contrast and added a little Clarity. I also darkened the blues a little to give better colour.

Gosford Woodlands Midtones

The second copy was edited for the midtones.

Gosford Woodlands Shadows Unmasked

I opened up the shadows in the third copy.

In each case I paid no attention to other areas of the image while editing each frame. In the same way as taking a photograph is a preparation for post-processing, this initial set of edits was preparation for the next stages of processing.

At this point I could have used HDR merge in Lightroom to combine the 3 frames. I elected not to as the end result is a single frame and this restricts what can be done next.

 

Editing in Photoshop

I exported all 3 frames to Photoshop where they were stacked as separate layers.

Next, I added layer masks to the Highlights and Shadow layers. I used Easy Panel 2 by Jimmy McIntyre to create a set of luminosity masks. This is a very straightforward process and allows the creation of masks which will select the desired areas of any layer according to their luminosity or brightness. This is an excellent way to mask highlight and shadow areas as there are no hard edges and no unwanted halos. My intention was to create one layer with only brighter areas visible – the sky in effect. A second layer would contain only shadow areas. The midtones layer didn’t need a mask as this was the base layer, overlaid by the shadows and highlights layers.

Gosford Woodlands Shadows

Shadows layer – the mask was created using the Highlights layer and then it was applied to the Shadow layer. Only the darkest areas of the image are visible.

Gosford Woodlands Midtones

Midtones layer – this layer wasn’t masked as it’s the base layer over which the shadow and highlight areas sit.

Gosford Woodlands Highlights

Highlights layer – the mask was created using the Shadows layer and then it was applied to the Highlights layer. Only the brightest areas of the image are visible.

The next step was to add several adjustment layers to tweak colour and tone. At this point I created layer groups for Highlights, Shadows and Midtones. I also name layers and groups in a meaningful way. This is a good idea when you have multiple layers as it makes everything much more understandable.

Then I created a copy of the Shadows layer and added a layer mask so that I could increase the contrast of the water in the lagoon separately from other shadow areas.

Finally I created a composite layer using ‘Stamp Visible’ and cloned out a few blurry birds in flight.

This may seem a very lengthy procedure but it was accomplished in just under 11 minutes.

Slide Right for the original RAW file. Slide Left for the finished result.

Layers Panel Gosford Woodlands RAW (Unedited) Gosford Woodlands Finished

Conclusion

I hope this article has demonstrated the power of RAW files. They contain so much more information than jpgs. Assuming you haven’t clipped shadows and highlights, all of this information can be recovered and used effectively.

There are many who only post-process using Lightroom only. While I respect every photographer’s right to make images in the way they choose, I do feel that they are missing opportunities to improve their photography.

It really helps to consider how you will MAKE a photograph before you take it. However you choose to edit your images it is always worth bearing in mind what will need to be done in post-processing. My intention is always to make sure I have captured all the information I will need to make the picture I intend to make. While it is still good practice to set out to take the perfect picture in camera, this is only true of subject, composition, focus and sharpness. Perfect tone and colour are simply not achievable in camera if you use RAW files.

RAW files produce the best image your camera is capable of producing.
Photoshop masks and layers are very powerful and give a level of control that is just not possible in Lightroom.
With RAW, post-processing is not an option – it’s a requirement!

Summary

  1. The photograph was taken with an exposure to ensure that no detail was lost.
  2. Two virtual copies were created in Lightroom.
  3. The three frames were edited separately for highlights, midtones and shadow areas.
  4. All 3 frames were exported to Photoshop  where they were stacked as separate layers.
  5. Luminosity masks were used to create layer masks for the highlight and shadow layers.
  6. Adjustment layers were added to tweak colour and tone.
  7. The Shadows layer was copied. A layer mask including the lagoon only was added and contrast was increased.
  8. All layers were combined into a single finished result and a few blurry birds in flight were cloned out .
  9. Then I had coffee!

One Comment

  1. Nice explanation Norman.

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