Fine Art workflow (Beaver Pond Reflections)

in Photoshop -- Part I

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

www.ronbigelow.com

Photoshop CS or Photoshop CS2 Used in this Tutorial

Many books and articles have been written on various aspects of photography and Photoshop. Each of the topics covered in those books and articles has its place and is part of the whole process of making an image. However, understanding each of the components of photography does not guarantee that we understand how to put together the best combination of those components for a specific image. Sometimes, we need to look at the entire process from start to finish to understand how the various components fit together to produce a high quality image. In that light, the purpose of this article is to show how various techniques were combined to create a workflow for a particular fine art print. The article will detail the process from original conception to final print.

Before proceeding with the article, one point needs to be strongly stated: there is no such thing as a best workflow (to be applied to all images) -- only an optimal workflow for a particular image. The best workflow for one image might be totally unacceptable for another image. Thus, while the workflow in this series of articles worked well for this image, it would be a mistake to blindly apply it to other images. Rather, it is the hope that this article might present the reader with some techniques, approaches, and ideas that the reader can then use to create new workflows designed for other images.

The Image

Figure 1: Beaver Pond Reflections

Figure 1 shows the final image. This is an image of a beaver pond in Lundy Canyon in the Eastern Sierras. The pond sits in a narrow canyon surrounded by rugged mountains. This pond is actually one of a series of connected ponds. The ponds differ in nature. The very lowest of the ponds are filled with downed logs and are less photogenic. This pond is in the upper end of the lower canyon and was filled with lush vegetation. The upper ponds require some hiking. They are in a wooded area with surrounding waterfalls and tall trees, but they lack the lush vegetation that grows in the pond that is seen in this image.

The Emotion

The best photography always starts with an emotion -- an emotion that a photographer hopes to capture and communicate to the viewers of the image. This emotion leads to a concept for the image. The emotion for this image was clear: the peaceful beauty of the calm pond contrasted to the stark grandeur of the surrounding mountains. It is the contrast of the peacefulness and the dramatic beauty that made the scene. This is what had to be captured -- it is the essence of the image.

Actually, the concept for this image had been in the back of my mind for a while. I had been in the canyon two years earlier but had hiked out of the canyon too late that day to shoot the pond. However, the beauty of the pond and the surrounding area were too memorable to forget. I had been in the canyon again the prior fall, but the lush green of the vegetation had disappeared as the winter approached. My third trip to the canyon was taken in the early summer. The vegetation was early in its growing season, and the mountains still had remnants of snow that accentuated their ruggedness. On my first visit to the canyon on this trip, I again came out too late to photograph the pond and too tired to care much for any more photography that day. The next day, I returned in the afternoon with an intention to carefully scout out the pond for the shot that I had envisioned and with plenty of time to do so.

The Composition

From the hike the previous day, it had already been determined that some of the lower ponds yielded the best chance of getting the envisioned shot. However, the lower ponds covered a good sized area with lots of different compositions. Some exploration yielded a number of possibilities. After some time walking around the pond, the scene in Figure 1 was encountered. This scene immediately stood out from all the rest. Further exploration only reinforced that this was the scene that would produce the desired image. Seven critical components led to the selection of this scene.

Grass: The concept that was envisioned entailed a clear sense of the beauty of late spring/early summer in the Eastern Sierras. For this image, this was most easily communicated by the lush grass growing in the pond. This area of the pond had the most dense and impressive grass in the area.

Reflection: This scene had a very good unbroken reflection of the surrounding mountains. Other areas had reflections, but they often showed smaller sections of the mountains, or the reflections were broken up by logs or patches of grass that distracted from the image.

Mountains: Not all of the surrounding mountains were equally impressive. Some of the mountain sections had long segments of relatively unbroken patterns, across the face of the mountain, with a relatively flat ridge at the top. These were less photogenic. On the other hand, the section surrounding this scene contained vertical lines that ended in small peaks along the ridge. This provided for a more dramatic scene.

Snow: The patches of snow accentuated the ruggedness of the mountains, but not all of the mountains had snow patches. This section of mountain did, which further improved its photogenic quality.

Calmness: This area was near one end of the pond and was relatively sheltered from the breeze. While the breeze was relatively mild that day, it didn't take much to disturb the surface of the water. While other areas of the pond were continually covered with ripples, this area was fairly calm. This calmness produced a very clear reflection.

Curve: While not as easily discernable in this small web image as in the full-sized print, the grass in the upper left corner of the image contains an S-shaped curve caused by a break in the grass. This curve points directly toward the mountain reflection and directs the eye toward the reflection.

Old Branch: Again, not as easily discernable in this small web image as in the full-sized print, the grass in the upper right hand corner contains a V-shaped branch that points directly at the mountain reflection, which also serves to direct the eye to the reflection.

I couldn't have asked for a better scene.

The Light

At the time that the area was being scouted, the pond was still in the direct light of the sun. This light was far too harsh to produce the desired image. It had already been decided that, for the shot, the pond would be in the shadow of the northern mountains, but the reflected mountains would be partly in shadow and partly in the late afternoon sun to increase the dramatic effect. In addition, this late afternoon light would hit the surface of the mountains at a low angle, thus, bringing out the texture and ruggedness of the mountains. Ideally, it would have been great to have some alpenglow on the reflected mountains, but this was not possible. By the time that the sun got low enough in the sky to produce alpenglow, the reflected mountains would be completely in the shadow of the northern mountains.

Raw

Since high image quality was desired, the image was shot in the raw format.

Dynamic Range and Exposure

The first challenge that was encountered in determining the camera settings for the shot was the dynamic range. On the one hand, there were snow patches on the mountain that were in direct sunlight. This produced relatively bright areas. On the other hand, the base of the grass along the water line, as well as some of the other areas of the grass, was relatively dark. This led to a problem. An exposure that would keep detail in the snow would cause the pond, which was in shadow, to get a fairly low level of exposure. This might result in some loss of shadow detail. However, even more important, the pond is a major part of this image. Dropping the exposure on the pond in order to keep the detail in the snow would result in a poor signal to noise ratio (SNR) in the pond area (this is due to the linearity of sensors and is explained in the article Digital Exposure). This would degrade the quality of the image in the pond area. To avoid this loss of quality in the pond area, it was necessary to increase the exposure. Unfortunately, this blew out the sunlit snow areas.

The solution was simple, the camera was set for auto exposure bracket and three separate images were shot. The exposure for the first image was set for the sunlit mountains. The exposure for the second image was set for the pond. This image got about one stop more light than the first image. This increased the SNR in the pond area. The exposure of the third image was set for the sunlit snow. This image got about one stop less light that the first image. This kept the detail in the bright snow.

For each image, the practice of maximizing the exposure was used to ensure the best image quality (also explained in Digital Exposure).

Aperture, Shutterspeed, and ISO

Certain constraints drove the selection of the aperture, shutterspeed, and ISO.

The focus point was the edge of the grass. However, it was necessary to make sure that the reflection would also be sharp. This required a moderately small aperture in order to get the necessary depth of field. A shutterspeed around 1/5s (for the first image) was required. Shorter shutterspeeds would result in a jagged reflection. Longer shutterspeeds would have given the water an unnaturally smooth look. Since this image was expected to result in a fine art print, a low ISO was desired for image quality reasons. Some playing around with the camera settings resulted in a combination of an f11 aperture, 1/5s shutterspeed (for the first image), and an ISO of 200.

White Balance

This scene was shot in mixed light. The pond was in the shadows. This light had a bluish cast. The mountains were lit by the low angle, warm light of the setting sun. This light had a yellowish cast. The sky had a large amount of scattered light. This would also result in a bluish cast, but not necessarily the same bluish cast as the shadows. It was impossible to set the white balance for all three areas. It was decided to use a neutral gray object to perform a manual white balance for the pond. Later, the image would be examined in the raw converter, and adjustments would be made in the raw converter or Photoshop for the color temperature of the light illuminating the mountains and the sky. These adjustments would be necessary; otherwise, the mountains and sky would take on an overly warm look. Actually, this would probably give the mountains a nice warm glow, but it would make the beautiful blue sky take on an unpleasant yellowish cast.

Polarizer

A polarizer was not used in this situation as it eliminated the reflection.

The Set Up

Since it had already been decided that this image would end up as a fine art print, the highest quality capture possible was desired. Thus, the camera was set up on a tripod, the tripod was weighted, the camera was leveled with a bubble level, a remote switch was connected to the camera, and the mirror lockup option was enabled.

The Shooting Session

The actual shooting session was fairly simple. Everything had been set up and the camera settings dialed in for the shot. The only variable left was how much shadow across the mountains would produce the best image. It was decided to take several shots as the shadow crawled across the mountain. That way, the best image could be selected once the images were examined on the computer. Consequently, several sets of images, of three exposures each, were taken over a period of about half an hour.

The Editing

In order to properly understand the editing of this image, one thing must be kept in mind: this image was not shot the way much film is traditionally shot. With film (particularly slide film), a photographer often tries to get the tonalities correct in the camera (instead of during post processing). In other words, the mid-toned objects look mid-toned in the image without significant post processing, the highlights look like highlights, and so on. However, with this digital image, the goal was different: it was to increase the SNR by maximizing the exposure. This created an image with the most amount of information for the greatest quality. However, the image will not look natural at all when opened in the raw converter. Adjustments had to be made in the raw converter and Photoshop to the exposure, contrast, and saturation to make the image look natural. While this required some extra work, it resulted in a higher quality image.

Raw Conversion

Figure 2: White Balance Determination

Once the images had been uploaded to the computer, the editing began. Each set of the three exposures was examined. The set that was selected was one of the last sets that had been shot. The shadow on the mountains in this set was cast across about half of the mountain. This really emphasized the vertical lines on the mountain and the small peaks, both of which were still in the sunlight.

The raw conversion began with the determination of the manual white balance. One of the images where a WhiBal had been photographed was opened in the raw converter (choose File/Open). The eyedropper was clicked on the WhiBal to determine the white balance. The white balance settings were identified as a temperature of 6150 and a tint of 3 (see Figure 2). This conversion was then cancelled as it had served its purpose.

The three images now needed to be converted and combined in Photoshop to produce the preliminary image. The first of the three images to be converted was the image that was taken for the pond area. This image received the most exposure. This image was also the one for which the manual white balance had been taken. Thus, the image was opened in the raw converter (choose File/Open) and the white balance settings recorded from the WhiBal shot were entered into the converter (see Figure 3). In order to adjust the tonality to compensate for maximizing the exposure, the exposure was decreased by 1.80 stops in the converter. Now, some might notice that the histogram shows clipped highlights. Normally, one would be tempted to think that this was a bad thing and that this would result in lost detail in the highlights. However, this is not true in this case. The clipped information is from the snow patches on the mountains, but this image is the image that was shot for the pond area. The other areas in the image were masked out in later steps. The detail for the other areas was later taken from the other images. In particular, the snow patches were taken from the image with the least exposure. Thus, the snow detail was not clipped in the final image.

Figure 3: Conversion for the Pond
Figure 4 shows the Layers palette after the first image had been converted.
Figure 4: Layers Palette after the First Conversion
Figure 5: Conversion for the Reflection
The second of the three images to be converted was the image that was taken for the reflection (this image received less exposure than the previous image). The manual white balance settings would not work for this image. That white balance was taken in the shadows. The reflection is mostly in the sunlight, which has a warmer tone. Thus, once the image had been opened in the converter (see Figure 5), the white balance settings had to be adjusted. Now, there is no exact way to determine the white balance of the sunlight. So, some experimentation was done with the white balance settings until it looked correct, and those settings were used. Again, the exposure had to be decreased to adjust for maximizing the exposure. This time, the exposure was decreased by 1.4 stops.
Figure 6: Layers Palette after Addition of Second Image.
The second image was moved to the Layers palette of the first image (use the move tool, while holding down the shift key, to drag the second image over to the first) and renamed the Reflection layer. Figure 6 shows the Layers palette after this step.
Figure 7: Lasso Tool Selection
In order to properly combine these two images, a mask needed to be made. Since this is a very simple mask, the easiest way was to create a selection with the Lasso Tool (See Figure 7).
Figure 8: Quick Mask Mode
The next step was to blur the selection so that the two images would blend seamlessly. For this, the image was moved into the Quick Mask Mode (click on Edit in Quick Mask Mode on the Tools palette). Figure 8 shows the image in Quick Mask Mode.
Figure 9: Gaussian Blur
The Gaussian Blur (choose Filter/Blur/Gaussian Blur) with a radius of 200 (see Figure 9) was used to blur the selection.
Figure 10: Reflection Mask
After moving back out of Quick Mask Mode, the selection was used to create a mask for the Reflections Layer (choose Layer/Layer Mask/Reveal Selection). Figure 10 shows the mask.
Figure 11: Layers Palette with Reflection Mask
The Layers palette with the new mask added is shown in Figure 11.
Figure 12: Conversion for the Snow Patches
The third of the three images was the image that was taken for the snow patches. This image received the least exposure of the images. The snow patches were in the sunlight; thus, once the image had been opened in the converter (see Figure 12), the white balance settings were set to the same settings as in the prior image. As with the previous two images, the exposure was decreased to adjust for maximizing the exposure. This time, the exposure was decreased by 2.15 stops. This exposure setting actually made the snow fairly dark. This is okay since the show patches from this image will be blended with those of the second image to create the correct tonality.
Figure 13: Layers Palette after Addition of third Image.

The third image was then moved to the Layers palette of the other two images and renamed the Snow layer. Figure 13 shows the Layers palette after this step.

To combine the third image with the others, another mask needed to be made. This mask was more complicated that the first one. Therefore, a more sophisticated method of creating a selection was needed. It was decided that Calculations (choose Image/Calculations) would be a good choice for the selection. Before using Calculations, the three channels needed to be examined to determine which one had the greatest contrast between the snow patches and the rest of the mountain. Figures 14 -- 16 show the three channels. The blue channel had the greatest contrast and was used for making the selection.

Figure 14: Red Channel
Figure 15: Green Channel
Figure 16: Blue Channel
Figure 17: Calculations
In this case, the purpose of Calculations was to increase the contrast between the snow patches and the rest of the mountain. It did this by blending the blue channel with itself, using the Multiply Blend mode, to create a new channel. The Multiply Blend mode was selected since it increased the contrast of the new channel. Figure 17 shows the Calculations dialog box with the appropriate settings for this image. Figure 18 shows the new channel that Calculations created (Alpha1).
Figure 18: Alpha 1 Channel Created by Calculations
As can be seen, the contrast had been increased as compared to the blue channel from which the new channel was created. However, the contrast needed to be increased further. This was easily done by using Calculations again. This time, Calculations was used with the new channel that was just created. Figure 19 shows Calculations with the new settings. Figure 20 shows the new channel created in this step (Alpha 2).
Figure 19: Calculations Again
Figure 20: Alpha 2 Channel Created by Calculations
As expected, the Alpha 2 channel had yet more contrast. However, the contrast still needed to be increased further. The Calculations procedure was carried out two more times in the same fashion as in the last step (always using the latest Alpha channel). Figures 21 and 22 show the resulting Alpha Channels.
Figure 21: Alpha 3 Channel Created by Calculations
Figure 22: Alpha 4 Channel Created by Calculations
Figure 23: Gaussian Blur for Snow Selection
The Alpha 4 channel had the desired contrast. This channel was loaded as a selection (with the Alpha 4 channel selected, click on the Load channel as selection icon at the bottom of the Channels palette). The selection was then moved into the Quick Mask Mode for some final clean up (click on Edit in Quick Mask Mode on the Tools palette). While in the Quick Mask Mode, a Gaussian Blur of five pixels was performed to soften the edges of the selection (see Figure 23). Next, the selection was turned into a mask for the Snow layer (see Figure 24), using the same procedure as previously. Lastly, the opacity of the Snow layer was adjusted so that a small amount of detail was visible in the snow but the snow wasn't darkened too much (an opacity of 50% worked best in this case). Figure 25 shows the Layers palette after this step.
Figure 24: Mask for Snow Layer
Figure 25: Layers Palette with Snow Mask
Figure 26: Snow without Snow Layer added
Figure 27: Snow with Snow Layer Added
At this point, the three images had been combined into one image, and the image was ready for further editing.

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