Thursday, March 25, 2010

Photography Tutorial: Enhancing Dramatic Sky

  Having a good sky in an image is important. A big white blown out sky on a hazy day can ruin an otherwise very nice photograph sometimes. At the same time a big dramatic sky can fill the composition of a photo very nicley. Chances are the sky has not drawn attention to itself though in your photography and you will need to do a little work to coax it out.

This tutorial requires no in depth prior knowledge of photo editing. I've used Apple Aperture as my Camera RAW importer, but you can use whatever program you are most comfortable with. This tutorial explains some basic adjustments one can make to fine tune an otherwise pretty average photograph. We will adjust Exposure, Darkness, Shadows/Highlights, Curves, apply filters, and Crop.

So we will get started with a well exposed base image. In this case we have a photo of Mt. Langley from the floor of the Owens Valley. We have some nice details in the valley floor, the mountains are distant and a little hazy. It was sunset and a big storm was clearing out of the mountains so we have some great details and colors in the sky, they just look a little washed out right now. Note at this point we have not played with any exposure settings, this is our base image.

First lets make some RAW adjustments. In this case I cranked down the exposure and got the clouds alone just about where I wanted them. The desert and the mountains went almost bulletproof black so I brought a little bit of light back in to the frame by using the Shadows adjustment. This has a tendency to create a hazy effect with the image so I brought down the Brightness adjustment to make the image darker. The image is still a little dark but our sky looks fantastic for right now.

Since the sky is now our primary compositional element we want the frame to reflect that, those details in the valley floor were nice but they were not really adding much to the image. When you do your crop keep in mind the eye will go from the largest white spot to the largest black spot first. In this case we have a nice diagonal as the mountains taper off into the right corner. Mt. Langley is also a major element so I've lined that up in the left third of the image. About 2/3rds of the image though has been left that big stormy sky.

At this point lets save the image as a .jpg or .tiff and then open it with photoshop.

Probably the most powerful adjustment in photoshop is the curves tool which can be very confusing at first because it is very sensitive to even small changes and learning how to effectively use anchor points is a whole other monster. For most tasks though we can obey a pretty simple rule, try to use just two anchors and create a nice S-Shaped graph. To add an anchor points simply click along the line where you want to add them, usually a good distance from each other. (Image > Adjustments > Curves...)

As you tweak your Curves watch your histogram (that other odd graph in the top right corner). You won't need to worry too much about what all the information there means you just want to avoid "combing". As you play with an image it's details can break down and cause colors to band together giving the image an ugly contrasty look. Combing also ruins image quality especially when you go to print your photo. Even though it might look acceptable on screen does not mean it will print well.

At this point we have the sky, and the composition just where we want it. I added a warming filter to change the tone of the scene a little bit and compliment some of those sunset colors. (Image > Adjustments > Photo Filter...) I advocate a very conservative use of color adjustments because above all you want a realistic image. If the image is too dark you can bring the shadows out slightly with the Shadows/Highlights adjustment (Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights). After about 5% I found this image started to get a little blown out. Again, I generally advocate a conservative approach with Shadows/Highlights as well.

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