Photo Critique Series: Re-Processing a Misty Forest Scene

Photo Critique Series: “Mist” by David Eaton, Part 1 (direct link to YouTube)

Photo Critique Series: “Mist” by David Eaton, Part 2: Processing (direct link to YouTube)

Yes, the critiques are back—finally! This critique features a beautiful forest image called “Mist,” by David Eaton. The photograph was made in an area called The Chase near Birmingham, England.

This is my second video critique, and I’ve broken it into two parts. The first video discusses the processing (briefly), light, composition, exposure, and sharpness. In the second video I demonstrate how I re-processed the image in Lightroom.

After my first video critique I received many helpful suggestions, and I appreciate all the thoughtful comments. I’ve tried to incorporate as many of these suggestions as I could. One idea was to summarize the main points in writing, and I’ve done that below. However, the videos are still pretty long: the first is 15 minutes, and the second 10 minutes. I guess it’s just not in my nature to gloss over things. If the critique brings up an issue—like the one about determining the cause of a blurred image that I discuss here—then I want to explore that topic, because that might be helpful to many people.

Video is a great medium in many ways—you can actually see a demonstration rather than trying to interpret a written description. However video isn’t well suited to skimming and gleaning bits of information. I hope this summary will help the skimmers:

Part 1

00:00 Processing

The first thing that struck me about this image was that it looked too dark, and the color balance seemed too warm. David was kind enough to provide the Raw file, and here I compare the original with my re-processed version that’s brighter and has a more neutral white balance.

What puzzled me about this photograph was that the Raw file was a bit underexposed, and yet David made it even darker in processing. It’s possible that he just liked that dark, moody look, but I also wonder whether this might have been a monitor calibration issue. Most photographers don’t calibrate their monitors, and if your screen is set too bright you might think that the image needed to be darkened.

In the video I mention the tool that I use for monitor calibration: the Eye-One Display 2 by X-Rite. Although this model has been discontinued, it works great, and you can still find it on Amazon here, and at a great price: $149.95. (Note that the software that ships with this doesn’t work with Mac OS 10.7 Lion, but you can download a new version of the software from X-Rite).

The Display 2 has been replaced by the Display Pro, which has some nice new features, like automatically adjusting your monitor profile to compensate for ambient light.

Full disclosure, these are affiliate links, so if you purchase through these links I’ll earn a small commission, which helps support this blog. But I’ll never recommend anything unless I think it’s a good product and will be helpful to my readers. There are other monitor calibration tools out there, and they may be good, but I haven’t used them, so I can’t recommend them. I’ve used the Eye-One for many years and know it works well.

05:35 Light & Composition

The re-processing brings out the clean, strong composition. There’s lots of repetition in the vertical lines of the trunks, and there are no unnecessary distractions. One interesting feature is that the prominent trunk on the right edge is cut in half—usually a no-no. But I think it works here because it’s balanced by half-a-trunk on the left edge.

The soft light and fog are beautiful, a perfect complement to the scene, and the image has a wonderful, quiet, foggy mood.

09:33 Exposure and Sharpness

This image was made with a Sony A100 with a 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens at 50mm. The exposure was 1/10 of a second at f/11 with 200 ISO.

The photograph is a bit underexposed, but certainly salvageable. A zoomed-in look reveals that the image is a bit soft overall. I discuss how to diagnose whether blurring is caused by camera movement, subject movement, or focus, and conclude that in this case the culprit was probably camera movement, created by either hand-holding at too slow a shutter speed, using a tripod without a cable release, or perhaps using a tripod with image stabilization on.

13:33 Summary

Although there are some small technical flaws, and I think the processing could be improved, overall I think this is a really beautiful image. It has great light and color, a clean, strong composition, and a wonderful mood.

Part 2

00:00 Lightroom Workflow

This isn’t the appropriate time and place for a detailed explanation of my Lightroom workflow—that would make the video even longer! But my eBook Light & Land explains the workflow in depth. Here I briefly explain why I prefer to start with everything “zeroed” in Lightroom, and then talk about moving the white point with the Point Curve.

03:49 Curves vs. the Exposure Slider

People sometimes ask me why I prefer to lighten a photograph by moving the white point in the Point Curve rather than pushing the Exposure slider to the right. The short answer is that the Exposure tool boosts the midtones more, which tends to flatten highlights and wash out light colors. I make a comparison here.

06:18 Setting the Black Point and Making an S-Curve

07:54 Setting the White Balance

As shot the white balance was 5550K, which looks a little too warm to me. I show what it looks like both warmer and cooler, and discuss the merits of leaving it a bit cool to set up a color contrast, before settling on a relatively neutral color temperature of around 5100K.

09:12 Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation

I add a bit of Clarity, but the big increase in contrast created with the Point Curve already boosted the saturation, so I leave the overall Vibrance and Saturation alone.

Your Comments

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this photograph. What do you think of the composition, the light, and the fog? What about the processing, and the changes I made? Please post a comment and let me know!

Thanks David for sharing your photograph! You can see more of his work on Flickr.

If you like these critiques, share them with a friend! Email this article, or click on one of the buttons below to post it on Facebook or Twitter.

As part of being chosen for this critique David will receive a free 16×20 matted print courtesy of the folks at Aspen Creek Photo. If you’d like your images considered for future critiques, just upload them to the Flickr group I created for this purpose. If you’re not a Flickr member yet, joining is free and easy. You’ll have to read and accept the rules for the group before adding images, and please, no more than five photos per person per week. Thanks for participating!

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: The Power of Curves; Using Curves in Lightroom and Camera RawPhoto Critique Series: An Intimate, Wide-Angle Composition from Scotland

See all the critiques here.

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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33 Responses to “Photo Critique Series: Re-Processing a Misty Forest Scene”

  1. Jeff Lynch says:

    I too thought the photo looked a bit dark but sort of liked it that way. A moody look. I also liked what you did with it and how you did it. A very good explanation of how both Exposure & Curves work within LR. This seemed to me like one of those photos that would look pretty cool no matter what you did to it(within reason) and was a great example. Good photo. Good critique!

  2. vern denman says:

    outstanding. I am looking forward to more critique series. Thanks so much for your clear explanations.

  3. Eric Bier says:

    I would have taken this picture using my tripod, mirror-up, and radio shutter release, with VR off and careful focus. I also would have exposed to the right and adjusted it in Lightroom using my calibrated monitor.

    However, Mr. Eaton and Claude Monet (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/monet/poplars-epte/monet.poplars-epte.jpg) may like the photo the way it is. Although I like the softness in this photo, I still would have produced the sharp photo, and then softened it in Photoshop in the unlikely event that I thought of it.

    Thank you Michael for your excellent tutorial!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Eric, it sounds like you’ve got solid technique. You make a good point about Monet, and of course a soft look can sometimes be interesting. There are many instances when photographs are “in between,” and they need to go one way or the other. For example, sometimes I see photographs of moving water with an “in between” shutter speed – not fast enough to freeze the motion, not slow enough to to really blur it. In this case the image is only slightly soft, so it looks like David intended to make it sharp and didn’t quite get there. If you’re after the Monet look you have to soften the image enough to make it look like you meant it!

      • Eric Bier says:

        One of the reasons I am developing a solid technique is thanks to your excellent book “Digital Landscape Photography” and your great e-book on Lightroom, “Light and Land.” You certainly have an inspired approach to photography, and I appreciate your open and skillful manner of sharing it with us.

        You make an excellent point about the intention of the photographer in the image produced.

  4. Margaret says:

    Hi, Michael. I like hearing the whys and wherefores of your thoughts about the image. The explanation of exposure vs point curve was very useful. You can read all the books, but seeing it done adds so much. Thanks.

  5. Paul Beiser says:

    Excellent Michael! Even though I have your book, I do not recall seeing the Exposure vs Point curve topic in there, I must have missed it.

    The trunks on each side of the frame was very illuminating, tnx!

    I assume your Lightroom defaults have everything zero’d out vs you having to change them for every image.

    These video tutorials are great! And just about the right length.

    Paul

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks very much Paul. No, I didn’t discuss setting the white point with Exposure vs. Point Curve in my books – lots of other things to talk about! Yes, my default settings in Lightroom zero everything out. And glad you think these were the right length. :)

  6. Marc says:

    Hi Michael, I really like your processed version. Seeing the fog as grey gives much better color balance to the image. I really enjoy your composition critiques! My main focus is training my eye and this really helps. I also now have your e-book on Lightroom and have tried your techniques. I like the results as I continue learning Lightroom.

    By the way I have tested using the VR on and off with the tripod and the image usually is sharper with it off. ( Nikon Lenses )

    Great image and critique series. Your help is very much appreciated.

    Have a happy and healthy holiday season.

    Marc

    • Michael Frye says:

      Marc, glad you like the re-processed version, and have the composition critiques helpful. Your experience with VR meshes with tests I’ve done with workshop students. Hope you have a great holiday season too!

  7. Ted Brownlee says:

    Michael,

    I agree with your comment on cutting the trunk in half working for this photo, but I believe it also works because the trunk does not have a distinct line. It’s broken up by all of the smaller branches. It sort of has the same effect as adding corner vignetting in post-process.

    Have a happy holiday season!

    ~Ted

    • Michael Frye says:

      Ted, good point, the cut-off trunk might not work as well without those leaves and branches interrupting it’s shape a bit. But I have seen photos without that, with a solid trunk on each side of the frame, that work, and again I think that’s because they balance each other out.

      Hope you have a great holiday too!

  8. I thought this was a model of clarity. I was amazed that the original was taken at 1/10s and I would rarely venture that low handheld. The more I shoot the more I use a tripod having resisted the burden for a long time. What surprises me is how washed out RAW files look if you strip out the default / pre-set LR settings. I was impressed at the finished result and will go and tweak some of my shots using the tone curve the way you demonstrate. I have been using luminosity layers to an extent but your method looks quicker and pretty effective. Nice tutorial and I’ll look up the E book. Oh and good tip on calibration….. I used my built-in macbook calibration tool but it probably isn’t as good. Someone told me laptop screens are problematic for calibration and an external EIZO-type screen is better.

    Andrew
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/29954808@N00/

    • Michael Frye says:

      Andrew, thanks. I’m not sure actually whether this was handheld or not. Yes, without the added contrast of Lightroom’s default setting most images look a bit flat, though, as you saw, this is easily fixed. This image looks especially flat “straight” because the scene’s contrast was so low. High-contrast scenes, on the other hand, will often look better initially with everything zeroes because by taking out the extra contrast you see more shadow detail.

      As for calibrating your laptop screen, I don’t think they’re any more difficult to calibrate than other screens, but most laptop screens are crappy, so there are limits to how well they calibrate. Apple laptops have very good displays compared to most, but the main limitation is that they have a narrow angle of view, so the appearance of the image can change if you move your head slightly.

  9. Pete says:

    Nice videos again Micheal good to see them back. I liked the mood of the original a bit more than your final edit and might like to see something in between. Great watching you run the processing again.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Pete. These things are always subjective, and I sometimes wonder if there’s a mental thing where we always prefer a photograph the way we first see it. But yes, perhaps something in between would work if you like it dark.

  10. Bob Burns says:

    Hi, Michael. I enjoyed both video critiques. You have the heart and soul of a teacher, and I always feel privileged when you take the time to share your insights with me and others.

    I visited David’s Flickr site, and I noticed that his photos skew toward the dark side. As you say, this may be due to problems with monitor calibration, or it may be due to personal preference. There is also the possibility that he is relying on the image on the camera’s LCD monitor to gauge the exposure, a technique that is notoriously unreliable (darker images often look better, richer, and more saturated). Whatever the reason, I believe that David shortchanged himself by shooting this image too dark. A quick look at the original histogram reveals that the pixels were bunched up toward the left, which robbed the photo of shadow details. I would recommend that he get in the habit of checking the histogram after every shot, and that he try to capture as much detail as possible by keeping the histogram toward the right side without blowing out the highlights. If the image is too light for his taste, then he can correct that later in post-processing.

    You did a good job correcting the image in Lightroom. It should be noted that whenever a dark, muddy image is lightened in post-processing, the lack of shadow detail becomes more noticeable, and noise becomes more apparent. This emphasizes the need to capture the exposure correctly the first time.

    I am familiar with your technique of exposure correction, and I usually consider it a good starting point. In David’s photo, the first step created a very steep linear curve that increased the overall brightness and provided more separation between the fog highlights and the tree shadows.This photo also benefited from your subsequent brightening contrast curve.

    I found your discussion of color correction to be extremely helpful (as usual). I still struggle with this, It remains a very subjective element for me. It helps to understand what you are trying to accomplish. I appreciated your explanation of the color contrast between the ever-so-slight blue hue in the fog and the yellow leaves, while preserving the green in the leaves. With that as a starting point, the color correction becomes somewhat less of a mystery.

    In my opinion your processing of this photo was superior to the original, which I found to be way too dark.

    I haven’t weighed in on this until now, but I am a big fan of your video critiques. As for their length, I agree with you: They should last as long as it takes for you to say what you need to say. In this regard, they are perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    -Bob

    • Michael Frye says:

      Bob, thanks very much for your detailed and thoughtful comments.

      You’re correct that it’s difficult to bring out shadow detail in an underexposed image, and lightening a dark photo also brings out noise. In this case I think the shadow detail was okay; there was nothing actually pushed up against the left edge of the histogram, and when I lightened it I was able to bring out the shadows pretty well. But this was a very low-contrast scene, and underexposing a higher contrast scene would present more problems – the shadows might be totally lacking in detail if the original file is too dark.

      I didn’t get into this in the critique, but there is some noise in this image, and I think that’s partly because of the underexposure. Any time you try to lighten an image you’re likely to bring out some noise in the shadows, though this varies a lot depending on the camera.

      Glad you found the discussion of white balance helpful. It is indeed a very subjective area, with no real rules, so I can understand why you might struggle with it.

      Thanks for the endorsement of the video critiques! Hope you have a great holiday.

  11. Richard says:

    Your video critique and step by step processing video are both very helpful and informative. You are a great educator. Thanks for helping us all grow and learn.

  12. Michael Frye says:

    Richard, thanks very much, and you’re welcome. Have a great holiday!

  13. Ian Mylam says:

    An excellent critique, Michael. Very clearly explained. I thought I knew Lightroom well but hadn’t appreciated the difference between setting the White Point with the Exposure slider and with the Tone Curve. Thank you.

  14. Steve Gallow says:

    Thank you for putting these critiques online.

    I have a photo of a small pine tree in a forest that has some similar issues. I want to try some of these techniques to see if I can improve it.

    The things that I learned from the first video:

    1) Cutting the trunk in 1/2: I’ve played with that from time to time, and always have a difficult time determining what’s best. I never looked at the other side of the photo. Thank you for pointing out the 1/2 trunk on the left side of the photo.

    2) I don’t have any lens stabilization equipment, and didn’t know that there could be problems using stabilization on a tripod. I’ll keep that in mind.

    3) I just placed an order for a calibration device for my monitor. I’ve been having problems matching prints that I order, and the images on my screen. It’s not as bad printing on my printer at home, because I can reset the image.

    Steve

  15. Vivienne says:

    Another great photo critique, Michael! I liked how you broke this one into two parts, and liked listening to your thoughts on processing the image. This lesson is a good one to remind us to check check check that histogram…which I often forget to do. :)

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