Autumn sunrise over the Sneffels Range from the Dallas Divide, CO, USA

Autumn sunrise over the Sneffels Range from the Dallas Divide, CO, USA

As I wrote in my last post, it can be challenging to process high-contrast scenes with important, colorful subjects in the shade – like aspens. You need to lighten the shadows even more than normal to bring out the color, and it’s hard to do that in a natural-looking way, while keeping contrast and depth.

This photograph is a good example. It’s from the Dallas Divide, one of Colorado’s iconic fall locations. Fresh snow on the peaks added interest, but also created more contrast. The morning sun lit the peaks and clouds, but I knew it would be awhile before that light reached the aspens in the foreground, and by that time the color in the sky would be gone. I bracketed three exposures, each one stop apart, in case I needed to blend them together later. But I didn’t need to blend; the final image was processed in Lightroom with just one frame.

I chose the middle frame to work with, because it was the lightest of the three that had good highlight detail. The darkest image also had good highlight detail, but using it would have required lightening the shadows even more, which could have brought out more noise. And in the lightest frame the highlights were too hot, too washed out, to work with.

When you’re evaluating highlight detail in Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw), keep in mind that ever since version 4 Lightroom has had automatic highlight recovery. If it’s possible to recover overexposed highlights in a Raw file, Lightroom does so automatically upon import. So if you import an image and see pixels pushed up against the right edge of the histogram, that means the highlights were too overexposed to recover. Pick a darker frame to work with – if you have one.

If you’re not sure whether you can work with that one image, or whether you need to blend exposures or use HDR, try making a couple of quick adjustments in Lightroom (or Camera Raw). Drag Highlights to the left, and Shadows to the right, then zoom in. Look closely at the brightest highlights: do they have good texture and detail, or do they look hot, or weirdly splotchy? And look at the shadows too – how much noise do you see? If your zoomed-in view reveals good highlight detail, and little noise, you’re good to go. If not, you may need to use HDR, or some other method of exposure blending.

Getting back to the photograph from the Dallas Divide, here’s what that middle exposure looks like at Adobe’s default settings:

The unprocessed Raw file at Adobe's default settings

The unprocessed Raw file at Adobe’s default settings

The bottom two-thirds of the photo looks awfully dark, but the histogram showed nothing pushed up against either edge, and I did the same kind of evaluation I just suggested, which revealed good detail in the highlights, and little noise in the shadows. So I knew I could get the results I wanted with just this one frame.

There are a lot of steps to processing any image, and for the sake of brevity I’ll gloss over most of them here, and get to the heart of it – the tonal adjustments in the Basic Panel. First I set the Exposure slider to +1.10, which was a compromise: a little too light for the mountains, and a little too dark for the foreground. Next, I dragged Highlights all the way down to -100, pushed Shadows up to +51, and adjusted the Contrast slider from my default of -33 up to -3 to give the midtones a bit more snap. Here’s what the image looked like at that point:

After the initial Basic Panel adjustments (Exposure +1.10, Contrast -3, Highlights -100, Shadows +51)

After the initial Basic Panel adjustments (Exposure +1.10, Contrast -3, Highlights -100, Shadows +51)

The mountains and sky look pretty good here. The foreground, on the other hand… not so much. It has plenty of detail, but the color is rather dark and muddy, and the aspens are an important part of the story, so they need to be brighter to draw the eye more. But pushing the Shadows slider up more just makes the whole foreground look flat. Instead, I left the Shadows slider at +51 and used the Adjustment Brush to selectively lighten the snaking line of aspens. This screen shot shows the mask, with Exposure for that area set to 0.80, Contrast to 20, Clarity to 20, and Saturation to 20:

Mask showing where I painted with the Adjustment Brush to lighten the aspens

Mask showing where I painted with the Adjustment Brush to lighten the aspens

For good measure, I darkened the brightest areas of the peaks a bit too. As a comparison, here’s this image with Shadows slider pushed all the way up to +100, but no dodging and burning, next to my final version, with Shadows at +51, and the aspens selectively lightened with the Adjustment Brush:

With Shadows pushed all the way up to +100, but no dodging and burning

With Shadows pushed all the way up to +100, but no dodging and burning

Autumn sunrise over the Sneffels Range from the Dallas Divide, CO, USA

The final image, with Shadows left at +51, and the foreground selectively lightened with the Adjustment Brush

As you can see, in my final version the aspens are actually lighter than I could make them with the Shadows slider alone – even with Shadows pushed all the way to +100. Also, selectively lightening the aspens keeps the surrounding foreground areas darker, which draws the viewer’s eye to the aspens, and creates modulation and contrast between light and dark areas within the lower two-thirds of the frame, making the image livelier overall.

As I said, images like this are challenging to process. Just using the Highlights and Shadows sliders to balance the contrast is likely to make parts of the image too flat-looking. Instead, I’d rather use those tools to get me part of the way there, then dodge and burn with the Adjustment Brush to selectively lighten and darken certain areas, and lead the viewer’s eye where I want it to go.

Of course my ebook, Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide, delves into all of this in more detail. It includes eight step-by-step examples, including several high-contrast scenes processed with with just one Raw file, and one example using Lightroom’s new HDR Merge, for situations where the contrast is too extreme for one Raw file.

And to help you get the most out of Lightroom’s tools, there are ten video tutorials that accompany the ebook, including, of course, one demonstrating how to use the Adjustment Brush – one of Lightroom’s most powerful, but least utilized tools. Other videos show how to use the Graduated Filter, the new HDR Merge and Panorama Merge, the Spot Removal Tool, how to do do Advanced Retouching in Lightroom, and much more.

And remember that automatic highlight recovery I mentioned? That’s just one of the image-adaptive behaviors in Lightroom (and Camera Raw). In fact all of the Basic Panel Tone Controls (Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks) are image-adaptive – that is, they change their behavior based on the image content. For some reason, Adobe hasn’t talked much about these image-adaptive behaviors, but I think this is important stuff to understand if you’re going to get the most out of these tools, so I discuss these behaviors in depth in the ebook.

Click here to find out more information, or purchase Landscapes in Lightroom.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Autumn Landscapes; Outdoor Photographer Excerpts My Landscapes in Lightroom 5 eBook; Free Bonus Video: Using the Arrow Keys in Lightroom

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael 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.