My wife and I recently visited California to see some friends and family. We spent Saturday afternoon driving down the coast from Monterey through Big Sur on the scenic Highway 1. We stopped several times along the way to hike, take pictures and get riddled with Poison Oak (not so much fun). As the afternoon wore on the fog got thick and it looked like the sunset would be a bust. I had been hoping to get a nice coastal sunset in this scenic area but nothing is guaranteed in nature.
A little over an hour before true sunset, the sun started to break through the clouds and offer a little pre-sunset drama. We quickly pulled off the highway at a scenic overlook and I hopped out with the tripod to grab a few shots of the light display. This was going to be a narrow window and a slightly challenging shot.
I knew I would be looking to shoot a sunset along the coast and had been trying to get myself a nice Neutral Density Graduated Filter for the job. This would allow me to shoot a little slower to expose the darker ocean and maybe even get some motion blur without over exposing the sky. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the filter I wanted before the trip. So I would have to get the shot and figure it out later.
Photograph of the Week: The RAW shot…
The challenge is balancing the exposure. You don’t want to overexpose the sky so that the clouds and light still holds detail. But at the same time you don’t want to underexpose the landscape (ocean) and risk losing detail there either. Since the clouds only broke in a small part of the sky the entire shot would be very dark except for the light shining through the clouds. I managed to get a couple of images that struck the balance between exposures allowing me to process them as if I were working with a real filter.
Photograph of the Week: Processing in Lightroom…
The first thing I did was adjust the exposure so the darker areas were exposed properly. This blew out the light in the sky and the glow of the clouds but I’d fix that later. Once the exposure was corrected I did my usual work of pulling shadows and creating deeper blacks to add depth. I then pushed on the Clarity and Vibrance to create sharper contrast and pull more vivid color. Color would be important but I didn’t want to oversaturate the image, so I only made a slight adjustment to the Saturation.
This got me away from a very gray and underexposed image, but the sky was now over exposed. I applied a Gradient Filter to the top of the image allowing me to adjust the sky without effecting the ocean and landscape. With the filter in place I was able to bring the exposure of the sky back down a couple of steps where it was more natural and the detail returned. I still had a very gray sky so I pushed the Temp setting slightly toward the cooler side. The result gave me a better setting for the warm light that was pouring through the clouds.
I finished my adjustments by pushing the Sharpness as far as I dared, then smoothing the noise by increasing the Luminance. This is something I’ve been doing on almost every image because it allows me to get crisp detail and sharp edges with almost no noise at all.
Photograph of the Week: Magic from Color Efex Pro…
I tried to keep it simple in Color Efex Pro. I just wanted a little warmth to the light and maybe a little sharper detail. I started by applying the basic Brilliance/Warmth filter which gives a nice warm glow to the light in the image, but won’t overly warm the cooler colors. Then I wanted to punch the light in the sky up a little, so I applied the Skylight filter and the Sunlight filter. Both of those seem only to enhance existing light in an image without doing too much to mid tones and shadows. These filters also seemed to bring some luminosity and warms to the reflected light on the ocean surface.
I finished off my adjustments by adding another Graduated Neutral Density Filter to the image creating more contrast in the cloudy sky. Graduated filters in both Lightroom and Color Efex Pro allowed me to balance out the exposure on a very unbalanced scene. I can’t wait to get a real physical Neutral Density Filter so I can try some other tricks.
Once the adjusted TIFF file was back in Lightroom I increased the Sharpness and Luminosity again, kinda just to see what would happen. It gave the image a very painterly quality, but on such a small scale it’s hard to see without blowing it up. But enlarged, the image has no noise and very clean edges, the textures also came in super clean. I might start doing this final step regularly.
- This image was shot on a Nikon D300 with a Nikon Nikkor 10-24mm lens.
- Exp: 1/20 sec, F/22, ISO-200, 10mm.
- Originally shot in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom and finished in NIK Color Efex Pro 4.
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