Before/After and How To: Sunset on the Lake (2017)

 

This year has been a slow start for me to snap photos worth sharing, but over Memorial Day weekend, I took advantage of getting away from life, the great weather, and beautiful scenery while I was away from home. The photo you see above is one of the shots I snapped that weekend. You can see how the photo has been transformed after my edits. For those who are curious, I’ll share what went into achieving this look and how I edited this photo. 

I must first start by mentioning my process, and I’m sure many other photographers, starts as a trial and error approach to see what look is the most pleasing to the eye. However, there are some steps that are very deliberate. I also have a very specific workflow and it may differ than yours or other photographers. I also must mention that I edit using Phase One’s Capture One Pro. Those wishing to follow along can with other software, just apply the concept in each step as the types of tools is mostly universal in each RAW editor. 

Exposure

I always start by editing or correcting exposure. My camera does a good job of it on its own, but it could be better. Rather than going through each slider in Capture One, I start with auto correct. Not because I don’t know what I’m doing, but rather because it gets me close without spending too much time adjusting each setting. 

It’s also important to keep the histogram in mind when making exposure adjustments. If you’re unfamiliar with a histogram, it’s a line graph that maps out how many pixels are in a certain shade of black, white, or gray. The left represents black, right is white, and everything in between is a shade of gray. The histogram can be displayed as white, to represent brightness or in colors of red, green, and blue, which helps to identify the color balance as well as brightness. Yes, this can be intimidating to look at and work with, but if you keep in mind that a large peak to the right means a large area of the photo might be overexposed and a large peak to the left means a large area might be under exposed. It’s important to trust the histogram over the image on the monitor because not all screens are the same and if they’re not properly calibrated, won’t represent the photo properly. 

This is the histogram that represents the final edits of the image above. This histogram displays the brightness of the overall image in gray, but also red, green, and blue to offer insight to the amount of color balance the image has. The histogram shows the image is very well balanced except for a large peak of red on both the far left and right ends. Considering the overall red/orange color cast of the image, this is to be expected. The photo also has a lot of strong contrast, which would cause the peaks on either end to occur. 

The histogram isn’t something that is edited or adjusted directly, though. This is merely a visual aid, a tool, to watch as you make your other edits. Exposure is edited, but usually only slight adjustments are needed. Contrast can add a lot of drama and saturate colors, but it can also reduce details in the shadows and highlights. For this image, I feel a large increase of contrast works well. The boat is lost to the background as a result, but the ripples, grass, and clouds are all more pronounced.

I also like to add saturation to colorful images like this one, but saturation is an option that must be used in small increments. It’s easy to not notice the increase in saturation as you move the slider to the right, but adjusting it too far and the color will look fake and potentially bleed into other colors. For a beginner, I recommend making a small adjustment, then walking away and coming back to it until you find a result you’re happy with. I generally stick to increasing saturation by 10 as it’s subtle enough to still appear natural but still adds vibrance to the image. If you edit in Photoshop or Lightroom, use the Vibrance setting instead of Saturation and you may need to make larger adjustments. Vibrance in Adobe’s products does the same thing, but is more intelligent about preserving details and preventing colors from bleeding than the Saturation option does. Capture One’s saturation setting works similarly to Adobe’s vibrance setting in preserving details and preventing color bleed, but I’ve found too large of adjustments will not look appealing to your photo.

The High Dynamic Range settings are always a trial and error area for me. I don’t have a magic value or starting point for this one because it will be different for each image. Also, don’t confuse Capture One’s High Dynamic Range for actual High Dynamic Range photography. Actual High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is the process of combining 3 or more photos of the same shot at different exposures to capture more detail in the shadows and highlights. Capture One’s tools try to emulate that with a single image. It’s not as effective as combining multiple photos, but it works surprisingly well. When I see areas of a photo that are very bright or I see peaks to the right of the histogram, I increase the highlight slider in Capture One. The reduces the exposure of the highlights, or bright areas, so that the details are retained in those areas. I take the same approach with the shadow slider to increase the brightness and details of shadows. As you can see, I increased the highlight significantly to preserve the details of the sky and sunset but only increased the shadow slightly. This was to add just enough detail to parts of the water and grass while keeping the strong contrast in the image. 

There are a few minor problems with using these sliders. Increasing them too much can make the photo look flat. Increasing the shadows too much can introduce more noise to the shadows of the photo. Increasing the shadows too much can cause the shadows to look fake. Finally, increasing the highlight too much can cause the image to appear underexposed — this is where the histogram comes in handy as well as a calibrated monitor. If your monitors are overly bright and not calibrated, then you won’t know the photo is nearing an underexposed appearance while increasing the highlight slider. 

You will also see that I have decreased the vignette slightly. Generally, this is intended to correct some lens defects in which they cause the outer edges to darken or in some cases brighten. This slider is meant to correct for this. However, I used this creatively to intentionally darken the corners of the photo slightly. I did this to draw the viewer more toward the center and add drama to the photo. Typically, the rule is that if you can’t tell the vignette is there, then you added just enough. When it becomes obvious, then it’s overdone or too strong. 

Lens Correction

One of the best features of Capture One, and virtually all RAW editors, is the lens correction feature. Fortunately for Capture One, this is just a matter of selecting a preset and you’re done. I shot the photo with a Sigma 17-50mm lens, chose that lens profile, and moved on. 

Lens correction profiles can make a subtle impact on the quality of a photo, but the difference is much more natural. The difference can be see in the before and after photos above. You might have thought they were cropped differently since the horizon doesn’t line up well. The truth is the lens profile shifted it slightly.

Lens correction profiles correct lens distortion, chromatic aberration (typically purple fringing on sharp edges caused by imperfections in the glass), vignetting (or light falloff), and sharpness. Some of these settings require manual adjustments, such as sharpness or light falloff, but I’m usually happy with the default profile. 

Color Adjustments

One of Capture One’s best features is how it handles color and the control the user has over color. This tool just isn’t the most intuitive and I haven’t even mastered it yet. This section offers many tools for color, but for this image, I mostly focused on the Color Editor shown here. 

I generally start this process by selecting the check box at the bottom that reads “View Selected Color Range” and then click through the colors just above that check box. This will make the photo appear black and white, but it will reveal the color you select. In the screenshot to the right, I selected red (highlighted in yellow). This would reveal anything within the red color range. I typically cycle through these colors before I make any changes to get a better understanding of what I want to achieve and how to achieve it. Part of the problem is that the colors to adjust aren’t always what you expect. For instance, when I want to change how green trees or grass is in a photo, I have to work within the yellow color range, not green. 

In the screenshot, you can see I shifted the hue for red to appear more orange, increased the saturation to be more vibrant, and slid lightness to the left to darken the color range. I made similar adjustments to yellow. You will also notice on the circle that not all of the pie slices are equal. I narrowed yellow and widened red. Doing this changed the amount of the photo the changes I made would affect. For instance, with red being wider, the changes I make to the red color range affect a larger portion of the image. I don’t mean larger portion as in space. This is actually expanding the range of colors that would be affected within the photo. 

Wrap-up

For this photo, that’s all I have done. At this point, I export the photo to the file type, resolution, and other details to my needs. It’s also important at this step to choose an appropriate color space. For monitors, sRGB is standard. Many applications don’t support other choices and may not display the photo properly. Choosing the right file type is also important based on your needs. Jpeg is standard, but not the best quality. Jpeg is easy to share and easy to view, but it uses heavy compression that can lose detail in the photo. I usually stick to Jpeg in most cases, but there are times when something else is more appropriate. For instance, TIFF is higher quality and generally ideal for print or archival if you don’t mind significantly larger file sizes. PNG is in between Jpeg and TIFF with regards to quality and file size. Other file types exist for other purposes as well. 

If any part of my process raises questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I will do my best to answer them. If you have tips or a different way you would have approached this, I also wouldn’t mind your input. I strongly believe in growing and learning every day. No one knows everything and accepting that is key to great personal growth. 

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