Squeezing Out More Detail – Above the Clouds

I like detail in my photography – good, sharp, clean detail. I don’t think I’m unique in that regard, in fact I would say the vast majority of photographers feel the same way. I like sharp lenses, high megapixels, low noise. Once again, I think most of us would agree with that. Of course, camera technology isn’t the only thing progressing. Adobe continually makes improvements to Photoshop. Filter manufacturers, both the physical and software continue to progress, and most importantly, I continue to learn and evolve my post-processing techniques.

Over three years ago, I photographed Rocky Mountain National Park with the best cameras I had at the time – An original Canon 5D and a Canon 20D. Very capable cameras, in fact I still use the 5D original flavor from time to time. On a quite evening I captured the above shot with my 5D, a 17-40 f/4l lens, and a Singh-Ray 3-stop soft grad. I processed the shot in Photoshop CS4, used Nik’s Viveza 1 for some of the color balancing and then passed Nik Color Efex’s Tonal Contrast Filter over it for a bit of sharpening. Remember, I said I like sharp, so I thought I was gleaning more detail out of it. After reviewing this image again, I now cringe at the result. Heavy hand, very heavy hand.

I’ve always thought this image had potential so I’m going to provide some insight into my new process of today. More – after the jump.

To further illustrate my discussion, I’ve included two 100% crops below from the 3 year old image and the image from today as comparisons. These are from the left and right sides of the image.

Old – Left

New – Left

Old – Right

New – Right

What I Did Right!

To start, let’s review what I did right three years ago:

1. I shot RAW. This is, in my opinion, the only way to go. I’ve shot RAW since the first week I had my 20D in 2005 and I haven’t looked back. I even wish my cell phone camera had this option.

2. I used a steady tripod, cable release, mirror lockup, and f/11 to prevent too much diffraction.

3. I captured multiple images at multiple exposures. Even three years ago, I knew if I had the right exposures I could blend them together. In fact I was doing quite a bit of image blending with varying degrees of success three years ago. For more information on image blending check out the tutorial by Sean Duggan.

As a base, I had a set of sharp images that I could use to extract as much detail as possible later. I probably didn’t think later would necessarily mean over three years later.

What I Did Wrong!

Now, let’s look at what I did wrong.

1. When I used Camera RAW in Photoshop to bring in the image, I cranked the contrast up way too far. Over the years I have found that global contrast changes can further muddy the details in the shadow. My processing method of choice now is to bring the contrast way down in order to preserve the detail. I can then work on localizing contrast later. What does this mean? Well, I now often use luminosity masks to alter the contrasts of different exposure ranges. Luminosity masks are too broad a topic for me to discuss and Tony Kuyper has done a marvelous job of explanation. I highly suggest looking at this previous link for more information.

2. I pushed the tonal contrast too far. I strongly dislike Chromatic Aberration. Very. Strongly. Dislike it. When I look at what I did with the Tonal Contrast filter in Nik Color Efex, it appears I was putting it back in. What I was trying to do was get more detail out of the clouds and trees and in the process I ended up causing some funky fringing. I don’t like funky fringing. The original image has this effect. Bad.

3. I just didn’t blend well, or at all. I can’t tell, but I might have chosen to not blend this image originally and thought I could get away with simply cranking up the shadows. This has the unfortunate side effect of causing a lot of noise to creep into the shot. I had the multiple exposures, but I might not have been comfortable enough with blending at the time to use it. Either way if you look at the crop from the original shot from the left side of the image you can see some pretty bad noise with the muddied detail. The new image looks much better as it was taken from an exposure with more detail.

Below is are the comparisons of the before and after, you can click to see the images bigger. I personally think the after is much better. Is it perfect? No, and I will probably return to it again when my techniques and tools change. While I’m not going to redo every image, I do like returning to the occasional image to make improvements and see how it turns out differently with the post processing and tools of today.



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