Why Do Your Fall Images Look Better This Year?

Yellow aspen in the Eastern Sierra

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors

I often receive supportive feedback on my photography, as well as questions on how I get my results.  Since I’m “in this for the photography” I tend to prioritize photography over writing.  So my answers to questions provide a great opportunity to address common questions in a blog post.  This time, I’ll just have it all be the blog post, illustrated with photos that I’ve post-processed in the past month, fall 2017…

Yosemite Daylight Long Exposure Composite

On 9 Nov 17, 5.52PM PST ———- said:
I see a dramatic change in your fall images….much improved, even though the old ones were great to start with. What software are you using to develop your images? It looks like you are using focus stacking for the landscapes as well. Is this so?
Nice job, ————

Hi ———-,

I’ll answer in two parts, first regarding post-processing.

I honestly don’t know if I can narrow it down to one or two factors and answer the question completely, but here goes…Everyone’s looking for ways to improve their photography, and the questions often assume that a new camera or post-processing software must be the key.  To be sure, cameras and applications do evolve, so there are benefits to new versions, but there’s a lot to be said for the influence of experience and personal stylistic choices.

Spring in the FallIt would be really easy to simply provide “the answer” and point to one new product that will provide the magic bullet.  You find that all over the Internet with people paid to promote products, and they often do not follow FTC guidelines to properly identify their social media and blog “reviews” of their sponsors’ products as paid ads.  I’m unencumbered by product/manufacturer relationships, so I can take a more comprehensive and less biased approach.

I do find Adobe Lightroom 5 and lately 6 to be meter than older versions of the software, and I do often re-process results as recent as two years ago and get better results.  But here’s the catch: I also notice that I’m using a different approach and settings than I did even as recently as two years ago.  So I can’t really attribute the improvements to solely or even mainly to newer Lightroom software.

Fall Colors in the Virgin River NarrowsI’ve been using Photomatix from HDRsoft for many years, and I remember as early as 2009 I was occasionally layering my best edit of the original photo on top of the HDR result to make the result more realistic.  Unfortunately that required exporting the files to Photoshop for the layering.  I prefer the photography side of the process over the computer/graphics arts options, so I often just settled for an average of the three exposures in Photomatix, and touched that up on Lightroom instead.  The new version Photomatix 6 that I started using in beta last spring includes the layering of any of the original files on the HDR output, and enables blending using a slider from 0 to 100%.  So in addition to being to select from more preset HDR results, it’s little extra effort to blend in the best straight photographic result that you were able to produce in Lightroom.

That would certainly account for many of the files that I post-processed in Photomatix, but I try to tag all of them with HDR and Photomatix, so you can see for yourself that it’s not a huge percentage of my overall fall results.

Yosemite Fall DogwoodsSo what’s left is some combination of experience and what I choose to do with it.  I think that I’ve become more demanding with my results, which forces me to take a more critical look at them.  I often say that I prefer to spend five minutes or less post-processing a photo on my computer, but to get better results, at a minimum it is necessary to take the lead of Ansel Adams and at least invest some time in dodging and burning.

Stylistically, while I always preferred to produce more or less realistic images, sometimes digital cameras simply didn’t have the dynamic range to capture an entire natural scene well, so I’ve decided to accept the compromise of visibly manipulated results.  As cameras get better in subtle ways and I continue to master my skill with the various techniques and tools available, including the software tools, I can shift my focus to stylistic choices instead of fighting the tools to get an acceptable result.

Fall CalmI recall that I decided to get a little more assertive with contrast and blacks about a year ago.  At some point earlier this year I decided to produce some more colorful results, although I still don’t want the first impression people get to be “manipulated”.  I may not always succeed, but I’m exploring a wider range of results, and reining myself in when I can detect that the photo is crossing some invisible line.  I guess that you could boil it down to developing my own effects, range and style, mainly within the bounds of what Lightroom can do, but occasionally using Photomatix if/when the dynamic range of the scene warrants it.

The next logical question is what am I doing in Lightroom.  The short answer is that what I like about landscapes is the photography “pursuit of light” side in the field, experiencing the moment itself, so as mentioned, I tend to keep my adjustments under five minutes or so per photo on the computer, whenever possible.  I push as much quality as I can back to the capture side of the process, and automate some of the post-processing, so I can get back outside.  The fine details of how I achieve that, from image capture through post-processing, are probably best left for interactive post-processing demos during my workshops, since sharing my process and some of my favorite locations is exactly how I continue to pursue photography.

Yosemite's El Capitan in the Fall by Jeff Sullivan on 500px.com


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Shooting & Postprocessing Fall Colors Images

Fall is one of my favorite times to shoot, as California’s Sierra Nevada is decorated with colorful leaves: in the trees, on the ground, and alongside creeks and lakes. Aspen leaves are flat and shiny, and they point and rotate in virtually any direction, so in my approach a primary shooting consideration is the reduction of color-killing glare. Whether the lighting conditions are sunny or cloudy a circular polarizing filter, properly rotated to darken the image (the visual effect when you cancel out the glare), will enable the full color of the leaves to shine through and get captured by your camera’s sensor. In fact, I drive around with polarized glasses on (in all seasons) so I’ll recognize more potential shots. There can be issues with polarizers producing uneven results in solid blue skies if you’re using wide to ultrawide lenses, so you may have to shoot a given scene with the polarizer on and off so you can select the best one later, and so you’ll have the option of superimposing the two images and using Photoshop layer masking to use the Fall colors from one image and the blue sky from the other (more trouble than I currently go to, but a valid option nonetheless).

Optimizing your camera’s capture of the color is only the first challenge however. Once you view your RAW file in your favorite editing program, you often find that the camera failed to capture adequate contrast and it assigned an automatic white balance which dramatically changed color as well.

That was my experience as I viewed photos of Parker Lake which I took during the Mountain high Workshops Fall Colors session last week. The yellow aspen at the far end were changed to a dull orange-brown, and the gren was overly dull as well. One however I shot of the attendees and lake from behind the trees when I first arrived, and the Fall colors on the far side turned out a lot brighter and more yellow, more like what I remembered from being there.
MHW Fall Colors Workshop

To restore that yellow to my other Parker Lake shots, first I tried a few white balance settings… changing from As Shot to Auto and Daylight, and possibly even bumping the color from there towards cold (blue) or warm (orange). Your mileage may vary based on your camera’s sensor, so what I actually ended up with is irrelevant; the process is more important.

What really did the trick however was to go into the Develop tab/menu and where the color sliders are in the right column under the HSL / Color / B&W heading, first I set the sliders to Luminance (brightness) and made the yellow trees brighter, then I changed the sliders to Saturation and I gave just the yellows a bit of an increase until the trees matched the other photo with more natural color. I did a similar thing to a lesser degree to the greens, which also seemed duller than what I saw onsite.

Two additional adjustments that can often imporve the outcome are Develop – Presence – Saturation (of course, although if I use it at all I prefer to keep it minor and subtle, under 5%), increasing contrast (which you’ll see improves color on most images taken at -2/3 EV or brighter… i.e. most exposures), and Library – Saved Preset – Punch, which seems to perform something analogous to a local content-aware contrast adjustment (it either improves the result or it doesn’t, so I’m always ready to Ctrl-Z undo it).

I’m not sure what caused the camera to go so far off on the color for that sequence of Parker Lake shots, perhaps the green algae and brown mud on the lake bottom, but the corrected version seems much more natural to me. I’ve upload both the behind-the-trees shot and this adjusted reflection shot so you can see how the edits turned out on the reflection one.

If you don’t have Adobe Lightroom, you can download a free trial, which will be active for 30 days from your first use. Adobe also periodically posts Beta versions for public use (you have to find the Beta download section of their site), which tend to work (with some bugs) for months.

Since I started using Lightroom I no longer have a copy of Photoshop CS installed on my latest laptop, and I hardly ever use Photomatix any more. Lightroom is simply more efficient to use, and it produces excellent results.

One of the key features I use a lot are software GND filters under the Develop (look for a little GND-looking icon near the top of the right column). I often use Cokin GND filters when I shoot, but additional fine tuning is extremely helpful.

A huge productivity boost comes from Lightroom being able to copy editing functions from one photo to many others from that shoot
(Library – right click over photo – Develop Settings – Copy). Since I bracket exposures, I can edit one dark one, one medium one and one light one, then copy those basic edits onto dozens of similarly exposed photos, then simply pick the best results to make some additional minor optimizations to. I even copy dust spot removal from one photo to adjacent ones, then simply adjust a few spots where the content in the new shot requires cloning from a different place (easy to do, difficult to describe… it’ll make more sense when you try it).

Lightroom also helps you become deeply familiar with your camera’s results. For example, without other experience I’d expect that a 0EV exposure might provide an excellent compromise as the image to work with and edit, and I’ve heard that a slightly overexposed image would offer more detail (a larger file size), but through using Lightroom and editing three bracketed exposures side by side, I’ve found that for my camera a 2 stop underexposed image often offers the best color and contrast, so at a minimum I’ll edit the darkest file for reference, then see if I can get the middle exposure to look as good. Sometimes the middle exposure gets close if I increase contrast, but often I still choose the darkest one as the best (with a little extra noise reduction). I should mention that my most common bracketing and exposure compensation settings are: bracking of +/- 1 1/3 stop, biased -2/3 stop, resulting in exposures of -2, -2/3 and +2/3 EV. I should add the disclaimer that those settings do seem camera dependent… some of the workshop attendees’ cameras seemed to perform better a 0EV, without the -2/3 stop compensation (which works well on my Canon 5DII).

The two things would like to have from Photoshop are adjustment layers / layer masking and free downloadable actions (such as one which enables you to make a star trails shot from multiple 30 second night shots). In some rare instances I might enjoy panoramas/stitching and content aware fill, but I prefer the shooting end of the creative process, not editing, so I tend not to get around to postprocessing which requires a lot of time. It’s either easily and quickly available from the in-camera result, or I simply move on to work with another image.

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