On my trip to the Southern Drakensberg in March it took me about 2 days to realise that I wasn’t even close to prepared to capture the peaks from below, because I was staying above the plateau and getting to the best spots below the cliffs took a good 3-4 hours of driving and walking combined. I decided that I would make do with the best above the plateau and come back later in the year, better prepared for hiking and camping. The cliffs only get direct sunlight close to the summer solstice, so it was kind of pointless even trying!
On this specific evening the sunset looked promising to the West, so I decided to head for a ridge above the plateau cliffs where I could shoot along the top into the sun. I had walked past it earlier the same day while on my way to the scene below. The image discussed in the tutorial was taken from the top of the distant ridge in the image below.
As usual, I made sure that I got to the scene about an hour before the light peaked so I could ascertain the composition I wanted to use. Upon scouting the scene for potential compositions and my mind paging through the portfolios of inspirational photographers, I saw something similar to a recent image by Alex Nail, a bit too similar perhaps, but I couldn’t resist. a Random thought that has always bothered me…Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism of compositions?
I chose it for the following reasons
- The sun and rock wall fit nicely onto thirds
- The rock wall and bright flare are both strong compositional elements, but counter each other very well
- I liked the flowers and lush grass on the rock slabs and wanted to use it along with the rock wall to give the image depth
- The composition could have been better if I could move further back, but I was against the rock wall behind me
I set up my tripod, attached my camera and cable release. I knew that filters would cause a lot of unwanted flare in the image when shooting into such a strong sun. It would also leave the rock wall 3 stops darker than the rest of the foreground, so I knew that I would be bracketing for a HDR blend. In images where you’re shooting into such a strong highlight, you usually require three exposures to capture the dynamic range in the scene, but in some cases like this one it doesn’t really make a difference. The tonal gradation from the pure whites to the blue sky at the top of one exposure had enough detail. I used the 3rd exposure anyway just to try and reduce the area of blown whites a bit.
As always – ISO100 for optimal IQ, f/16 was good enough for sufficient depth of field and the resulting exposure times were 1/50th,1/13th and 1/3rd of a second. This gave me my three exposures. Even without filters, shooting into such a bright highlight causes unwanted lens flare in my foreground. This problem is easily solved with blending. Take another exposure at 1/3rd of second while blocking the sun with your finger/fingers/some object. Always pay attention to the whole frame to ensure that you block the sun, eliminate as much flare as possible while obstructing as little of the image as you possibly can. So now I’ve got my 4 necessary exposures.
One month later, comfortably behind the computer with some coffee and music, I open the images in the RAW tool to apply some minor RAW adjustments, similar to the Kalahari Dusk image.
- +15 vibrance
- +35 contrast
- -23 Red/cyan fringing (specific to my 16-35mm II)
- Combination of slight split toning to enrich the colors.
Now open the files in photoshop and the blending starts. Step 1 is to stack the 4 exposures from dark to bright, with the flareless image on top. Your layers palette should now look as shown below
Blending so many exposures can get quite confusing, so to simplify things we’ll blend the top two exposures into one ‘foreground’ exposure and the two bottom ones into one ‘sky’ exposure. Let’s start with the sky because it’s the easiest.
- Click the eye button next to the two top layers to hide them
- Put put a mask on layer 1
- Select the gradient tool (G) and make sure you’ve got the radial gradient selected, which is the second one ([ and ] browses through the gradient types)
- 100% opacity is always too much – around 20-40% typically gives the most natural look. You usually have to undo and redo this process a few times to find the optimal combination of opacity and distance to drag the gradient.
- Once you’ve got the correct gradient tool and you’ve set the opacity, click in the centre of the flare and drag the gradient outwards to blend the darker exposure into the centre of the highlight
- Undo and redo until you get a natural look. You can see the gradient I settled for in the image below
- 7. Merge the two bottom layers (Make sure the 2nd layer is selected and hit CTRL+E)
We’ve created our one ‘sky’ exposure by blending the bottom two together, now we’ve got to blend the foreground exposures together. We want as little flare as possible, while retaining the starburst. So the bit of flare between the ‘rays’ of the starburst will inevitably still be in the image
- Start by unhiding the top two layers, selecting the top one and adding a layer mask to it.
- Now similarly to the previous blend, use a radial gradient (@100%) to get your basic blend. This will ensure a nice even fade of the flare exposure to the clean exposure. Undo and redo until you get it right.
- Then just use a nice fat 100% black brush to get rid of what remains of the fingers.
- Merge the layers (make sure the top layer is selected and hit CTRL+E)
The original 4 exposures are now two, but this is where the tricky part comes in. I would advise going over my Kalahari Dusk tutorial to get some insight into using channel selections to blend layers.
- Make sure the top layer is selected and add a layer mask to it
- Select the normal linear gradient (first one)
- Drag the gradient from just above the horizon to just below it (or vice versa…)
- Now we’ve got the same result as we would have had if using a graduated ND filter (without the flare of course ). The rock wall is dark because it sticks out above the horizon. The solution is simple, but requires some fine brush work.
- Go to the channels palette and select the blue channel (CTRL+click) , which will give us the ideal selection of the sky.
- We want the inverse of it (the foreground) so hit CTRL+SHIFT+I to invert the selection
- Hit CTRL+H to hide the marching ants so you can see what you’re doing
- Now take a large 100% white brush and paint over the rock wall, you’ll see that it paints away the gradient that we applied, revealing the detail from the exposure below the mask. The problem is that there wasn’t enough contrast between the wall and sky to get a perfect selection, so painting reveals some detail from the sky too, which we don’t want. It causes a nasty blending halo which is a big no-no.
- The solution is to take a slightly smaller brush and press X to reverse your palette colors (should be black now) so that we can paint the detail back in to the sky. Paint along the edge of the wall. This will again leave a slight dark halo on the rock wall so reverse the colors again, reduce the size of the brush and paint on the wall to get the detail in the wall back….etc
- Repeat this process until you’re happy. There’s always a nice gray mid-area when the compromise of halo in the sky and rock and the transition of sky to rock is pleasing to the eye. For me, it was simply 3 paints with this image. The image itself doesn’t show it so clearly, but the masks do.
Don’t expect to ace this technique on your first try. It takes a bit of practice Get rid of dust spots, add a dash of contrast and color and voila, you’re done!
I appreciate any feedback on these tutorials. Mail me if you get stuck!