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Check yourself, don't wreck yourself!

The Landscape Photography Edition

It's been a while and I thought now is a great time to get a blog post up. Lately I've been active working locally with a couple camera clubs by giving presentations and doing some photo competition judging. One presentation was to the Englewood Camera Club on "Night Photography" and one to the Lone Tree Photo Club on "In field shooting techiques" and how to put the images together back home.

As a photographer, I love looking at other peoples images. I love seeing what you're shooting and your style of processing. I think this started when I was working in a 1hr photo lab and we had to check each image to make sure it was printed as good as possible before going back to the customer. I just fell in love with seeing the world through everyones eyes.

Judging photo competitions is not an easy task. Each club/group kind of has their own set of ways they want you to judge and when you personally know the people, it makes it even harder to be honest. Sugar coating things will never make anyone better. If you've been following me for a while and read some of my other blogs you will know that when I first started with digital I was being crituqued by others who were very good with photoshop and I knew nothing about photoshop back then. My "friends" at the time didn't hold back when it came to giving honest feedback. In fact, I left one online photo sharing site because at the time I felt like the people in the group were just being too harsh. Digital had just taken off and you either knew photoshop or you didn't. It was the wild west of digital photography back then. Today I am thankful for the honest/harsh words that I was given. I used that as a tool to help myself learn what digital photography was really about.

After judging the last competition, I was asked to give some tips for people who want to enter and some ideas of what the judges may look for. I came up with a list & figured I'd talk a little about each item in detail so that if you may be looking to enter a competion, this will give you a checklist of items to go over before submitting.

Did you point your camera at something you love? When we photograph the things we love the most, we tend to get our best images. Maybe it's because we've photographed that subject so much that we know it inside and out. We understand the light. We made mistakes in the past and we now know how to overcome those issues. We're passionate about the subject and we can pre-visualize the finished image.

Is your image straight/level? I see tilted images every single day. With social media and everyone scrolling, it's easy to just scroll the image up to the top of the screen and if the horizon matches the top of the screen then it's level, if it doesn't then you may want to look at it. Most all our cameras offer either grids or a virtual horizon so that we can level our images at the time of capture. If you're camera doesn't have such a thing then you can find and level your image in Lightroom, Photoshop, Adobe Camera RAW or probably any other photo processing software. When it comes to judging, this is the first thing I look for.

Did you clean the dust bunnies off your image?  They may be hard to see, obviously mine are very easy to see... If you want to know where the dust bunnies are in your image, simply open the image in any RAW converter like Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW and just brighten the image a little then slide your contrast slider all the way to the'll see where they are! How do you get rid of them? There are a few ways you can do this. First, to visualize where they are you can go into LR or ACR and choose the healing brush, then check the box that says, "visualize spots" this will show you where they are as well and then you can use the healing brush to remove them. If you're in Photoshop you can use the spot healing brush to take each one out. My favorite way to remove them is to first lasso each one so that they are all selected, right click > Fill > Content aware, blending mode normal, and opacity at 100%. Click ok and this will take care of all of them. If you've just got one or 2, the spot healing brush will do it too. We also now have Generative Fill option and Remove tool. With all these ways to remove dust bunnies, we should never see them again.

I also highly recommend a good sensor cleaning as needed or at least once a year by a professional.

Do you have blown highlights or clipped shadows? Are your whites too white, and your blacks too black. This one is very personal and since we each have our own style of photography it's something to just thinking about and consider when finishing an image or submitting it to a show. For me, personally, I like to have good shadow detail and keep my highlights in check. A good way to do this is to blend images shot at different exposure values. You could do an HDR but you may only need a certain portion of an image to blend with another one. You may not need to use the entire image. Bracketing images and blending is better than just shooting one image and trying to boost the shadows or darken the highlights.

Did you replace the sky/sky replacement? This is becoming a very common thing and while it's totally fine to do, if both the sky and foreground are your images, there are a couple things to keep in mind. Does the sky match the subject? Were the images shot about the same time of day? Do the shadows match? Does it even look natural? As a fellow artist/photographer, I don't care what or how you create your images. I just want them to look natural. Can you tell which of these 2 images below had the sky replaced?

The image on the left is the one I replaced the sky. The image on the right is 100% real. For me, the key is to be very subtle about it. I found a sky that naturally matched the rest of the scene so it looked like it fit perfectly. Color tones, softness, ect....

Here is an example of a bad sky replacement that I created. The sun is coming from one direction and the shadows are going the other direction towards the sun.. Don't do this!

Are there Halos between your subjects and the sky? This can be caused by a number of things. Bad masks, over sharpening, selective masking with adjustments ect... No matter how it's caused, it needs to be fixed. Luckily it's an easy fix and something I've been teaching for many years. You may not see these halos in your small images that you post online but as soon as someone wants a print that's even 12x18 or larger, you will see them and you'll want to fix them. To fix them do this in PS. Duplicate the layer, changed the blend mode to darken, select your clone tool, make the brush size about 10-20px depending on the file size. Then what you'll want to do is select the area of the sky just above the halo. With your opacity at 100% click and drag your clone tool over the halo and it should darken it right up and make the halo go away. The idea is that by using the darken blend mode your applying your selection to the brighter halo which then will only accept the darker pixles to fill it in... If you were to switch it around and make your selection from the rocks or foreground that are darker, then when you applied it to the halo it would go where ever your cursor went. By selecting the slightly darker area in the sky it just simply fills in the halo with the darker pixels...

Do you see "Banding" in the sky or other parts of the image? Almost 100% of the time Banding is caused by saving your file at a low quality setting. Sometimes it can be caused by having a scene with lots of colors that don't blend well together... Maybe the image was shot on a less quality setting like sRGB and jpg at the time of capture. Most of the time this happens when you're saving your image and you save it at a low jpg compression setting of less than 5. In PS when I'm ready to save an image for the web I'll use File>Save a copy then select PNG. If you do select jpg, be sure to keep your compression at 10-12. There is no visual difference between 10 and 12 but when you start going lower, you may see someething that looks like this. If you see this type of banding check your save settings. If you see this in your images before editing, it's because you shot the images at a very low quality setting.

Did you "Fill the Frame"? Does your subject fill the frame as needed without any left over space that doesn't belong? This will help to keep the viewer engaged in your image while moving around the composition. In the image below, i've got balanced clouds behind the lighthouse, I've included the entire puddle which shows the reflection and nothing is cut off.

In the snow scene i've left too much sky, it's space that doesn't need to be there when I have clouds right along the mountain tops. I could have used a different lens or got closer to the snow line on the lake and made the top of my image just above the clouds.

Are your reflections balanced in exposure and tonal values? Anytime you're shooting a reflection the reflection should never ever ever ever ever be brighter than the sky. Water absorbs light and therefore makes the reflection naturally darker than the sky. It's OK to have the sky and reflection balanced in exposure and tonal values but never is it ok to have the sky darker than the reflection. If your exposure is correct and you're exposing to the right this is what your image will look like as a RAW file - You can clearly see the reflection is darker than the sky. No filters, No GND Filters, nothing, this is simply how our cameras naturally record a scene.

There are times on overcast days or if you wait till the light is absolutely perfect where you can get the reflection to look very close to the land but even then, the camera will naturally record the scene darker in the reflection. I've searched almost everyone of my reflection shots and this is about as close to perfectly balanced as I have for a raw file. You can see that the bottom of the image is slightly darker than the top but not by much.

Now let's take a look at a reflection when the sky is darker than the reflection, it just doesn't look right does it? I had to create these on purpose to simiulate what it may look like if you used a GND that was too strong for the sky.

So how should reflections look after they are processed - in my opinion, like this. By bracketing, we can then take the good exposure for the sky and blend it in with the reflection image and create a very natural looking scene. Below, the 2 images on the left were blended to create the image on the right which was my starting point for beginning my editing.

These images below show the final edits. I shot one at sunset and then went back the next morning and shot it at sunrise. I did this to see. how the light can really change a scene.

In these final edits you'll see the reflection oh so slightly darker than the sky. This is what gives it a very beleivable, natural quality to any reflection image. For reference, the image on the left is sunrise and the image on the right is sunset.

Does your image include some leading lines to help guide the viewer? Leading lines in landscape photography are important to help the viewer's eye explore your image. Leading lines can be anything from rocks, flowers, waterfalls, clouds, fencelines, ect.... It really doesn't matter what it is, as long as it helps guide the viewer into your scene.

Two basic examples of leading lines. A road that guides the viewer through the scene from one side to the other. Receeding water on the beach that pulls the viewers eye into the scene where the rocks are and then the rock points you up to the moon.

A couple more that may be a little bit more complex are things like car trails on the road and a broken branch laying in a grassy area pointing to an old church. As long as the viewers eye has a place to follow/go to, it can be considered a leading line. Now, if we back up just a second and take a look at the church picture, you'll see I included the tree on the right. I did this because it gives the image balance and keeps the viewers eye between the two trees and on the church. If that tree had not been there, I would have composed the shot differently.

By keeping a few things in mind we can really improve our landscape photography and give ourselves better chances at creating great images. Capturing the landscape and spending time in nature can be very therapeutic, we want to do the landscape justice. Aside from the above topics I mentioned here are a few other things to keep in mind when trying to capture the best landscape images

  • Use a Tripod

  • Shoot in RAW

  • Use a Low ISO

  • Keep your vibration reduction off if you're using a tripod

  • consider mirror lockup or a 2 second timer to eliminate any camera shake

  • consider blending for optimal image quality

  • consider focus stacking for optical sharpness throughout the image

  • Shoot when the light is best - mornings or evenings

  • or when light is moody/stormy

Thanks for taking the time to read and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.

If you found spelling errors it's because there was an update and I am not sure how to get the spellcheck back on. I'll figure it out for next time..


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