One of the things that separates a competent photographer from an artist is vision. A competent photographer may be skilled at capturing what a scene looks like, but an artist is intent on showing what a scene feels like and is able to use a variety of tools to produce a final image that fits this vision. Vision is particularly important in the era of digital photography because so often in the field what we capture bears little resemblance to the final image produced. You’ve heard me say before that we are not trying to create the prettiest picture in the field. Instead we are trying to capture the best possible data that gives us a good starting point for using post processing to achieve our artistic vision.
A Starting Point – Your Raw File
When shooting in the field my typical strategy for exposure is to expose a photo as brightly as possible before the highlights start blowing out. For this particular case, when I was photographing heavy clouds above a cracked mud playa in Death Valley, that led to an exposure like this:
This is a pretty typical SOOC exposure for one of my landscape photos: the highlights and shadows are in check and the image looks quite flat and low-contrast. Some simple post processing on this (a grad filter to darken the sky, and the tone curve to increase contrast) produces a decent looking shot:
Now Let’s Kick The Processing Up A Notch
The image above is ok but it doesn’t really represent my experience out on the playa. I remember the clouds being incredibly dark and brooding, full of fantastic textures. The pockets of light seeping through the clouds were like little gateways to the sky above and kept pulling my attention from the ground and into the heavens. So I want my final image to showcase those things. In order to get the effect I want the process is simple in concept: I want to pull down the exposure a lot, making sure to use the Blacks and Shadows sliders in Lightroom to keep any details from getting clipped. Then I want to use the Whites slider to pull up the brighter tones in the image (this helps those pockets of light in the clouds pop), and use my Highlights slider to make sure nothing gets blown out. Then I’ll use the tone curve to add global contrast in the image, particularly paying attention to separating the dark tones in the photo in order to bring out all the juicy details in the clouds.
Let’s go through all those steps in sequence. First I’ll go back to the raw file and drop the exposure. In this case I reduced the exposure by just over 2 full stops. No real science to this; it was merely the point where my shadows began to approach pure black. Nothing was clipped though so it turns out I didn’t need to adjust my Shadows or Blacks sliders.
Next I’ll pull my Whites slider up (+75) to bring out the cracks of light in the clouds. This caused a fair amount of highlights to blow so I also need to pull the Highlights slider down significantly (-86) to retain detail in the bright clouds in the middle left. There are still some blown highlights but I will fix those in Photoshop later with a quick exposure blend.
The next step is to use the Tone Curve to separate the distinct tonal regions of the photo from one another to pull out the juicy detail in the clouds. I pulled the deep shadows farther down, and the lighter shadows up in brightness. This brought out great texture in the sky. I also pulled up the highlights in the Tone Curve to get those bright cracks of light in the clouds to really pop. (Check the comments for what that Tone Curve adjustment looked like in Lightroom.) Those simple adjustments led to this result:
This image looks pretty good now; it’s full of mood and drama and much more closely represents my vision of the scene. Now I want to add a couple finishing touches: first, an exposure blend in Photoshop to bring detail back into the blown out clouds on the left hand side. This isn’t always necessary for this kind of dark and stormy processing, but it happens to be for this particular photo.
I also want to do some dodging and burning. Notice how the central bright halo of clouds is brighter on the right than on the left? I want to dodge the left hand side to even that out. I’m also going to dodge the center of the playa to create a subtle pathway of light to lead your eye from the foreground to the sky. I also made a few minor color tweaks. Those touches result in this final image, which encompasses the full mood of my experience:
It’s a simple process that yields powerful results. This process can work for many kinds of photos when you have dramatic conditions or great contrasts within a scene. I hope you can use this in your own processing for creating moody images.
Thanks for reading!
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About the Author
Josh Cripps is a wilderness landscape photographer living in beautiful Mammoth Lakes, California. He shoots campaigns and gives presentations for Nikon. His work has been featured in publications like Outdoor Photographer, Pop Photo, and Landscape Photography Magazine. Josh also runs photography workshops, teaches online courses, and runs the popular YouTube channel Pro Photo Tips. Sometimes he talks like a cowboy and can grow an enormous beard when the need arises.