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:

SOOC exposure using the Flat Picture Control

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:

After some minor post processing our SOOC shot looks ok.

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.

After reducing the exposure of the raw file the photo looks like this

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:

The Tone Curve helps bring out details in the dark sky

Finishing Touches

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:

A few finishing touches and voila: a dark and dramatic photo.

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!

Josh

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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.

You can read more about Josh here.

7 replies
  1. Michael E Main
    Michael E Main says:

    I love, love your comment: “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.” I feel that I have instinctively been doing this and never had the words to so completely articulate this point. What I AM working on is gaining the skills for achieving my vision. Already I’ve picked up a few things from this article that I am anxious to check out with my own work. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Hi Josh,
    Thanks for the article. It adds weight to the conundrum I have been working with for some time, that idea of being a photographic artist, rather than a documentary photographer.
    Many photographers and photography viewers struggle with the idea that a photo can have an element of artistic interpretation, rather than just making an accurate depiction. Sometimes you hear things like; the colours look wrong, that doesn’t look real, etc. There seems to be a feeling of ‘cheating’ somehow, as if the photo is less because it seems unlikely to have come straight out of the camera.
    However, the other side of the coin is the slippery slope of ‘over cooking’ an image. When is tweaking too much? Are the colours too unrealistic, should I change the sky, should I add a person, change the leaf colours to autumnal from boring green, etc. Modern photography has subtly changed people’s acceptance of tweaked photos, because digital photos can be developed so much, and when you look back at a range of photography from the pre-digital era, many of these photographs now can seem bland or flat.

    Personally I like to think of minor enhancements to a good starting photo, but it could be likened to the debate around drug cheating at the Olympics, who is doing it, if they do and I don’t will I be competing in an unequal field, why shouldn’t I do it if most of the others are probably doing it, its only a problem if I get caught, is my result genuine if I do, who will know if I don’t and most of the others do? etc.

    On a lighter note, thank you, I love your fun photo tips, and your light hearted yet thoughtful take on photography.
    Jenny

    Reply
    • Josh Cripps
      Josh Cripps says:

      Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think once you accept that you’re an artistic photographer then you’ve accepted the idea that every photo is a representation of your experience. Past that I believe you have to draw the line for yourself what’s acceptable or not in processing. For me I want to capture and recreate the magic of a real moment that I experienced. But to be clear, I don’t want to represent all parts of that experience equally. I pick and choose what I am most strongly drawn to by my choice of lens, composition, and settings. Post processing helps me further bring out the things I want to showcase. But as an example, for me personally I draw the line at swapping skies or doing elaborate compositing, because then I’m no longer interpreting an actual moment I experienced. And that’s what makes being out in nature so special to me: that idea that you can say “wow! I can’t believe that actually happened!” Now let me use my artistry to show my viewer why that moment was so special to me.

      Take care,

      Josh

      Reply

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