Capitol Reef

by Peter Eastway

Peter Eastway

Photographed just outside Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. In the original exposure you can see that hazy sunlight really didn’t bring out the best in the landform. A little bit of contrast and some local coloring made a world of difference.

March 01, 2011 — One of the biggest problems with travel photography is the timetable. Sometimes you’re simply not in a location at the right time of day.

Capitol Reef National Park
Phil Kuruvita and I spent a week in March 2008 rushing through some wonderful American Wild West landscapes. We had planned some early morning and late afternoon shots, but that meant reaching this location mid-morning and well past the best light.

Despite this, the erosion on these mountain flanks was so severe, I figured I could do something if I worked in monochrome.When traveling, things rarely happen as planned, so one trick is to have an open mind as to what you can do. What caught my attention here were the boulders that were rolling and slipping down the furrows. All I needed was a way to highlight them—and that’s where a little knowledge of Photoshop comes in handy.

01. There are many ways you can convert an image to black and white, but generally speaking, unless you have a good color image to start with, you will have your work cut out for you to make it work. My first step was to darken the foreground using a Curves adjustment layer (Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Curves) and drag the highlight point downwards. This darkened the image overall, so I used a black brush on the adjustment layer’s mask to remove the effect from the entire scene except the foreground. (As it turns out, I will crop this section out, but at this stage I didn’t realize this.)

02. The second step was to increase the contrast of the scene, again using a curves adjustment layer. However, I was concerned that the increase in contrast was too great for the rocks I wished to color later on, so I painstakingly created a mask, which covered the rocks so they retained their lower contrast. I also saved this mask as a selection so I could use it again to control the coloration of these rocks later on.

03. The next adjustment layer added is a Black & White. There isn’t a lot of color in the original image, but the mountain flanks are a little cooler than the rocks, so I adjust the sliders until the image looks visually correct. I found that the blue channel added too much contrast in the shadow areas, so although this would have helped highlight the boulders, I returned it to a positive value. The beauty of this dialog is you don’t really have to know the theory, just move the sliders until you’re happy with what you see on screen.

04. Adding the color was a matter of experimentation. I wanted the boulders to “glow” with rich golden hues, but using standard Hue/Saturation adjustment layers wasn’t producing the result I wanted. The solution, I discovered, was to change the blending mode for Hue/Saturation to Soft Light and Hard Light, then adjust the opacity and the Blend If dialogs.

If you’re unfamiliar with layers, blend modes and the blending options dialog, the following may seem a little complicated.The first Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (left) was added, the Colorize button selected and the Hue (31) and Saturation (10) sliders set. Lightness was also moved slightly to –12. I then opened the Blending Options dialog (Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options) and adjusted the Blend If sliders below. I feathered the highlights by Alt/Opt + Clicking on the white triangle to separate it and dragged the left half to the left. This kept the highlights closer to white without color.

In the second and third Hue/Saturation adjustment layers, I have loaded the selection of the rocks I saved earlier, which automatically becomes a mask. These two layers are essentially the same, but with different blend modes (Hard Light and Soft Light) and different opacity settings. Together they gave me the effect I wanted—strong, richly saturated colors in the strewn boulders

05. To increase the contrast, a Levels adjustment layer has been used, but in two steps: The first step was for everything except the boulders, the second for the boulders. Why? I felt that the increase in contrast needed for the mountains was greater than that required for the boulders. I didn’t want the colors in the boulders to block up. By using the same mask, but inverting it, it was easy enough to adjust the image in two separate stages. The top image here shows the first levels adjustment layer without the mask (the shadows under the boulders look too black), the middle image shows the adjustment layer with the mask (the shadows under the boulders look too light). The image below shows the image with the second Levels adjustment layer and the mask inverted, darkening the boulders and their shadows, but not to the same extent as the first Levels adjustment layer. The point of this exercise is to show how much control you can exercise over your images using masks, even if the effect is only clear on a fine art print.

06. The image is basically finished, just requiring a few finishing touches. First an overall Levels adjustment layer is added. I don’t use the Levels dialog very often, being able to do more or less the same with Curves, but from time to time I find an image that I’m struggling with responds to the simple, three-control approach. This was one of them.

Next I added a Curves adjustment layer to darken the top left of the image, using the mask shown here (top).Still thinking about the image, I added another Curves adjustment layer and clicked the Auto button—it lightened the image up. You can see the resulting curve dialog (bottom right).
The final two layers darkened the edges of the image—my standard vignette approach. You can see one of the masks used (bottom) plus the curve dialog (bottom left).

The funny thing about this image is that I wasn’t 100% happy with it. Something wasn’t quite right and then while preparing this article, I worked out what it was: it needed to be framed tighter.

If you compare the images I have worked on with the final crop on the opening page you’ll see I have simplified the image by framing it tighter. This makes the boulders larger in the frame and excludes the complexity of the surroundings.

Not all images will be immediately obvious, but if deep down you think there’s something there, take the time to explore!

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