This editing technique is something every landscape photographer should learn. It can be especially helpful when you're approaching an image with a few technical flaws.
Landscape photographers focus a lot of energy on capturing scenes with as much technical detail as possible: multiple exposures, focus stacking for pin sharpness, or even using tripod heads for immaculate panoramas. The reality is that many times, you just won't have the time or the conditions don't allow for any setup. Through this tutorial, we'll be using an image I took that would have benefited greatly from being able to use a tripod or even attempting a handheld bracketed image. Gusts of high wind combined with being so close to the ground meant I could barely hold my camera still enough to get a sharp image. The result is an image with a lot going for it, but it contains a completely blown-out portion of the sky that isn't recoverable.
We'll cover my entire editing processing through this image, but this tutorial isn't specifically about a technique, a tool, or a feature of your editing suite. It's about something bigger that you'll find yourself using in all of your edits.
How To Start Every Edit
Seeking advice on how to approach and start an edit is probably the most frequent question I get regarding landscape photography. There is an ocean of tools and techniques for your editing process, but only a small pool of ideas for approaching your images in an edit. Start every edit by asking yourself "what does this image need?" This is something I recommend and remind myself of continually, but also recognize the answer isn't necessarily straightforward. The more you practice this technique, though, the better you'll get approaching challenging images in the future.
Ironically, images with issues are a lot easier to approach in answering this question, which is exactly what we'll be tackling in this edit. Above is the raw image with only a few color adjustments. I start every edit by adjusting these settings first, but will go back to change them if it feels right.
Once I do I check to see exactly how clean the data is I have in the image by increasing my exposure by +3 and checking my shadow detail and then decreasing my exposure to -3 to see my highlight data. As mentioned above, this image is overexposed, which is the foundation for how we will approach this edit. Let's edit around that limitation and use it to our advantage by knowing we have to edit around that overexposed area in the image.
First, I'm going to create a linear gradient (M on your keyboard) that's applied to the sky. This gradient will add dehaze to our sky, but can also be used later to manipulate color temp or other specific settings. Dehaze has a nice effect on the color gradients in the sky, but I'm also adding this first to know how much I need to correct in the area where we lack data. Note that if I decrease my highlights with this selection, it's going to make our sunspot stick out, so we need to get more creative.
Next, we'll create a radial gradient (Shift+M) around our sun/blown-out area. Select invert so that we are manipulating all the areas outside of the sun and adjust accordingly, in this case just decreasing the highlights. You'll notice this is decreasing our highlights throughout the entire image, which we need to fix.
To fix this, we'll select "subtract" in our mask tool and select a linear gradient. We'll drag that linear gradient as if we wanted to apply it to the sea. What this will do is subtract that portion of the image from our mask, thus resulting in a mask that is only effecting a portion of our sky that we are trying to adjust.
Our final mask will be added to adjust our foreground. This is accomplished by adding one more linear gradient (M) to the entire bottom half of the image. I increased the exposure by a small amount along with the whites. I could come back to this selection to adjust dehaze and clarity as well if I felt like those needed it later on in the edit.
That completes the local adjustments and working around the problem area of the sky, but keep in mind that you might need to go back and readjust these once you add global adjustments. Editing is a dance, and sometimes, you have to work around specific spots after every change you make.
We'll brighten up the entire image by adjusting the whites and add more contrast into the highlight areas by decreasing the highlights slightly. Bring up the shadows by a significant amount to get details in the rocks. They will darken once we add contrast back into the image. I remove a bit of clarity to help with the ethereal and soft feel of the coast that I enjoy. Lastly, we'll add a bit of dehaze to the entire image for a little pop.
Next, we'll add a bit of contrast back into the image using the tone curve selecting medium contrast. Once I do this, I'll go back to adjust some of our local adjustments and global adjustments to make sure the sky is still looking bright.
My last adjustment is always saturation. Almost every slider you manipulate will inadvertently adjust the color of your image, whether it's contrast, whites, dehaze — you name it. So, I save this balance for last. I start off removing a bit of blue saturation from my HSL adjustments. Then, I decrease the saturation for the entire image, adjusting according to my own taste for the specific image. I also add sharpening before export, usually around ~70 depending on the style of image and what I'm exporting for.
The crop for this final image is somewhat dependent on the medium it is being shared on, such as print or social media. Above, you'll see our image before and after with a small crop and horizon straightened. This edit probably took less than 10 minutes once I knew what the image needed, something that has come in practice.
Editing a Different Problem
Let's quickly take a look at a different example, but I won't be going through the entire editing process, just reiterating the process of asking what an image needs and showing a solution for that question.
This image isn't lacking any data, but it is lacking light on the flower, which doesn't represent what I saw in the field. So, let's create a pseudo light source and really bring this image to life.
If you want a full breakdown of this technique, you can find it here, and it'll explain everything you need to know. Typically, I'd darken my image overall and add light back in using a radial filter, but in this case, our image is already dark, so all we'll need to do is add a radial filter. You'll want to zoom out of your image until it's almost thumbnail size, you can do this by holding shift and dragging your cursor to the left or by selecting about 12% on your navigation panel.
Next, we'll add in a big radial filter (Shift+M) that is intended to mimic a source of light coming into the image. Drag the center of it outside of the photo; you can adjust this to your preference. Then, brighten your image accordingly. In this case, I bring up the whites, bring up the exposure, and adjust the shadow and black values. Lastly, I remove dehaze to create more of a hazy look; this is fully explained in the full-length tutorial.
You'll notice the top half of the image is a bit too bright, so we'll repeat the same technique from our previous edit by removing a bit of this effect using a linear gradient. With your mask selected, "subtract" a linear gradient but only apply the feathered area and adjust to what looks good for your image.
Here's the final edit compared to the unedited image once I was done with it. This isn't close to a portfolio image, but it was a great example of an image I'm sure many of us have captured in our work and just couldn't figure out what to do with once we sat down to edit it. Knowing it needed a bit of light and having the tools to do it made it much easier to approach.
I started this tutorial off intending to approach imperfect images and editing around them. What I found was that you can approach nearly every one of your edits like this if you just repeat the practice. At first, you'll likely find yourself not knowing the answer for some of your images, but if you continually practice and develop a wider variety of solutions, it should gradually get easier to sit down to an edit. I still struggle to know the answer sometimes. What I usually end up doing is stepping away from an image until it comes to me.
Above is a great example of having more data than I needed but not using it because of how I wanted this image to look. I bracketed this image and have plenty of data I could use in the shadows, but I really liked the underexposed presentation of this image. Thus, in my edit, I worked around the light and didn't worry too much about the underexposed parts of the image. I wanted the result to be darker, and I based my entire edit around that.
It's important to know that not every image you'll take will be perfect. Sometimes, you're going to snap worthwhile photos that have limiting factors, but that doesn't mean you can't make them work. We are surrounded by what look like perfect images: perfect exposures, every single detail in focus, or once-in-a-lifetime conditions. I hope this is a good reminder that no matter where you are on your journey, sometimes, things won't be perfect. My catalog is full of imperfect images, and sometimes, just knowing what they need can really bring them to life in an edit.