How I Edited My Most Popular Photo on Fstoppers

In this article, I share some techniques I used to edit my most popular photo here on Fstoppers. With 4.36 points from 95 votes, it appealed to many of you. But aside from the great subject with Mohamed and his dromedaries and the beautiful, golden evening light, the final image required quite some work to achieve this pristine look.

When I take photos in the desert, I try to find areas free from footprints. But even in remote places like the Erg Chigaga in Morocco, it's not an easy endeavor. I'd have to walk very deep into the desert, far away from the camps, to find a clean stretch of sand. And then, there's the weather in the desert. Often, I encounter a clear sky, which I then try to exclude from my photos. But depending on the subject, this is not always possible.

With some nifty photo-editing techniques, I can solve both problems.

Advanced Cloning Technique

Let's first deal with the footprints. With the Healing Brush Tool, you can sample a patch of sand close to any area you want to clone out by holding down Alt and clicking with the left mouse. After grabbing your sample like this, release the Alt key and draw over the footprints.

In the screenshot below, you see the structures in the sand. Those little ripples are typical, and they require close attention. After sampling an area, try to align the ripples while drawing over the footprints to create a convincing result. Also, pick from different areas to create a random pattern so a viewer will not notice the retouching.

While the healing brush is more advanced than the Clone Stamp Tool in creating seamless tones and colors, it has its limitations. After the cloning, a residue of the old tones can be visible. Notice how the structures in the sand look fine in the following screenshot; the healing brush did a good job for those. But the sand appears very blotchy.

The goal is to clean up the remaining spots while maintaining the ripples. You can think of the ripples as elements of high frequency while the blotches have a lower frequency. With a technique called frequency separation, you can divide them into different layers:
  1. Create a merged copy of the current edit by holding down Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + Shift + E and rename it to "low." It will later be the low-frequency layer.

  2. Copy this layer and rename the copy to "high". It will later contain the fine details.

  3. Select the low layer and go to Filter - Blur - Gaussian Blur... Dial in a radius, which blurs just the details you want to separate. For sand, use something between 5 and 15 pixels. With that, you should still see the blemishes in the sand.

  4. Select the high layer and go to Image - Apply Image and dial in the exact settings I show in the following screenshot. Note that the low layer is the source. These settings work only for 16-bit images. If you work on 8-bit material, you'll need different adjustments: uncheck the Invert box, set Blending to Subtract rather than Add and insert an Offset of 128 instead of 0. The Scale remains at 2.

  5. Finally, set the blend mode of the high layer to Linear Light.

After performing these steps, the photo should look exactly as before. The beauty of this technique is that you can now perform cleanup and cloning on the low and high layers separately.

To remove the blotches from the sand, create another copy of the low layer and blur it until the spots are no longer visible. With a black mask, you can hide the effect and selectively paint it in with a soft, white brush.

For more direction, follow along as I clean up my desert photo in the feature video.

Selective Image Transformations

The before and after comparison at the beginning of this article shows a white sky in the original image. It draws the viewers' attention away from the main subject. Because I couldn't get rid of the sky by changing the aspect ratio to 16:9 or 2:1, I used selective image transformations.

Why selective? Stretching the whole photo to exclude the sky would noticeably distort the caravan. Restricting the transformations to areas that don't contain reference elements makes the result much more realistic. I can get away with stronger transformations. In the screenshot below, you see how I selected just the upper part of the picture above the caravan. I stretched it to remove a large amount of the white sky.

If you plan to do such transformations in your own photos, don't stretch the pixels too much. You will lose sharpness and introduce artifacts if you go too far. Selective image transformations work best for the sky and for areas of your photo that don't contain too many details and are free from elements where the distortion could be noticed.

In the following video, I show more ways to use selective image transformations. Let's say you took a photo in which the horizon sits right in the center. For some images, it might work. For others, you might wish it was positioned a little higher in the frame. You can stretch the landscape and compress the sky to achieve this. Another use case is centering an element. In the video, I show how to do it with an example from New Zealand.

Creative Perspective Corrections

Perspective corrections are typically used to remove distortions from an image. Especially for architecture photos that exhibit keystoning, they are important. But they can also be used creatively, which again works best for images, which don't contain reference elements that'll give the edit away.

Take my desert photo as an example. In the original photo, the ridge on which Mohamed is walking is horizontal. In the final image, he's walking slightly upwards. Transforming this horizontal into a diagonal made the picture much more dynamic.

To perform such adjustments, you can either work on a flattened copy of your image or create a Smart Object from all the layers in the layer stack. Then press Ctrl/Cmd + T to bring up the free transformation tool. By holding down Ctrl/Cmd you can click on the corners of the transformation rectangle and move them independently. In the feature video, I show how I transformed my photo of the caravan that way.

Conclusion

The techniques I share above are not for purists. But if you don't go too far with these edits, you'll still be able to maintain a result that's true to the scene you photographed. Removing footprints from a photo might be the least significant change in representing a landscape in a realistic way.

The stretching of parts of an image and the changes to the perspective go beyond basic editing. When I do such changes, I ask myself: Would a viewer of my photo who has been to this landscape notice the changes? For photos taken in a desert, that's usually not the case, and I have more wiggle room because they don't contain distinctive landmarks. You should be more careful with mountain landscapes because people will know if you stretch them too far.

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