Developing an Image – part 2

The focus stacking process

Welcome to the 2nd installment and follow up to the Develop an Image – part-2 post from a couple of weeks ago. As a reminder, we were working on the intriguing image of rock formation in Gold Butte National Monument and had completed processing in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR):

ACR work is done

One quick note is that ACR can be invoked as a filter in Photoshop, which is an option that is fun to explore as there are some great presets in the Camera Raw Filter.

Next we take the 5 images and open them in Photoshop by clicking on the Open button. This opens the 5 files individually, so we’ll have to bring them into a single Photoshop file. I do this by going to using the first file that is open as the Background layer; then I go to the remaining files and select the image with a Command-A, copying it to the clipboard with a Command-C going to the background file tab and with a simple Command-V bringing the image in as a layer. That provides the following layers:

Focus Stack layers

Select all 5 layers and in Photoshop’s Edit menu select Auto-Align Layers… and use the Auto option; this ensures that any slight shifts between the shots are fully aligned. Then select Auto-Blend Layers… from the Edit menu, and the following dialog pops up:

Auto-Blend Layer options

The choice here is to Stack Images; I use the smarts of Photoshop to let it ensure that Tones and Colors are blended seamlessly and I trust its Content Aware Fill algorithms (they are good!). After some compute cycles, your layer panel will look as follows:

Auto-Blend Results

The magic is in the masks that Photoshop generates for each of the layers, as it uses the focal distance of each shot and selects that which is the most precise focus to composite the resultant focus-stacked layer.

At this point, all we have left to do is make the final adjustments, which I will cover in the next installment. In part 3, I’ll introduce you to some of the other tools in my Photoshop arsenal to help unleash some of its power without having to master all the complexities.

Developing an Image – part 1

The Steps in the Process

In this post, I’d like to give you a view of some of the approach that I take in developing the final image from the shots that I capture on scene.

This particular shot was taken at Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, as we were exploring some of the Joshua Trees, rock arches and beautifully colored landscape. I came upon a deposit formation in the rocks that caught my eye…

Alpine Crossing

Sometimes our minds make an immediate connection with something that we see, which occurred for me in this case; at the angle that I viewed this through the lens there appeared the eye of an elephant imbued with high intelligence. This regal creature was bejeweled running down its trunk, and I could see tusks protruding to the lower right. In my mind’s eye, I saw it trudging through a challenging mountainous landscape in severe weather conditions, which led me to the working title of ‘Alpine Crossing.’

As I wanted to get as much detail into this image as possible, I opted for using the Focus Bracketing on my Canon EOS R5. If you’re not familiar with this technique, it is a method of taking the focal point in a series of shots from the near to the far; this allows for compositing of the images into a single, high depth of field image. For my options, I chose to shoot a set of 5 images and a somewhat below mid-range focus increment; reason being that I was shooting with a 21 mm focus length at f/8, so there was already significant depth of field. This series of images was the following…

The eagle-eyed among you might be able to spot the transition in focal plane, which is hard to see until examined on a big monitor.

The next step is to do some basic editing on these images, for which I use Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), which I find easiest to access through Adobe Bridge. In ACR, there are 2 main features that I tend to lean on, as they make life easier: Profiles and Calibration. Let’s start with Profiles…

Profile Selections

If you’re not a frequent user of ACR, you may not be aware of the wonderful selection of preset profiles that are provided here. They are a great shortcut to closing in on a look that you have in mind for the final image. In this case, I used the Artistic 04 profile and set the opacity at 81% to tone it down a little bit. Note that I’ve selected all 5 images for this edit; if you find yourself editing only one of the images, don’t worry, as you can sync your edits across all of them. If you wonder how to access Profiles, the arrow in this image shows the way…

Calibration and Pointer to Profiles Icon

Calibration is another quick way to take a look at the colors in your image and allow them to pop. Note that if you have a large amount of one color, such as a blue sky, you may want to de-emphasize that color. In a lot of cases, I find that working just the Blue and Green primaries does the trick; as you can see, I added some Red as well.

Next step will be to take the process into Photoshop, which I’ll cover in tomorrow’s post.

My Photo Workflow

Turning over a leaf

Last week I shared an example of an edit that I did to highlight a blue canoe on a rather dreary, sleety day. In that post, I mentioned that quite often I do very little to adjust a photo. So in today’s post, I’ll detail my standard workflow.

Even though I do a lot of little adjustments in Lightroom for events, I only use Lightroom for print preparation. To get any image ready for print, I use Photoshop, as all my printer/paper profiles are available to me in Photoshop.

Let’s take a look at the steps that I used to process this image of a solitary leaf that I used as one of my test images to explore the Fuji X-T1.

Solitary Leaf

In Photoshop, my first step is to duplicate the background layer (Cmnd-J/Ctrl-J), as I don’t want to make any changes to the background layer that I might want to undo later. This also has the advantage of doing quick comparisons between layers.

Select this new layer, I will apply some amount of sharpening using the Unsharp Mask filter. My typical range of settings for the Unsharp Mask are:

  • Amount between 50-100% (note that too much sharpening will create some artifacts
  • Radius in the 2-4 range
  • Threshold in the 3-5 range

These values tend to work pretty well; for this specific image I used 70% with a radius and threshold of 3.

Next, I duplicate the Unsharp Mask layer and select the Soft Light blend mode for the new layer. Soft Light darkens or lightens the colors, depending on the blend color. The effect is similar to shining a diffused spotlight on the image. If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened as if it were dodged. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened as if it were burned in. As the impact of the Soft Light blend mode can be pretty overwhelming, I tend to use an Opacity of 7-15% on this layer (it’s usually more than enough). The effect of using the Soft Light blend mode is to provide a subtle bit of saturation without overdoing it. I find this works better for me than using the Saturation adjustment.

Last step is to adjust the Brightness/Contrast to make sure that the brightness is right. Also, I make sure to use Contrast to ensure that the image is not overly muddy.

At this point, I save the Photoshop document and, if I want to create a cropped version of the image (quite often I don’t) that is a next step. There are times when I have a specific format in mind that I will crop for; if that’s the case, I save the cropped version as a separate Photoshop document.

That’s all there is to it! Hope that this was interesting to you, and feel free to ask questions, if you have any.

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