On previsualisation…and making the best of what you’ve got

It took us 3 long and strenuous days of hiking to get here, but the view alone was worth it. I couldn't believe that only 2 days earlier I was standing on top of that wall. What an incredible feeling (click to view larger).

I (and many others) preach the benefits of doing the grunt work before taking a photograph, on previsualizing your shot as (or before) you compose it. Basically, we preach shooting with a purpose, not just aimlessly point your camera at a scene and hope for the best.

Now, I wish I could tell you that’s what I did here, but I’d be lying. When I took this image, I was strongly drawn to the impressive, almost 3000ft tall, wall standing in front of us. Those shapes and textures were seemingly adding to its majesty. However the light was somewhat lacklustre and the resulting image even more underwhelming.

This is the original image processed in Lightroom 3

As you can see, while a beautiful sunset was raging on the adjacent valley, there simply wasn’t enough light to make this landscape come alive. So that’s how it was until this week-end when I accidentally stumbled across this image in my archives. After messing around with it in Nik Color FX Pro for a little while, I thought I’d give it a go in Black and White. While a lot of people use B&W to salvage a so-so image, I come at it from a different angle in that I am extremely picky in selecting potential B&W candidates and only ever have a few that I think are worthy. So doing this conversion was a bit unusual to start with.

In any case, the first step in my B&W conversion workflow involves (and most often is limited to) a little tour in Nik’s Silver FX2 (disclaimer: I am NOT sponsored by these guys, just love their products). I usually start with the High Structure (Smooth) preset then make it my own to suit the particular image I work on.

This is the image after Silver FX2 processing

You can see here that the textures in the rockwall pop out quite a bit more, but to be frank, that doesn’t quite do it for me. I want to make them pop even more so and want to contrast them from the surrounding hills and sky. While I would normally try and do this directly in Silver FX using the control points, I chose to take the image into Photoshop as I needed a bit more control than Nik gives me.

In Photoshop, I first added a levels adjustment layer to slightly bring out the midtones and highlight in the middle section.

The first step in this case is a really mild one as I made slight adjustments to a levels adjustment layer which subtly brought out the highlights in the rockwall while increasing contrast ever-so-slightly in the midtones. In the grand scheme of things, this step may have been unnecessary. However since my desired outcome on this image was a progressing throughout the process and was a moving target, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

The next step is where I made the most dramatic changes with local curves adjustments

The next step is really where I put the defining touches on the image. At this point, I had a much clearer idea of what I was looking for after much hesitation and trial. In this case, I used a curves adjustment layer and increased contrast quite drastically. The changes were kept localised to the rockwall by carefully masking out the sky and bottom third of the image. As you can see here, the rockwall textures jump at you revealing the ruggedness and majesty of the terrain. The only remaining bit left to do to complete my vision was to darken the top and bottom third of the image to take them out of the image, so to speak, and lead the viewer to concentrate on the rockwall exclusively. I did so using another levels adjustment layer masked to only affect the sky and foreground hills. To close the loop, I added a slight tint for the final look using the color balance adjustment layer tool (adding some blues in the shadows and yellows to the highlights).

As you can see through this process, while planning my images ahead of time certainly provides a better for success, it is important to keep one’s mind open to different possibilities. In this case, not only did I not previsualise the image at the time of capture, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it when I started processing it. The final image really was formed in my mind throughout the editing process. Now, I don’t recommend doing that too often as it is a rather time consuming, ineffective and not often successful process.

Tune in next week for a nice gear review on the F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC photo backpack.

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One Response to On previsualisation…and making the best of what you’ve got

  1. Jay Goodrich says:

    Nice amigo. I am totally in love with Silver Efex Pro 2 right now. It is amazing how B/W can totally change the mood of just about any image. You just need the intuition to bring it there. Great tutorial too. Hope you are well.