I thought I’d start something new on this blog: Writing about how I’ve post-processed some of my photos. First out is my recent image “Olsvik church in sunset”.
Note: you can click on all images in this post to view them large, and then navigate left/right to compare. You can of course also just open images in new tabs and compare whichever you choose.
It was a nice mid-april evening and I was attending a meeting in the offices of my local church. Being rather strongly involved as a volunteer (including design-related tasks such as running the website and heading the PR committee), I’m always in need of nice illustrative images, so I had decided to bring my camera with the intention of shooting some pictures of the church after the meeting. Specifically, I was after a nice picture of the church that could be projected on the wall inside as the bells called to service.
You can imagine my delight when, just after the meeting, I went outside and was greeted by this fabulous view:
Now of course, it didn’t really look like that out of camera. Before I started editing, it looked like this:
It’s not bad, but compared to the final version it’s a bit bland: Most raw-format images need a bit of tweaking to “pop”, and the strong backlight removes a lot of color and detail from the image. It has the potential to look great, but it’s not there yet.
I had actually brought my tripod and was intending to use the tripod-only high-res mode of my Olympus OM‑D E‑M5 Mark II – if nothing else, it reduces noise in the final output due to downsamling – but the sun was so low that I didn’t have the time to set it up; I basically just had to point in the right direction and fire away.
In fact, I was taking a lot of similar pictures before the one above that I wasn’t happy with, and at the end, the sun had gone so low that I didn’t get the intense lens flare/sunburst anymore:
I then realized I could just stand on my toes and hold my camera high above my head to get half a minute more of a nice, strong sun (tilting screens can be a life-saver). Thankfully, I was happy with one of those.
The editing process
All edits were done in Lightroom CC. Again, here’s the initial version:
First I did the basic edits: Pull the highlights to get more details around the sun …
… boosting contrast to make it pop a little more …
… and brightening the shadows to get a bit more details in the darker parts of the image:
Virtually all of my images see some amount of vignetting, which is a normal way of pulling the viewer’s focus in toward the interesting parts of the image. I usually do that a bit early in the process so that I later can work sensibly on the toning toward the edges without having to redo everything after adding vignetting. I often find the default settings good enough, so I just set the vignetting amount to between ‑20 and ‑30:
Already looking much better, I think. Let’s make it pop a little more by adding clarity:
This brings out far more details, but often has the effect of removing some color. Besides, since this is shot in strong backlight, the image could do with quite a bit of help on the color anyway (and raw images are often a bit too desaturated with the default settings). Let’s boost the vibrance quite a bit:
That’s more like it. I quite like the saturated colors in this image, though it made the vignetting a bit too strong for my taste. We’ll see to that later. It also created a kind of halo around the trees to the left, but it’s no deal breaker as it is now. For now, let’s fix the glaring tilt problem before the Horizont Polizei comes knocking on our door, and at the same time tighten the crop to remove a bit of that boring sky:
I like the crop, and the vignetting is acceptable again, but the image still looks distorted. If you look at the entrance of the church, you see that the pillars are tilted, and the clock tower at the right is also a bit skewed. Let’s try using Lightroom’s Auto Upright mode to straighten things up a bit:
Wonderful! It straightened the entrance and fixed the clock tower, all at the click of a button. Did I mention I love Lightroom’s Upright module? I love Lightroom’s Upright module.
I still think most of the image is a bit too dark, so let’s boost the shadows even more:
I’m fairly happy with how the image is turning out, and I think the time has come to move on to local adjustments.
One of the most beautiful and distinguishing features of this curch is the colored glass arrow on the roof by glass artist Kjell Nupen. In the image above, the colors are not particularly prominent, so let’s try increasing the saturation of just the glass. I bumped the saturation way up and added a lot of clarity for good measure to bring out any details I could in the art, and found that it became a bit too bright to look natural, so I decreased the exposure, too.
That certainly brought out a bit more of the real-life feel of the glass! I was a bit careless in the masking, but let’s fix that later.
I also like my clouds a bit more dramatic. I decided to try a brush preset called “Detail enhancer – sky/cloud/ocean”, which boosts contrast, highlights, clarity and saturation while lowering exposure and deepening shadows. I found it worked fairly well out of the box.
I also wanted to enhance the sun’s reflection in the trees to the left, as a kind of counterweight to the sun on the right. I brushed over the trees and ended up with a simple (though significant) boost to shadows and saturation:
I think the trees look good, but it exacerbated the slight halo around the trees brought on by the early vibrance adjustment. We’ll get to that, but let’s first remove that annoying car to the right by the clock tower. (I quite like the car, in fact – it’s mine – but it’s got no business being there in the image, and I didn’t have time to move it.) I tried doing a content-aware delete in Photoshop, but that didn’t work too well here due to the detailed surroundings, so I was left with returning to Lightroom and messing around with lots of spot removals to make it look good (just as well – I like staying in Lightroom, where everything is non-destructive).
Job well done – there’s no way to know there was ever anything there, not even at 100% zoom. Finally, let’s fix the halo around the trees by replacing the global clarity adjustment with an identical local adjustment everywhere except the trees (the trees themselves don’t need the clarity anyway). While we’re at it, let’s clean up the mask of the brush on the glass.
There! I’m quite happy with it, and it looks good when projected on the wall during service (considering that any public-area projector will completely destroy any image). I also made it the new cover image of the church’s Facebook page.
A final note: I originally made this image from an HDR merged in Lightroom from three different exposures. However, after developing it, I tried on a hunch to simply copy all the settings from the HDR image – local adjustments and all – onto the middle exposure (which is the one we’ve been developing here), and the image looked more or less exactly the same. It was a bit more noisy, but not so much as to make a practical difference, and I liked the area around the sun more in the non-HDR version (in the HDR version, the same amount of highlight recovery made the sun smaller, and when pulling back on the highlight recovery I didn’t really like sky around it). As long as the exposure is just right, I’m impressed with what you can do with just a single exposure!
I have another similar post planned, and depending on the feedback I get I might make more in the future. Please let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more, and if there’s a particular image you’d like to see dissected.