Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mining the "Nugget": A Journey to an Image's True Potential

As many a landscape photographer has come to appreciate, spectacular scenes don't always result in spectacular images.  Such was the case after a day of shooting in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountain Range.  While visiting relatives we were fortunate to experience some truly beautiful scenery during a day trip up through Sun Valley and back down through the Stanley basin.  Born and raised in Central Wisconsin, I was in awe of the beauty of the mountain peaks, canyons and valleys the entire day.  Capturing what I was experiencing with the camera, however, proved to be a little more challenging.

This image was one such challenge.  It was taken at Redfish Lake with Mount Heyburn visible off in the distance.  A storm had been moving in and out of the viewfinder for the better part of the day and when we arrived, the wind was driving pretty hard into our faces and pushing whitecaps on the lake.  Even so it really was a breathtaking scene.  When I offloaded my images from the day, however, I was a little disappointed with the harsh reflection bouncing off the lake and the relative "flatness" in the remainder of the image.  Yet, I just knew there was something in there worth trying to save.

I have to admit that my post processing skills had gotten a little rusty after a long, busy summer, but that didn't keep me from trying.  I made several virtual copies of the image of varying exposures to try to rescue the scene using Photomatix Pro.  While improved, it still wasn't doing much for me.  I went back and forth merging in new layers in PhotoShop, adjusting here, tweaking there and for my efforts all I got was more frustrated.  "I know you're in there. Why don't you come out and play?".

It was at that point that I showed the image to my wife and expressed my frustration.  She looked at it and said, "Huh.  You should try it as a black and white.  That's what I do when I can't make the colors work.".  Surprisingly enough, this is the second time this week I'd received this same advice on two different images from two different people.  What have I got to lose?

So, I jumped back over to Lightroom's Development module and set to work with the black and white conversion using the above image as my starting point.   Immediately, things were looking up.  With the flat color issues out of the way it became more about balancing the contrast across the various elements in the frame.  And then the wild goose chase began...  I've read a fair amount about NikSoftware's Silver Efex Pro 2 and it's "magic" ability for stellar black and white images.  Convinced that perfection would be found with this tool, I downloaded a trial copy and set to work.  This lead to a search for online tutorials and blog posts to help me learn the new software.  Those avenues led to downloading NikSoftware's Color Efex Pro 4 and then Dfine 2.0 for noise reduction.  Before I knew it, another few hours had gone by and the image really wasn't looking all that much better.  When in doubt, sleep on it.

The next day I sat down, pulled the image up on the screen and stared at it for about 10 minutes.  Forget about this software tool or that software tool.  You're lost.  Time to get to the heart of the matter - "What is it about this image that captures your attention?".  That's when it FINALLY clicked.  It's the CLOUD!  Or more specifically, the relationship between Mount Heyburn and the cloud.  While the crystal clear water of the lake had made an impression on me during our visit, it was doing nothing for this image. 

After cropping out the lake, I was left with the trees in the foreground, this massive mountain jutting up over 10,000 feet above sea level and the fact that it is COMPLETELY dwarfed by this ominous cumulus cloud.  That's the story this image needs to portray.

Once I had discovered my direction, the rest fell into place rather quickly.  I used Lightroom to pull as much detail as possible from the clouds and then blended several layers together using PhotoShop to end up with the image you see above.

The moral of the story?  Know where you're going before you set out on your journey.  Until I had an appreciation of the story I was trying to tell with this image, I was simply throwing tools at the problem without knowing what it was I was trying to fix.

Until next time, keep on click'n.


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