Photoshop is a remarkable program. It allows us mere mortals to recreate the images we actually envision in the field. My last post was about my photo safari to southern Utah, and shows a number of images. One that has drawn a lot of comments and e-mail is the silhouetted sunrise image of the West and East Mittens, rock formations in the middle of Monument Valley. Like all photographs, the elements of how the image was taken is a mix of natural occurring events and man-selected options.
The naturally occurring events include the passing storm clouds and the amazing gap in the distant clouds that allowed the suns rays to burst through. The graphic scale and design of the mittens, the low light of sunrise, and the wind that drove the dust into the atmosphere to create those sun rays. Of those, only the time of the image – at sunrise – was within my control, and more fluke than plan. It was a hundred and thirty miles from our hotel in Page, Arizona to Monument Valley that morning. The remnants of the evening storm were still active as we headed out about 4:30am into a blustery wind and driving rain.
This first image is a representation of the mittens when we stopped on the switchbacks that led into the valley. The flat light on the monoliths and the contrasty sky were a problem. The second I saw this scene I knew that a decision had to be made about where the power and energy in the image was, and make exposure control choices accordingly.
Everyone knows that there are three rock monoliths here, Merrick Butte is cropped out via the composition, not through image cropping. My first decision was not to back off the composition and include all three buttes. The wider angle view would have pushed these two buttes farther back in the image, reducing their impact. That would also have reduced the impact of the sun rays flashing through the clouds. In my mind this was where the energy was in the scene before me. I stayed with the 24-120mm lens instead of moving to the wider 12-24mm lens and framed the image as shown above.
Second, I knew the image would be stronger if the foreground was silhouetted. When I look at a semi-silhouetted scene I tend to look into it to see if I can identify elements of the foreground – something I don’t want a viewer of my image to do. With the horizon separating nearly equal parts of the image, which I knew would probably burn my sunrise clouds – I set the camera to shoot a 5 shot bracket spaced a half stop apart, with the exposure compensation set to -1 eV to center the bracket around. You might ask why a 5 stop bracket, why not 3, or even a 3 shot bracket spaced 1 stop apart. My answer is that I don’t know if I will ever see this scene here again and I’m not going to take any chances. I want the closest to perfect exposure for the image I imagine, and a half stop can make a difference. The final image I used (below) was the -1 image, so my initial guess for the center of the bracketed images was correct.
This image was taken as a raw file then converted in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and processed in CS5. The ACR converter is the same across Adobe’s image editing programs, such as Elements 9 and Lightroom 3. I don’t process for color or sharpness in ACR, just exposure. So I tweaked the middle six sliders: Exposure, Recovery, Fill Light, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast. As you could imagine I didn’t mind large areas of the foreground and mittens going to black. That was how I envisioned the image. Once I had the exposure tweaking done, I opened the image in CS5.
I sharpened the image some (30% in smart sharpen) then carefully selected the darker areas I wanted to silhouette. On a separate layer I darkened those areas a little more using the Levels control, then I inversed my selection to work on the sky. I sharpened the sky more in order to define the rays of light, used the contrast tool to add contrast to the sky, then applied a Sepia Photo Filter twice to the sky to bring back the sunrise color I remembered. You can see the results below.
While not a perfect image, the composition allows for both a panoramic or traditional image dimension for printing. The bursting through effect of the suns rays is enhanced by the higher contrast sky and the photo filter. Finally, I created another layer and ran Imagenomic’s Noiseware Pro over the image to reduce the noise in the underexposed areas of the clouds. There is no noise in the silhouetted areas to worry about. I added a black mask to that layer, then painted in the noise reduction in the sky, except where the suns rays are so well defined between the mittens.
When I pulled my vehicle to a stop, jumped out and set up my tripod, and began to compose and shoot – this is the image I had envisioned.