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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Rembrandt Solution

What painting’s Grand Masters can teach today’s digital photographers

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Rembrandt Rembrandt
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. The trees from the first shot were combined with the sky from the second to create the final image.

Physical split-ND filters are certainly not obsolete and have the advantage that you can record everything in one capture, eliminating problems with subject movement in between two or more captures that are later merged.

Silver Creek Basin, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado.
You can achieve the same effect digitally by using the Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom 2.0 and in Adobe Camera Raw 5.0. Open the image in Camera Raw. Choose the Graduated Filter tool (fourth icon from the left in the row of icons across the top of the image). Now set the Exposure slider on the right side of the window to a negative value; -1 is a good starting point. Next, click in the image window near the top and drag downwards. A green dot will appear, marking the start of your drag; a red dot indicates the end. Everything above the green dot will receive the full strength of your adjustment (in this case, a decrease in exposure). Everything below the red dot will receive no adjustment; the zone in between the two dots is a transition zone. The position of the two dots can be changed at any time, as can the strength of the adjustment. Click on either dot to make the gradient active again and edit it. You also can add multiple gradients, if necessary. And you can apply any of the other adjustments represented by the sliders on the right in the form of a gradient as well.

The advantage of the Graduated Filter tool is that you’re working with a single capture, just like you do with a physical split ND.
A split-neutral-density filter darkens the upper part of Uncompahgre Peak, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado.
The disadvantage is that your image must have decent highlight detail to start with. If the highlights are completely blown out, there’s no detail to recover. In very high-contrast situations, you’ll need to make two captures of the scene, one exposed for proper highlights (the “highlight exposure”), the other exposed for proper shadows (the “shadow exposure”), then merge them as described.

Start by stacking the two images in Photoshop by choosing File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stack, which will put the two files on top of each other, perfectly aligned if they’re of exactly the same pixel dimensions. (Be sure to check the Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images checkbox.) Drag the highlight layer to the top of the layer stack, if it isn’t there already. Now add a layer mask to the highlight layer. (Target the highlight layer and click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel). Make sure white is your foreground color and black your background color. Now press G for the Gradient tool, and draw a white-to-black gradient on the layer mask so that only the properly exposed section of each capture is revealed. Start your drag above the highlight/shadow line and continue it down into the shadows. The longer the drag, the wider the transition zone between white and black on the mask and the softer the transition from the top image to the bottom one. If you don’t like your first try, choose Edit > Undo and try again. You can further refine the mask, of course, by painting on it.


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