Harness High Contrast

Michael Frye takes us through the steps of getting the most out of a high-contrast landscape

High-contrast scenes always have been difficult to process, but Adobe made this task considerably easier with the Process Version tools in Lightroom 4 and 5. Thanks to revamped underlying algorithms, we now have powerful new Highlights and Shadows tools for handling high-contrast scenes without resorting to HDR or blending exposures in Photoshop. In this excerpt from my ebook Landscapes in Lightroom 5, I take you step-by-step through processing a high-contrast image in Lightroom, showing how these new tools can make this once difficult job relatively easy.

How would you process this image? What would you try to convey? Take a minute to evaluate this unprocessed Raw file and think about what direction you might take (Fig. A).

An early November snowstorm dropped five inches of snow on Yosemite Valley, coating colorful autumn trees with white. The skies started to clear just after sunrise, so I headed to a familiar spot along the banks of the Merced River with a great view of El Capitan. I kept switching from vertical to horizontal framing, and from tighter to wider views as the light and clouds shifted. This is one of the wider vertical images, with a great combination of sunlight and clouds.

I want the final photograph to convey the drama and majesty of this classic Yosemite scene. That will require darkening the top half of the image, where some of the sunlit areas are on the verge of being washed out, and lightening the murky reflection. But although I want to compress the overall tonality, I don’t want to flatten the image too much. It needs to have local contrast within the top half of the frame as well as the bottom half. Luckily, the Highlights and Shadows tools in Lightroom’s 2012 process do a wonderful job of balancing high-contrast scenes without flattening local contrast.

Is Exposure Blending Necessary?
While photographing this scene, I bracketed exposures just in case I needed to blend two or more frames together later. Is that necessary here? I don’t think so. This is the middle exposure of my bracketing sequence, and though it looks contrasty, the histogram indicates that there’s detail in both highlights and shadows, with nothing pushed up against either edge.

Final Image

Just to be sure, I zoom in and notice that the bright snow just to the left of El Capitan looks washed out. So I drag the Highlights slider to the left, all the way to -100, to see if I can bring out more texture in this area (Fig. B). Now there seems to be plenty of highlight detail to work with, so I should be able to use just this one frame without having to resort to exposure blending in Photoshop or HDR. I set the Highlights back to zero and start my regular Lightroom workflow.

The Camera Landscape profile adds too much contrast for this image. Adobe Standard looks very similar to my usual ACR 4.4 profile, except that the blue sky becomes a bit more cyan. I prefer the slightly purple tinge to the sky created by the ACR 4.4 profile, so I stick with that.

Pointing the camera up with a wide-angle lens (23mm, in this case) made the trees appear to “lean in” slightly from the sides. When composing this scene, I deliberately left a bit of extra room so that I could straighten the trees. Before cropping, I go down to the Lens Correction panel, click on the Manual tab, and drag the Vertical slider to the left until the trees look straight. It doesn’t take a big move here: -4 is enough. I could have used the new Upright tool in Lightroom 5 for this, but the Vertical slider gives me more control. In this case, I actually under-corrected a bit; this leaves the trees still leaning a tiny bit, but avoids distorting the shape of El Capitan too much.

Straightening the trees has left some blank space along the bottom and sides, so the image has to be cropped now—that’s why I left extra space when composing the photograph. But I want to crop more anyway, including the tree along the left edge that’s half-in, half-out, and some of the reflection.

I zoom in to 1:1, then press the Home key to get to the upper-left corner. There are some obvious dust spots, which are easily removed with the Spot Removal tool in Heal mode. In Lightroom 5, pressing the A key to activate the Visualize Spots mode (or checking the box at the bottom of the screen) helps in finding those dust spots.

I couldn’t completely crop out the half-in, half-out tree along the left edge without removing too much of the adjacent tree to the right, so I use the Spot Removal tool to clean this up. But this is tricky. Heal mode doesn’t work because, in trying to blend the dark tree with the lighter adjacent tones, it creates dark smudges. I switch to Clone mode, which often works better along edges like this, but requires more care in selecting the source point to match the destination point.

In this case, using the new Advanced Healing Brush feature in Lightroom 5 to brush over the whole tree doesn’t work; the cloning doesn’t blend in because there’s no large matching area to clone from. Just as when cloning in Photoshop, it’s sometimes better to use a series of spots rather than trying to brush over a large area at once.

I use the Page Down key to scroll through the image, and I remove the remaining dust spots, as well as the reflections of the left-edge tree.

White Balance
Again, there are no neutral colors in this photograph, so the Eyedropper tool won’t help. Yes, there are some gray areas in the rock, but the sunlight still had a warm tinge to it, so neutralizing that makes the image too blue (Fig. C). Neutralizing the foreground snow makes the image too yellow and deprives it of its warm-cool color contrast (Fig. D).

So instead of using the Eyedropper, I just nudge the Temp slider a little to the right, from 5000K (the camera’s choice in Automatic White Balance) to 5368K. This warms up the rock slightly without making the blues in the sky too muddy or losing the natural blue tint in the snow.

Initial Tonal Adjustments
With high-contrast images there’s rarely much room to move the black point or white point, so rather than start with the Whites and Blacks sliders, I begin with the Exposure tool, just as Adobe recommends. However, there’s no such thing as a perfect overall exposure for high-contrast scenes because the right exposure for the highlights will be different from the right exposure for the shadows.

Here, for example, with Exposure at my default of -1.00, the reflections look too dark, yet El Cap also looks a bit washed out. If I push up the Exposure slider to lighten the reflection, El Cap becomes even more washed out. If I drag the Exposure slider to the left to darken El Cap, the reflection gets even muddier (Fig. E).

The best you can hope for is to find a good compromise, where the highlights are a little washed out and the shadows a little too dark. With this image, my default of -1.00 happens to match that description, so I leave the Exposure setting alone.

I also leave Contrast at my default setting of -33 for now. I’ll probably add some midtone contrast later, either with the Contrast slider or the Point Curve, but only after I’ve balanced the top and bottom of the photograph better. If I add more contrast now, I’ll actually magnify the difference between the highlights and shadows—a move in the wrong direction.

Instead, I skip to the Highlights and Shadows tools. The Highlights slider really shines with images like this. Dragging it down to -58 brings out detail, texture and color in El Capitan and the clouds.

Next, I push the Shadows slider to the right, to +44, to lighten the reflection (Fig. F). I’d like to lighten the reflection more, but pushing Shadows higher makes the trees look flat and grayed out. Instead, I’ll use the Graduated Filter and Adjustment Brush to balance the image further.

Graduated Filter And Adjustment Brush
I normally make dodging, burning and other local adjustments my last step. But with high-contrast images, I’ll often employ the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter earlier. With a scene like this, I first want to balance the contrast—to lighten shadows and darken highlights. I’ll go back and forth between the Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter, Basic Tone controls and (sometimes) the Point Curve to achieve that balance before going further.

I first click on the Graduated Filter tool to lighten the reflection (Fig. G). I set the Exposure for this tool to +0.51. Then I click and drag on the image from bottom to top, at a slight angle, starting in the water and finishing on the edge of the snow along the river’s edge (Fig. H).

This part of using the Graduated Filter can be confusing. Many people think that you have to drag the filter across the whole image, or across the part of the photograph you want to adjust, but that’s not how it works. What you’re defining here is the transition area—the “graduated” part of the filter, or the transition from where you want to apply the effect (in this case, increased Exposure) to where you don’t. Here, I want the transition to start in the water and end at the snow.

Once the filter is applied, I can adjust the Exposure value for the bottom part of the image; I decide that the +0.51 value is about right.

El Capitan and the clouds are still lighter than everything else. I click on the Adjustment Brush, set the Exposure to -0.46, and choose a big, soft-edged brush (18), with Feather, Flow and Density all at 100, and Auto Mask off. Then I brush over the whole upper part of the image (Fig. I). It seems that this area could be a little darker, so I nudge the Exposure slider down to -0.73.

I double-check to make sure the reflection isn’t lighter than the mountain—something you’d never see in real life. El Cap itself is still a little brighter than its reflection, so this looks fine.

Point Curve
The preceding steps have brought the lighter and darker parts of the image into better balance, but it looks a bit dark and flat overall, so I’ll use the Point Curve to lighten it and add midtone contrast.

I start by dragging the lower-left end of the curve to the right to set the black point. As always, when setting a black point, I’m just looking at the darkest pixels and ignoring the rest of the image. In this case, I want some areas to be close to black to enhance the drama of the scene, but going too far makes the shadows look too heavy. So I back off to make the shadows a little more open.

I don’t want to move the white point here—some areas are on the verge of being washed out as it is. So I make a lightening S-curve to bring out midtone contrast and brighten the photo overall (Fig. J).

At this point, most of the work is done. The overall brightness, contrast and balance look good; I just need to add some refinements.


Adjustment Brush Again
Among the refinements I’d like to make are some more tweaks with the Adjustment Brush. I first darken the clouds a bit to make El Cap stand out more (Fig. K). Then I dampen the bright snow to the left of El Cap and the reflection of that snow (Fig. L). There are some hot spots on the rock that need to be toned down as well. Finally, I lighten up the trees and some of their reflections (Fig. M). The cumulative effect helps keep the eye on the most interesting, important elements: El Capitan, its reflection and the trees.

Tweaking Whites And Shadows
Some of the brightest areas still look a little hot, so back in the Basic panel I drag the Whites down to -11. Then I push the Shadows slider up from +44 to +52 to lighten the reflections a bit more.

I add a touch more Clarity (+9) to give the image some additional snap, and I push Vibrance up to +12 to bring out the colors in the rock, trees and sky.

Final Image
None of the individual colors in the HSL panel needs adjusting, so I skip that. Lightening shadows can bring out noise, so I zoom in to check, but the image is still nice and clean, and I leave the Sharpening and Noise Reduction settings in the Detail panel at my defaults. The default settings are fine for the Lens Corrections and Effects panels, also.

So it’s done! Compared with the unprocessed file, the final image [shown on the opening spread of this article]has the drama and majesty I was looking for, while also balancing the contrast between the sunlit cliff, its reflection and the shadowed trees.

Michael Frye is a professional landscape photographer and frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer. His ebook Landscapes in Lightroom 5, excerpted here, takes you step-by-step through processing six different images in Lightroom, and includes eight video tutorials, plus access to the original RAW files used in the book so you can follow along with the examples yourself. You can learn more and download the ebook at michaelfrye.com/lr5book.