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Processing Fall Color

Tips and techniques for adding impact to autumn images in Photoshop

The original capture of the burning bush was fairly flat, lacking contrast throughout the image, as well as having some distractions in the lower-left corner.

By setting the White and Black points to use the entire tonal range, as well as making a small increase on the Clarity slider, the image came alive. Although it appears as though I’ve made a major saturation adjustment, in fact, I’ve made only a very small Vibrance adjustment. Most of the effect is due to correcting the contrast. Also note that I’ve removed the distractions in the lower-left corner by applying a slight crop, as well as some image cleanup.

As you edit your fall color images filled with dramatic reds, commanding golds, perhaps mixed with greens and sometimes gorgeous blue skies, think about what you want to emphasize—where you want the viewer’s eyes to land. It’s easy to get caught up in the dramatic colors, particularly if you used a polarizer or color-enhancing filter while capturing the images, and go crazy with saturation while processing the images, but ultimately, if you want your images to have the most impact, you need to think through your processing and develop a game plan.

Be clear what your subject is and where you want the viewer to look. A common issue is that often people take a photo because they generally think what’s in front of them is pretty, but they don’t take the time to think through exactly what it is that captured their attention and what they want to communicate. Your composition in the field will be stronger if you’re certain what you’re trying to share with your viewers. Likewise, when it’s time to process the image, you need to be sure of what you want them to experience.

Ideally, your adjustments will visually guide the viewer through the image. For most images, this means making the subject obvious and processing the other areas to enhance the subject, but not compete with it.

We’ll take a look at the steps I take when optimizing my fall color images in Photoshop. In recent years, Camera Raw has become so powerful that I do much of my processing there (which is quite similar to the Development Panel in Lightroom). Being able to access Camera Raw as a filter from the Filters tab within Photoshop is a huge bonus.

Straight out of the camera, the image looks pretty good. However, the clouds are quite light and tend to draw your eye out of the foreground into the sky.

I’ve slightly reduced the exposure in the sky using a gradient filter in Camera Raw. I had to be careful not to increase the contrast within the clouds, because doing so would have made them compete with the foreground even more. I’ve also increased the Clarity in the foreground to help hold your attention there, and also added a very small saturation increase in the greens and yellows. It was important not to increase the saturation of the sky in order to let it recede.

1 Check the Exposure and MidTone Contrast
When shooting fall colors, it’s easy for some in-camera meters to get fooled by bright light reflecting off leaves, particularly the brightest yellow leaves. Take a look at the histogram for the image. Sometimes although the overall image is properly exposed for capture, the midtones need to be brightened. With most images, I begin by setting the Exposure setting in Camera Raw so that the midtone values are close to where I want them, before I set the White and Black points, which determine how light the lightest pixels will be and how dark the darkest pixels will be. Hold down the Alt/Option key and drag each slider. The preview becomes all white or all black, and as you drag the slider, colored areas appear. Back off the slider slightly until the colored areas disappear.

Although those steps get the image close in terms of exposure, often there’s one more step I take to add impact—I increase the midtone contrast. There are two ways that I do this, and because they use different algorithms, the effects will differ. One way is to use the Clarity Slider. In some images, this will have a dramatic impact, and in others, it will be more subtle. It may look as though it’s sharpening the image and increasing detail. Resist the temptation to go overboard, though, to avoid a harsh appearance with artifacts.

Another way I increase midtone contrast is to use the Tone Curve tab in Camera Raw and make the Lights lighter and sometimes the Darks a little darker. What this does is increase the contrast within that tonal range without losing highlight or shadow detail. Depending on the image, you may want to use one or both methods of increasing midtone contrast.

2 Dealing with Color Casts
Working carefully with color is paramount with fall color. There are several aspects to this. The first step is to check your white balance. Sometimes auto white balance does a great job with fall color, but if you’re standing in a canopy of color, you might find that your image has a strong color cast to it.

Applying the standard technique of using the White Balance eyedropper in Camera Raw to click on something that should be neutral gray may not give you the results you’re after, because there may not be something in the frame that should be a neutral gray for you to use and you may want the image to retain some of the color cast. With most fall color images, you want to convey the warmth of sunlight, so you’ll need to adjust the white balance Temperature and Tint sliders visually so that the overall image looks good.

Tip: If the color cast is still a problem, open a Selective Color adjustment within Photoshop and select Neutrals. Then adjust each slider there to further tweak the color cast within the image.

Although the exposure is correct in order to capture all the highlight detail, the midtones are too dark. The lack of midtone contrast causes the image to have a muddy feel.

Brightening the midtones and adding some midtone contrast livened the image, as did increasing the saturation of the yellows and reds. It was important to limit the saturation of the greens in the water to add depth to the image. Slightly desaturating the leaves in the background areas helps focus attention on the leaves floating in the puddle.

3 Emphasizing Color with Saturation and/or Vibrance Adjustments
Whether in Camera Raw, Photoshop itself, or Lightroom, you have a choice of Saturation or Vibrance sliders. These sliders can make a huge visual change in the image, but are best used with a gentle touch. With a heavy hand, it’s easy to create garish results and even to lose detail in your image.

The two adjustments are similar, but there are some important distinctions between them to keep in mind. The Saturation slider will increase (or decrease) the saturation of all the colors within the image equally. Vibrance is basically a “smart” saturation slider. It’s smart because as certain colors approach pure saturation, which would result in clipping (which means loss of detail), it limits the saturation. In addition, it increases the saturation of less saturated colors more than it does for colors that were already saturated. Adobe notes that it also prevents skin tones from becoming oversaturated. Since skin tones contain reds and yellows, that’s salient for fall color. Using the Vibrance slider means you’ll be less likely to oversaturate your reds and yellows.

Tip: As any color becomes saturated to the point of clipping, pushing the saturation further will cause you to lose detail as more pixels become fully saturated.

4 Tweaking the Colors
Often, I find it helpful to modify the hue of the yellows, reds, or greens within the image. The easiest place to do this is within Camera Raw (or Lightroom’s HSL tab), although you can make similar adjustments using a Hue/Saturation adjustment within Photoshop. HSL is short for hue, saturation, and luminosity, and this tool makes it easy to get the precise colors you’re after. You can opt to make the yellows more orange or more green, greens can be made more yellow or blue, reds can made be more pink or more orange, and so forth.

After you’ve established the hue, you can adjust the saturation and luminosity of each color. This is a very visual adjustment, and if you have a before/after view open in Camera Raw, you can readily see the differences. By adjusting colors using the HSL tab, you can easily emphasize certain colors by saturating some colors more than others, and change the mood by altering the hues. Setting the yellows to a slightly greener hue suggests early fall, while making the yellows more orange suggests later fall.

Tip: With many fall color images that contain a variety of colors, I make the yellows just a little lighter, using the luminosity setting, to help them stand out without oversaturating them

5 Guiding Your Viewer’s Eyes
Keep in mind where you want the viewer to linger, and give those areas more visual energy by making them slightly lighter, more saturated, and/or more detailed. Applying Clarity to the areas to which you want to draw attention using an adjustment brush is one way of increasing the visual intensity of your subject. Subtle vignettes around edges can direct the eye inwards, but you can attain similar results by slightly desaturating the colors in the background areas, as seen in my image of a puddle reflecting trees with leaves floating. To decrease the saturation in the background areas, I use a layer mask with a Vibrance adjustment, and paint in the decreased saturation wherever needed.

Tip: When you make these adjustments, most of the time you want a subtle effect that gently guides the eyes—so subtle that most people will never know why they’re looking one place in the image rather than another.

6 Remove Any Distractions
As you look at the image, ask yourself whether there’s anything pulling your eye away from where you’d like to be looking. You might be able to visually ignore something distracting, but your viewers may not be so forgiving. In any image, there are no elements that are neutral—either they’re contributing to the image or taking away from its impact.

To remove distractions, I work on a duplicate background layer. Depending on the image, I may use the Clone, Healing or Content Aware Fill tool. Content Aware Fill is impressively effective at filling in areas with patterns like leaves, but you still need to view the results at 100% magnification to be sure they look natural. Sometimes you need to finesse the results using the Clone Stamp tool and/or Healing Brushes, which can be used at reduced opacities to help the new pixels blend naturally with the image. By working on the duplicate background layer, I can add a layer mask and undo a change I made several steps earlier, if necessary, without having to redo other steps. When I’m happy with the results, I merge this layer with the background layer.

Tip: The closer to the edges of the image distractions appear, the more visually annoying they are.

Initially, this is a rather boring image. The trees have some nice colors, but there’s nothing about it to hold your attention.

By applying a digital Orton effect, the image grabs your attention. The technique adds a dreamy quality due to the blur, in addition to the increase in saturation.

7 Consider Alternative Processing
Many programs let you apply painterly effects including filters within Photoshop, such as the Oil Paint filter. One technique I use emulates the “Orton Effect” that in the days of film was achieved by combining an in-focus and an out-of-focus slide together. It results in a dramatic, dreamy, painterly look. To create this effect, duplicate the background layer in Photoshop; change the Blending mode for that layer to Overlay. Initially, ignore the exposure and saturation changes. Go to Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Increase the blur until you’ve removed most of the detail in the preview window. Apply the filter, then adjust the overall exposure as needed. You may also need to slightly reduce the saturation. This technique can take a ho-hum image and add major intrigue.

The colors of fall make it easy to create images full of drama and impact. Make your adjustments call attention to the subject and let the background elements be supporting players. That way, your viewers will see what captured your eye.

Ellen Anon is an internationally recognized fine-art and nature photographer, educator, speaker and writer. She has received numerous awards for her photography, including awarded images in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competitions, and is the co-author of best-selling books including “Photoshop for Nature Photographers; A Workshop in a Book” series (Anon & Anon, Wiley) and “See It: Photographic Composition Using Visual Intensity” (Anon & Anon, Focal Press). Currently, she’s a Master with The Arcanum (