Forget Color Correction, Let’s Talk Color Selection
We landscape photographers are obsessed with color. We chase it from dawn till dusk, we pump it up with polarizers and graduated neutral density filters, and we eke every little bit we can get away with out of our saturation sliders. We like to talk about something called color correction. As though one color is inherently more correct than another: “Ooh, red? That’s perfect. But burnt orange? Uuurrrggh! WRONG! You fail!” Because when it comes to landscape photography there is always an expectation of reality: If you take a photo of a place it should look like that place. Shouldn’t it? And the colors in your image should bear a resemblance to the colors you actually saw in real life. Shouldn’t they???
I’m here to tell you that the answer to that is a big, fat NO. Because when it comes to art -and landscape photography is most assuredly art- then the only thing you have to be faithful to is your own vision. Of course, many photographers (myself included) use Photoshop to “correct” the colors in their images so that they do match real life, at least to within spitting distance. But if you shot an image on a sunny day and want to turn your blue sky chartreuse in post? Hey, more power to ya.
With landscape photos there are myriad decisions you make which affect your photos’ colors. Change your white balance and you will get different colors. Use a polarizer? Different colors. Add some saturation in camera or modify the contrast a bit? Yup, you’re shaking up your colors. Even shooting in different light will dramatically alter the colors of your shots. And whether you realize it or not, you’re making these choices so that your photo will match your vision. If we do all this on the front end of a shot to get our colors to emulate what’s in our head, why not use software on the back end to further refine things? After all, Photoshop is arguably the most powerful color selection and editing tool we photogs have at our disposal.
Take, for example, this tree. It’s a famous willow growing on the shores of Lake Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a fantastic location for a tree, and in years with more rainfall the tree literally grows straight out of the surface of the lake. The other amazing thing about this tree is that every fall its leaves turn a vibrant shade of gold. And with the rich blues of New Zealand’s skies and Lake Wanaka’s waters, the gold leaves set up a delicious color contrast that punches you right in your photographer’s gut.
I flew to New Zealand to photograph this tree in April of 2012 and came home with this image. Given the subject of this article you might be wondering: do the colors of this image match what I saw in real life? Well, kinda. And do they match the colors I saw in the image straight out of my camera? Not even close. But do they match my vision? Heck yeah! However, getting from real life to the camera’s images to this final vision was quite a journey.
￼On the morning of the shoot I waited patiently for the rising sun to strike the tree. Once the light did hit, the tree’s leaves blazed with golden intensity. Composing to include the whole tree, an ample portion of the sky, and the lake, I thought I had my shot. But then huge banks of clouds began sweeping in from the north and I realized I had an opportunity for an even better photo.
With the shape of the tree and its location I’ve always thought images of this place were a bit surreal. What better way to add to the surreal nature of the image, I thought, than by cranking out a long exposure of the clouds as streaked by overhead?
Using my pitch-black 10-stop ND filter I stretched my shutter speed longer and longer, starting with a 15-second exposure. Although the clouds began to streak by and the lake was rendered into milky smoothness, a huge problem immediately became evident: most 10-stop ND filters have pronounced color casts, and in my filter’s case it’s a horrendous tint more cyan than a mermaid’s flukes. Sure enough, my photo didn’t so much have a color range any more as it did a tableau of cyans.
Step one in solving this issue was to set a custom white balance on my camera to counteract the cyan tint. 10,000K did the trick here. I also wanted more motion in the clouds so I stopped my aperture down from f/9 to f/18, enabling me to bump my shutter speed from 15 seconds to a full minute of long exposure goodness. Now the clouds were looking really juicy, the lake was table-top smooth, and the colors were roughly where I wanted them to be. Two big problems still existed: One, the 10-stop ND is notoriously low contrast, so the image felt a little flat. And two, the low contrast combined with the extreme Kelvin setting of my white balance meant that the shadows in my photo were left a muddy red color. But there was nothing I could do in the field to fix that so it was time to bring the image into Photoshop.
The first thing I did was use my raw convertor to brighten it a touch, further increase the warmth of the image, and add some much needed contrast to counteract the effects of the ND filter.
￼Unfortunately, adding all that global contrast dropped the shadows on the tree too deeply into darkness. So I reprocessed the raw file slightly brighter and pasted it as another layer on top of my background. Using Tony Kuyper’s excellent tutorials and actions for luminosity masking (well worth a separate tutorial or three) I made a selection of just the dark parts of the trunk, created a mask, and painted in the lighter layer. But with the lighter layer also came more of that muddy redness, so I added a color balance adjustment layer with a heavy cyan skew to balance out the red in the shadows. Then I clipped this layer to the brighter underlying layer in order to restrict the color balance to just the dark sections of the trunk.
Looking over the image I realized it was a bit too dark, but rather than simply brighten it globally I wanted to be more selective in my adjustments. I wanted the trees on the left hand side of the frame to be not just brighter, but also more golden. Since the muted orange color of these trees doesn’t occur throughout the image I used the color select tool to make an accurate selection of this area. I created a new layer filled with 50% gray, with a blend mode of soft light. Then to brighten the trees I painted in the selection using a soft brush with a bright yellow color.
Other areas that struck me as being too dark were the clouds in the upper left and the upper right. I also wanted to bring out the reflective streaks in the lake. Creating another soft light layer and using a combination of color selections and luminosity selections I dodged and burned to add a bit more punch to the image.
Thinking back to my original vision for the image I knew that what made the image work was the vivid color contrast between the golden foliage of the willow and the deep blues of the sky and the lake. To maximize that contrast without making the colors garish and without enriching the other colors of the photo I added a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. But instead of cranking the master saturation slider I merely adjusted the Yellow slider and the Blue slider. This selective enhancement of color helped the image sing a bit louder.
I was getting close to the finished product but there were still a few subtle adjustments I needed to make before it was perfect. The first was that I wanted to bring out the blue tones in the water. Enter a Color Balance layer. I increased the blue and cyan content of the midtones then masked the layer out so it was only affecting the water. Very cool.
Next, looking at the clouds on the right hand side of the frame I noticed a slight cyan tinge to them, still left over from that ugly ND filter, and undoubtedly strengthened when I increased the saturation of the blues. The local contrast levels looked fine; it was only the color I wanted to change. So I added a new layer with the blend mode set to Color. Since I really like the color of the clouds near the center of the frame I used my eye dropper to sample that grayish-blue color and then used a soft brush at low opacity to paint over the cyan sections of my clouds. And voila: cyan tint replaced by a richer blue.
The last, subtle step of color adjustment I needed to make was within the branches of the trees. If you look close you can still see some of that muddy redness in the shadows. Here again, the brightness values of the branches look fine; just the ugly red needs to disappear. In this case, since I wanted to remove the red color I made a luminosity mask of the dark section of the tree then applied a Hue / Saturation adjustment layer with the Red saturation pulled all the way to zero.
And that took care of all my color issues. Not only did I “correct” the ugly effects of my filter but I also used my vision to guide the selection of my colors and the refinement of the palette for maximum effect. The final image:
So do the colors of the photo match real life? Well, they’re close but not 100% accurate. But they are accurate to my vision for the photo. And in the end, as an artist, that’s all I care about.
Check out some of Josh’s great work at http://www.joshuacripps.com/