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Photoshop tips for making your forest images sing
This photograph is from Purisima Creek Redwoods, one of the Midpeninsula Open Space Preserves here in California's Bay Area. It's a beautiful park, which I've written about before. The preserve has stunning vistas, but intimate forest scenes, too. Forest scenes are fun to photograph, and can sell really well, too. But taking and processing forest photographs can be a different animal than grandiose landscapes. Forest images are often easier in that blending multiple exposures together can be less troublesome, but to get them to the next level requires some subtle techniques.
Each photograph is different, and requires different treatment in processing. As such, I have chosen to simply go through my workflow on specific images, instead of giving general tips, so that you build your library of photoshop techniques... some of which will be useful for certain photographs, and some of which won't.
Before I begin with the photoshop workflow, there are a few things to note from the field. Firstly, this image was taken with a polarizing filter. It cuts through the reflections on the stream, giving it a nicer look, but I still use it for almost all of my forest images, even if there's no stream. It makes green leaves pop better too, cutting through the bluish sheen often caused by wet or oily leaves. Secondly, unless there is something really interesting about the sky, like fog or cool rays, I tend to crop it out of most of my forest images. It tends to draw the eye up and out of the forest scene, negating what my goal usually is.
And with that, let's begin with the photoshop workflow!
Conversion from Raw Images
This panorama is composed of three different frames. Unlike previous images I've described, this photograph didn't require multiple exposures, so there's only one conversion for each frame. I chose a white balance that's on the slightly warmer side (it splits the difference between photoshop's "daylight" and "cloudy" settings), because I tend to prefer my forest photos slightly warm. I also reduced the exposure slightly, while increasing the recovery and fill light sliders, to bring down the brightness of the distant background in comparison to the other portions of the photograph. I should also note that my screenshots display higher saturation than the image actually has, because I'm "print screen"ing an image that is in ProPhoto RGB color space, but the computer is interpreting it as sRGB, thus slightly altering the colors.
Stitch frames together using Photomerge
Since I don't have to blend different exposures together, the next step is to stitch the frames using Photomerge. I used the "reposition only" option, because there's not much perspective distortion here, so this will produce the best results.
Add curves adjustment layer, with mask
The next step is to first add a curves adjustment layer, to slightly bump up the contrast. I added a gentle S-curve, which is a good way to adjust contrast to your liking. Notice that instead of bisecting the curve in the middle of the tonal range, I have the inflection point way near the darker tones. This is because I didn't want to make the shadows any darker, so drawing the curve in this way can still increase the overall contrast, but does so more by brightening the brights than darkening the darks.
This made the stream bed, shrubs, and close trees look better, but it made the background too bright and contrasty for my taste -- something I had processed my Raw files specifically to avoid. To fix this, I painted over the background region on the adjustment layer's mask with a low-opacity brush, to undo the curves adjustment just for the background region (this is one reason to always use adjustment layers!).
Levels adjustment layer
The next thing to catch my eye is that the stream bed still isn't contrasty enough for my liking. To give it just a tad more oompf, I do another adjustment layer, this time levels. I push in the white slider and the midtones slider just a hair, and am satisfied with the level of contrast.
Enhance contrast on the horizontal trees
To me, the main subjects of this photograph are the two horizontal trees that span the creek. I think they are unique, and really caught my eye when I was hiking. However, in the photograph, they tend to blend into the background more than I'd like. To change this, I'm going to select just the trees, and enhance their contrast, so they pop out of the image a little more. First, I loosely draw a selection around the trees with the lasso tool. I then feather the selection by 80 pixels, so that the edges to my changes won't be too rough. Next I significantly bump the contrast by doing another levels adjustment layer. It automatically creates a mask from my selection. After adjusting the levels to my liking, I then go back and paint the adjustment layer's mask with a black brush, so that my changes apply only to the two trees, and not the entirety of my initial rough selection.
Fine tune contrast on rocks and stream bed
I then do the same thing on the rocks and the stream. The rocks really need some additional contrast to sing, and I'd like to pull out the greens of the reflections in the stream. So I make a rough selection of the rocks, feather it, and add a curves adjustment layer. Then I make a selection of the water, feather it, and add a levels adjustment layer.
Tweak colors using "Match Colors"
First thing's first: the match colors tool is a destructive tool, so save a copy now before applying the match colors, in case you need to revisit your edits. After saving my non-destructive edit so far, I check out the match colors tool to see if I like the effect it has on this photo.
What I notice, which is rare, is that a decrease in luminance produces an effect I like on the top half of the image, while an increase in luminance looks better for the lower half, and the horizontal trees. So what I do is click on the layer mask for the horizontal trees, so that it turns into a selection. I then select inverse, so now I've got everything except the trees selected. Then I subtract out the bottom half of the image from that selection, so I'm left with the top half, minus the two horizontal trees. I then apply the match color to my tastes. Then select inverse, and apply the different color match settings to the bottom half and the trees.
Adjust shadows underneath adjustment layers
The last thing I do is use the "shadows/highlights" tool on the layer which is being affected by the adjustment layers. I notice this produces a nice effect over most of the photo, but changes a bit too much for the distant background region. Also, if the shadows/highlights tool is applied to the flattened image, it does not have the same effect. So what I do is flatten the image, and copy the resulting layer. Then I undo the flattening, and paste what I copied under the top layer which is being affected by the layer masks. Then, I apply the shadow/highlights to the top layer. Then I flatten the masks onto this layer. Now I've got two layers: the top one has the image with the new effect, and the one underneath has the image with all the previous changes I've made except this last change (well, technically I have three layers, since I always keep an unedited version as the background layers). I then paint a mask over the background part of the top layer, to undo the effects of this last change on that portion of the image. Make sure to save various files along the way, because this tool is destructive too.
That's it! After this, I'm satisfied with the image, and just have to size and sharpen it for web!