Crafting an image: The Tree

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by Brent Bergherm

Behind the scenes... Making "the Tree."

I went shooting at Steptoe Butte with my friend Nick Page and his photo tour group. We saw “the tree” from high above and Nick suggested we get down there for the sunset. So we drove about 15 minutes to get to “the tree.” Once there I chose to frame up the scene using Canon’s 11–24mm f/4 L. This ultra wide-angle view is a blast to work with on a full-frame camera. Read on for my step-by-step guide on how this image was created, or watch the video here!

This photo looks terrible straight out of camera. It’s just way too dark and contrasty. I ended up creating two photos for focus stacking, one with the foreground in focus and the other with the background in focus. At 11mm and f/16, there’s enough depth-of-field to not worry so much about the mid ground.

This is the histogram that shows the image as shot. You can see the shadow areas really pile up on the left, and the highlights clip off just a touch on the right. Since I’m shooting in RAW I don’t mind clipping my highlights a bit as I know I can recover them without too much difficulty. Plus, it means I don’t have to push the shadows so much.

This screen grab of the Basic settings in the develop module shows a few modifications, most notably in the shadows slider. I boosted saturation a bit and did a few other things, but really these changes weren’t that drastic.
I also used Adobe’s lens profile to correct for some vignetting and distortion, as well as chromatic aberrations.

I used a graduated filter to tone down the sky by 1.27 stops and then I boosted the saturation a bit there as well. This adjustment made it possible for the highlight areas to not be fully blown out, but they were still a bit to bright so I fixed that later in Photoshop.
It was applied to the sky only and decided not to worry too much about the transition of tones on the hills. I could have spent time with the adjustment brush tool, but decided it wasn’t worth it to bother.

I then opened the two images as layers in photoshop so one is right on top of the other. I needed two images so I’d have perfect focus throughout the scene from the nearest foreground items to the furthest background elements.
In this zoomed-in view in Photoshop you can see the misalignment that happens due to the focus breathing. As I adjusted the focus from the background to the foreground, the size of the subject is also very subtly adjusted as well. That kept me from being able to use Photoshop’s focus stacking abilities. I ended up using the hill as an easy place to hide the transition from one frame to the next and then played a bit with the tree trunks since that required a bit more attention to detail. It was all done using a simple layer mask.
I’ve got a YouTube video that shows how I did this if you’re interested in watching.

The border was too close for comfort, and I needed to give the top of the tree some breathing room. I used the crop tool to add this bit of extra space.
This happened because of the focus breathing issue with the lens and my not getting it right in camera for the frame where the tree was in focus.
Once I had enough space there, I selected that area with the magic wand tool and filled it with content aware fill. Like magic, it worked nearly perfectly. I had a few places to touch it but it took about 30 seconds with the spot healing brush tool. (I also had a few dust spots I failed to catch in Lightroom.)

To finish off this image, I figured I needed to deal with the bright sections where the sun is. They were a bit too bright and colorless still. So I sampled one of the clouds and got a nice bright orange color. I used a soft brush about 3900 px in diameter and did a single click right in the middle centering around the sun area.

With the orange applied, it looked something like this. Not very appealing, so there’s one more step.
Apply the darken blend mode.
When you do this, photoshop will look at each pixel and compare this layer with the layers under it. If the item on this layer is darker than the items under it, then this layer will show. If the layers below it contain pixels that are darker, then those will show.

I then set this orange layer to about 15% opacity and that balanced it out really nicely.

And there you have it. Just as I envisioned it when I was out there shooting it. Even though I’m using some of the finest camera equipment available there was still some short-comings I had to deal with. But with a few Lightroom and Photoshop tricks, it all came out just fine.
Please let me know if you have any questions.

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