Saturday, December 12, 2009

Highton Ridley's Video Tutorial

18-55mm lens at 18mm. 1/100 sec at f/18 and ISO 200.

I took the above shot back in July on a trip to Monterey. It was a beautiful day--there were these great clouds in the sky, and they were blocking the sun and creating some nice soft light. The water was amazingly clear, and there were all of these coarse, reddish-brown rocks at the end of the beach that added some great contrast in color and texture to the water.

When I tried processing the photo originally, though, I had a tough time getting the colors right and there wasn't really enough of a subject to make the shot interesting, so I kept giving up every time I tried to do something with it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered this "high contrast black and white" workflow that another blogger, Highton Ridley, has generously shared on his site. I copied his workflow to create the above image, and I think the black and white works a lot better. It manages to highlight the awesome textures while mostly hiding the color issues.

Highton Ridley has created a superb video tutorial to share his workflow. Have a look at some of the inspiring work on his site, then take some time to watch the video; it's really cool! I think you'll also find his accent quite soothing :)

I learned a lot from his video. The high contrast black and white process is interesting in itself, but I also felt like I picked up some more general Photoshop knowledge from it.

I've included my notes from the tutorial below, mostly for my own benefit. Some of the techniques here are fairly advanced, and some of my notes probably won't make sense without having seen the video first, but here they are.
  • To perform the HDR, he creates three exposures from a single RAW file. I had kind of forgotten that this was a possibility! It works as long as the single exposure has enough detail in the highlights and shadows, and prevents you from having to align three separate exposures.
  • In creating the three exposures, he adjusts the exposure to get the tones "right" in a part of the image. I'm accustomed to just taking three exposures at -2, 0, and +2 and working with that. I'm curious if he gets a better result by choosing the exposures more carefully.
  • While playing with the HDR settings, he emphasizes preserving detail, bringing out textures, and creating a range of tones.
  • He seems to be using a trial version of Dynamic HDR, perhaps that program has a less intrusive watermark?
  • He does some perspective correction in Photoshop. I didn't notice the change, but it'd be interesting to learn more about this.
  • He converts to black and white using sliders to control how dark or light each color is represented. He begins by flipping through the different presets to find the best starting point.
  • You'd think it'd be easy to just convert to grayscale, but really there's a lot of adjusting you can do to get it just right! Again, he focuses on preserving detail and textures, and getting a nice range of tones.
  • He shares an interesting method for increasing overall contrast:
  1. Add a curves layer, don't touch the curve (leave it linear), and hit ok.
  2. Change the "blending mode" of the curves layer to "overlay".
  3. Bring the opacity of the curves layer to 0%, then gradually bring it up (it looks like there's a way to simply drag the mouse left and right to adjust the opacity) (52% for his image)
  • He also shared an interesting method for adding a vignette:
  1. Add a generic layer
  2. Change the blending mode to soft light.
  3. Press "d" to set the default colors, then fill the layer with black.
  4. Choose the largest eraser, with a brush size of 2500px. Make the eraser as soft as possible--turn the hardness down to 0%.
  5. Use the eraser, starting in the center and working outwards, to create a vignette.
  6. Turn down the opacity of the vignette layer some (62% for his image) to make it more subtle
  • His last step is to flatten the image and apply unsharp mask.
There were a couple things I saw him do which I couldn't figure out...
- How do you use the scroll wheel to flick between B&W presets?
- How do you use the mouse to move left and right to adjust a layer's opacity?

Here is how I applied his workflow to create the above image.

I started with a single RAW image. In Lightroom, I straightened the horizon and removed dust spots, then created 2 virtual copies and adjusted their exposures, one at -2ev and one at +2ev.

I exported the three images as TIFFs (TIFF is a loss-less format) and imported them into Photomatix. I wish I had saved the Photomatix settings to show you, but I didn't. Here's the tone-mapped result, at any rate.

The color HDR output is pretty neat, but it needs some work to bring it back to reality. To publish the color version, I think I'd need to go in and repair the sky by masking in some of one of the source images, and maybe work on the rocks some, too. If I want to keep doing HDR, I need to get to the point where I'm comfortable doing that kind of sophisticated masking, but I'm not there yet. In the meantime, I think the black and white conversion hides some of these color issues and still looks great.

I took the HDR output into photoshop and converted it to black and white. Below are also the values I used in the black and white adjustment layer.

To wrap it up, I used his contrast and vignette techniques, which added a lot of punch (the above image looks really flat by comparison), then brought the result back into Lightroom to use its powerful sharpening tool.

Thanks again to Highton Ridley for sharing his knowledge and technique!


  1. Great job!!! I never though about just duplicating the image and changing the exposure. I think that is easier than AEB. Beautiful shot!

  2. Thanks Elle!

    In the comment thread on his video tutorial, Highton did point out a caveat to the single-exposure technique.

    "The only time this doesn't work is if the dynamic range of the scene is so wide that, even at maximum exposure compensation in post, you still get blown highlights. There is one get-out here and that is if you can crop to remove those highlights without ruining the composition. If that doesn't come to the rescue, then it's down to tripod and multiple shots."

    You can look at the histogram on the back of the camera to see if the range of the shot fit within your single exposure.

    I find that boosting the exposure increases the noise in the shadows, too, so there's that problem as well. A shot like this, though, didn't have any strong shadows, so a single exposure worked great.

    I noticed that you have a photography blog, too; I'd love to see your work if you're willing to share it!


  3. Hi Chris - so glad you found my tutorial to be of such value ...and thanks for spreading the word.

    You have to first understand that I'm an image tart, interested only in expressing my artistic intent. Ok, get-out clause out of the way...

    If you end up with patches in the sky which are blown (the most common area for this to happen) then clone in from some other area of the sky, making sure you use a low opacity. You have to take care so that it 'works', but it can rescue the image.

    Luck with your blog!