Saturday, January 1, 2011

Leadbetter At Night

I love shooting seascapes, but it's tough right now to get out at sunset to capture those exciting colors. Luckily, shooting the beach at night seems to be just as satisfying, and a lot more manageable time-wise!

You just need a relatively low tide to expose some good rocks, and a mostly full moon to provide light, both of which I had on this night in December.

At f/5.6 and ISO 200, a 6 minute exposure seemed to be the sweet spot. I pride myself in my ability to enjoy solitude, but I have to admit the 6-minute exposures got to me. I used the count down timer on the iPhone to time it, so I'd get an alarm when six minutes was up, but I still found myself anxiously checking the timer every 30 seconds. Next time I'll have to bring a friend, or maybe a book and a reading light or something :).

One lesson learned--with these long exposures, make sure there's plenty of room between you and the tide line. During this shot, I watched the tide slowly creep closer and closer to my tripod. There were two especially far-reaching waves that sent water up past one leg of the tripod. This caused the sand to settle and the leg to sink ever-so-slightly. The result is very noticeable in the stars and the oil rigs--you can even make out how it moved twice!

The tide was coming in quickly and threatening to trap me at the end of this point, so I didn't get a chance to retake. I like the image enough that I decided to just leave it for now, though, and do better next time :).

Editing Details

For this photo, I wanted to take the opportunity to share in depth the steps I took to edit it. I think there's a lot of value in sharing this stuff in detail:
  • It helps me solidify my understanding of the techniques I used.
  • It gives me an opportunity to reflect on the approaches I took, and maybe recognize some areas for improvement.
  • To my more experienced readers and friends, I hope you'll point out anything I might have done better.
  • Finally, I hope you learn something from it!
The original image:

Some initial work in Lightroom:

1. Rotate -.67 degrees, it was just a touch crooked. To get my landscapes level, I generally take a test shot (in this case with high ISO and wide aperture to make it quick), then zoom in and compare the horizon to the frame of my camera's LCD to check if it's level.

2. Color Temperature to 3100K. When shooting at night, I use the 'tungsten' white balance setting to get it close (this ensures the sky comes out nice and blue). I shoot in RAW, though, so I can always tweak the white balance later. Here, I wanted it just a little cooler.

3. Darken the left-hand-side with a gradient filter in Lightroom. The glare from the moon is visible here, so I wanted to counteract that to balance the image, and applied a graduated filter of -2/3 stops. From playing with the image in both Lightroom and Photoshop, it seems that Lightroom has an advantage here because it's working with the original RAW file.

I made a similar adjustment to the top right corner of the image to lighten it a bit.

Now into Photoshop

I screwed around in Photoshop a lot, but here's what I landed on.

1. Apply a curve to the sky to control the contrast there. I added a curve adjustment layer to the image, and after a lot of tweaking, decided on the following curve.

I think my reasoning for this curve goes something like the following. This is where I'd love any input on my thought process.
- I know I want to add contrast, so I know I'm going for some kind of S-shaped curve.
- The highlights in the clouds are far from maxed out, so I push those up hard.
- I use the pointer tool in the top left of the dialog to select a dark part of the sky, then click, hold, and drag down to darken the sky. There's not a lot of deliberate thought guiding how far I go with this--I'm just going off my instincts for what looks good. I don't really trust my instincts yet, but I'm stuck with them for now!

I use a feathered brush to paint a vector mask for this curve adjustment layer so that it's only applied to the sky, and not the cliff. I also masked out the oil rigs to protect the highlights there. For the oil rigs, I reduced the brush's "flow" to about 20 to apply a lighter mask there.

Tip: You can hold option and click on a vector mask to see it as in the above screenshot.

Roll over the below image to see the before and after of just applying this curve.

2. Apply a levels adjustment layer to the cliffs to add contrast there. I'm not entirely sure how I decided to do levels on the cliffs rather than another curve. It's likely that I just tried it, liked the result, and kept it.

You can see that I just brought the white point in to push the lighter parts of the cliffs up, then moved the grey point to darken the cliffs back down a little.

I wanted these levels to apply to just the cliffs, so I used an inverted version of the mask from the curve layer for the sky.

Tip: You can hold option + shift, then click on the vector mask from one layer and drag it to another layer. This copies the mask and inverts it in one step (holding 'option' makes a copy of the mask rather than moving it, and holding 'shift' inverts the mask).

3. Finally, a few basic adjustments.
- Added a brightness and contrast layer. I boosted the contrast some because I was still looking for more contrast in the cliff and in the clouds against the sky. Also, I nudged the brightness up a bit just to lighten the image.
- Added a hue and saturation layer. I actually desatured the image some, because I felt like the curve had made the sky's blue overly rich.

And that's it!


  1. your photography is simply amazing! and the detailed post-processing information you include in your blog is very valuable...thanks for sharing!

  2. hi chris, thank you very much for dropping by and leaving a comment. your advice on the three silhoutted kids by the beach is very helpful. i was wondering, how do i make the sand not too dark, i.e. how do i make the other parts of the shot to have softer tones without reducing the contrast (as i needed it to create the silhouette?) thanks. i'll also go through the rest of your photos, to find some hints.

  3. The photoshoot and the balancing of the editing after that, which is getting the perfect snap, comes as a result. Thanks a lot for these beautiful snap sharing. Candid Wedding Photographers | Couple Photoshoot In Coimbatore | Destination Wedding Photographers In Coimbatore