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Amazing Landscapes using Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop

Amazing Landscapes using Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop

by Thomas Parpoulas on November 5, 2010 HomePhotoshop Tutorials

How to vastly enhance landscape shots using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and then Photoshop. This tutorial will show step by step tips and tricks in order to get out the most out of your landscape pictures.

Preview of Final Results

Amazing Landscapes using Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop

Step 1 - Photo Selection

Select the photo you'd like to edit. This is apparently the obvious, but there are some important criteria here. Photoshop is an image enhancer, not Jesus Christ, meaning that it makes good pictures look astonishing, mediocre pictures look good, while bad images will just look mediocre. A good landscape shot, is a shot that keeps the maximum detail possible inside the digital color and exposure range. The biggest problem when shooting landscape is the exposure difference between sky and ground if you are not using filters on your camera to prevent this. This difference can be huge in bright noon daylight, up to 12 stops, while it gets smaller during sunrise or sunsets, up to 6 stops. Here in this tutorial we will work on a mediocre picture though, taken during a sunset, in order to perform a lot of enhancing actions regarding exposure, contrast, white balance and vivid colors. But the important fact is that the exposure difference between the sky and ground was not vast, 6 or maybe 7 stops. This picture was taken with a net lens, without any polarizing filter or graduated nd filter attached. Also note that we are working on a JPG, not a .CR2 image.



Step 2 - Open in Adobe Camera Raw

So opening in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), is the obvious step. First get a good look at the image and spot out what this image could use in order to get top notch. No Photoshop tool replaces a good eye for what needs to be done, so just dedicate some time observing, even if your photoshop skills are not great, both skills and your intuition can be trained simply by observing. So for this image I made a few remarks. For you to comprehend them better I note them on the image using red. This is just to show my mindset when observing an image to enhance, I never actually write anything. I made 4 quick remarks here:

  1. Exposure difference between the ground and the sky
  2. Plants are dark and lack light detail
  3. This area is pale and less contrasty than the rest of the ground
  4. Cloud detail is minimum because of darks absence.

and generally this image has very low contrast, it is colorless, somewhat underexposed but in the little histogram that ACR offers you can see that all information of this image is inside the exposure range, no information is lost, and you can obviously see the two little histogram mountains there, clarifying the two worlds of exposure in this image, ground and sky.


Step 3 - Set the Goal for this Image

So what we are about to do in this tutorial is bring the image dynamics so that all elements of this picture keep a high dynamic range. Does high dynamic range ring a bell? Yes, it is HDR, but it's manual. The process we are about to make is a better alternative to HDR images, a more natural looking and friendly to the eye one at least. HDR has a great wow effect, but in the long term, it is not a method that will create those astonishing landscape shots like National Geographic. This method is not 100% National Geographic quality wise, but is surely closer to it than a plain HDR tone mapping. This tutorial will provide an HDR example of this exact same image for you to compare later on. So we will begin with the two basic tools in ACR, Recovery and Fill Light. Those two are the initial steps in order to bring the sky and ground closer exposure wise. Bringing both Recovery and Fill Light values to 100 shows in the histogram that exposure of sky and ground comes towards the middle, blending both in the same exposure range. But 100 is for both an extreme value, and result is like a bad washed out pseudo HDR. Also, using Recovery and Fill light in extreme combination creates some grey outlines around the details in the image, which is bad. So we are going to take little steps, in order to bring those two a bit closer.


Step 4 - Initial Adobe Camera Raw Adjustments

An initial recovery of 40 and fill light of 20 is ok. We need cute little steps in order to enhance this picture, as a few big ones will only prove destructive in our result. Photoshop is only great when working in little steps and that is a basic rule for all forms of use!


Step 5 - Adobe Camera Raw Graduated Filters

It's time for the first cool trick! I have been mumbling about the difference in exposures between the sky and ground. So it's the point to start. The tool to use is a graduated exposure filter in ACR. This way we will imitate all the proper landscape photographers that use polarizing and graduated exposure filters when taking pictures and not all us unfortunate enough not to have one. So select graduated filter, set it to -1.00 exposure and draw the line from top to bottom.


Step 6 - Adobe Camera Raw Graduated Filters

The same way we may also select a new Graduated Filter, set it to +0.30 exposure and draw the line upwards, but not all the way to the top, not to affect the clouds. Also I am using a far lower value, only +0.30 as I checked it that it was enough to bring the detail needed in those plants and eliminate the darkness. Remember at this point that we are only imitating the human eye, that in live view eliminates those exposure differences and sees those details, while cameras yet don't. In our histogram we see that those two little histogram mountains mated and are no longer far away from each other.


Step 7 - Review

Let's review the work done. We evened out the exposure difference between the sky and ground using Recovery and Fill light initially, and then applied two graduated exposure filters, bringing an even exposure in our image. Now we can work on the dynamics of the image in a more unified way, histogram wise. As a bonus we also got a bit more vivid colors in the image, as they came to their proper exposure and they are not muffled any more by our need to capture all dynamics of the image in one picture (and not 3 or 5, like in HDR). We see more detail in the clouds, more detail in the ground. We still have the pale area as in the observation number 3 made in step 2. But this tutorial will take care of it later on. But what counts is that all dynamics of the picture are there, far more editable friendly for later on. Our image still lacks a strong contrast, vivid colors and a few coloring techniques that can make it look good, but we concluded the first preliminary steps in order to have a good material to work on it later on.


Step 8 - Adobe Camera Raw, Clarity

A few more actions that ACR can achieve for this step are the famous Clarity, and Noise reduction (Luminance and Color). I think that ACR excels in the sharpening and clarity tools so I am going to use those two. This tutorial will not perform any more steps using ACR as moving on to photoshop tools will prove much more effective. So we adjust Clarity to a setting of +40 for the little bit of extra mid tone contrast it offers....


Step 9 - Adobe Camera Raw, Noise Reduction

...while in the Sharpnening tab we adjust luminance and color noise reduction levels to 30 and 50 with their details set to 50. Please note that you will adjust this in 100% zoom of the image as you can see noise and how luminance reduces it. Color noise reduction evens out the color in the image. Both those values are not exact, other images may need more or may need less.


Step 10 - Moving on to PS

Now is the time to open our image in Photoshop. This tutorial used Adobe Photoshop CS5. You can see a brief snap in my favorite layout, always keeping histograms open, as well as actions, history, info panel, layer, mask and adjustment tabs. Swatches is a handy as I always pick some color to do small tasks, like in this case I am using red to mark spots.


Step 11 - Curves

In photoshop we begin with a Curves. Our first goal is to have a proper white balance, in black and white points, since there are slight casts in this image. In order to have the black and white points adjusted, we must first see where are the most black and the most white point in the picture. We open a Curves adjustment tab. In the upper right corner we click on the drop down menu and select Show Clipping for Black/White Points.


Step 12 - Curves, black point

By the previous step we are now able to click and drag the black and white points and see where are those spots. First we perform in with the black point, while looking at the picture for the clipping point of black. I mark the blackest point in this picture by a red circle. Move the black point cursor back at it's initial place after you located the spot.


Step 13 - Curves, black point

Now select the black point from the curves adjustment tab and click on that spot. This affects all RGB values of that black point and evens them out, so that we make sure that our black is a true black and there are no color casts in it.


Step 14 - Curves, white point

We are going to perform this for the white point as well, exactly the same way as we did it for the black point. We must find the most white point in this picture. And there it shows clipping. Move the white point back and select the white point sampler.


Step 15 - Curves, white point

And click inside those bright clouds to bring an even white point in there.


Step 16 - Review

Review the work done by hiding view of the Curves adjustment from the Layers tab. This Curves method can actually apply to every image you open in Photoshop and is a very useful one, as it both selects the peak points for black and white, but in a way that they are even, securing both a good white balance in the image and a full histogram. As you may have noticed we did not use the grey sampler. We do not need to get a good grey point, as it is apparently located somewhere inside the clouds but it was a sunset, with the clouds having several red casts from the sun, but some blue ones as well from the sky. Selecting a grey point, could ruin some of those casts and hide the beauty of nature in this picture. Our purpose is to enhance it. Here is a before and after of the Curves adjustment. Our latest action brought more contrast in the image, a better white balance, since obviousely the above image has a red cast in it. By removing the cast we got some more vivid colors as well! Did you notice that we performed no action in ACR or PS regarding colors, yet the colors keep getting more vivid step by step? It is just because we are treating the dynamics of this picture in a way that they are enhanced and they are able to deploy their true potential.


Step 17 - Channels Light Masks, Advanced

The next step is a very advanced one. The highlights in the clouds are still hiding detail and we are going to use a very advanced method to bring them in control. This is like using shadows/highlights adjustment, but far more controlable and advanced. We are going to work directly in the channels tab now, located right next to the layers tab. Select the Channels tab.


Step 18 - Channels Light Masks, Advanced

Click on Load Channel as Selection, located in the bottom right. This selects all highlights of the image from 50% grey and lighter in a feathered way. The lighter, the more it is selected.


Step 19 - Channels Light Masks, Advanced

Now click the button right next to it, Load Selection as Channel. This creates a new channel named Alpha 1, that shows your image as a greyscale. Now press this button 3 more times and it will create 3 more channels, Alpha 2, Alpha 3 and Alpha 4.


Step 20 - Channels Light Masks, Advanced

With the selection still loaded, select Channel Alpha 2 and press Backspace once. Select Channel Alpha 3 and press Backspace twice then select Channel Alpha 4 and press Backspace 3 times. When you are done, your created Alpha channels should look like this, every next one a little bit lighter that the previous one.


Step 21 - Channels Light Masks, Advanced

We now want to open 4 Levels adjustments with each separate Alpha channel as it's mask. First Select the Channel Alpha 1, click on Load Channel as Selection and then on the Layers Tab, open a Levels Adjustment named Levels 1. Repeat this for channel Alpha 2, to Levels 2 and so on, until you have 4 Levels Adjustments in your layers tab all masked accordingly to your 4 Alpha channels. When you are done, you may delete all the channels you have created but not the Layer 4 mask channel. Your Layers tab should look like this.


Step 22 - Channels Light Masks, Advanced

By only looking at the highlights of the image, in this case the clouds, I brought the adjustments of those layers to a point were the clouds would show all of their detail. The values given are: Levels 1 - 90 Black, 0.72 Grey, 227 White Levels 2 - 40 Black, 0.87 Grey, 255 White Levels 3 - 12 Black, 0.96 Grey, 244 White Levels 4 - 8 Black, 1.09 Grey, 255 White This was achieved by were I felt the clouds to work best and I overdid it a little bit to show the vast difference of those adjustments in the clouds. Here is the picture after those adjustments. The result is that all the clouds are perfect, like in a drawing, but all ground highlights actually got ruined.


Step 23 - Mask Out the Channels Light Masks effect on Dark Areas

Click ctrl+alt+shift+E (PC) cmd+alt+shift+E (Mac) and merge all work done until now in a new layer. Create a mask for this new Layer and hide all level adjustments.


Step 24 - Channels Light Masks - Finished

By either using the Gradient all the Brush tool, dark the bottom area of the mask. I used a Gradient tool, since it won't hurt having a little bit darker highlights in the middle. We only really needed to fix the orange ground areas.


Step 25 - Review

Nadaaa! No we are not done yet. But let's review all the steps done until now. We obviousely have a version of the image that looks much more alive, kept most the pro's of an HDR treatement but none of the cons. The last image is a would be hdr treatment of the original.


Step 26 - HDR Comparison

Here is an HDR version of the original image. HDR treatment actually did nothing for the colors of this image, only tried to bring a unified luminocity to the whole image with a good mid tone contrast. The clouds are far inferior to our treatment, but it provided us with a little more ground detail, thing that we could use in our image, but nothing some Sharpness and Midtone contrast could not achieve for our image as well. Also, the method used by ACR, Curves and Channel Light Masks, brought the original colors of the image to show, only by treating it's exposure dynamics properly.


Step 27 - Color Enhancing - Hills

It's time to start enhancing the colors of this image. Open a Color Balance Adjustment and set the Midtone and Shadows Greens to +25 and +10 accordingly. Adding Green looks good for this Hill. Select the Color Balance 1 Mask, press ctrl+I (PC) or cmd+I (Mac) to invert the mask, pick the brush tool, select a round brush (size depends on the use, use "]" and "[" to change the size) white color, in a medium opacity (40%) and 0 Hardness and start painting the mountains along with other green details on the ground. Finally apply a Gaussian Filter on the Mask (80 to 100 radius on a 22 mpixel image, less in smaller images) to even the edges out. If this is too Green then set the layer opacity a bit lower, 50% or 75%. I set mine to 56%.


Step 28 - Color Enhancing - Clouds

Because it was a sunset we will add some Red and Orange to the Clouds to give an even more dramatic look to them. Open a second Color Balance tool, set the Shadows to -12R, -8G, +1B, Midtones to +30R, 0G, -17B, and highlights to +24R, 0G, -61B (!!). Intense values are used to present the effect even better. Since none of the methods used is destructive to the image, everything can be undone simply by erasing the adjustment layer. Similarly to the previous step, select the same brush as before and paint over the clouds in the inverted mask. Finally apply a Gaussian Blur to the Mask.


Step 29 - Color Enhancing - Ground

Choosing to bring more life to the ground as well, we open a third Color Balance Adjustment and set the values Midotes R+15 G+5 B-17 and Highlights R+12 G0 B-65. We invert the mask and use the same brush to paint over the ground area, appy Gaussian blur and adjust opacity of the Layer.


Step 30 - Color Review

This image got a significant amount of life in it! It now showcases a great ground and sky combination of colors and warm casts, with the middle area separating them and keeping a good balance between. Actually it is far closer to what I saw in real when I was taking this picture. The sky warm/cold contrast from right to left significantly creates an astonishing picture, a photograph painting. One final step for this image would be some sharpening of the ground details to get a little bit of crispy clarity down there, like in the HDR comparison.


Step 31 - Sharpness

We are going to use a basic and standard tool, although Photoshop offers plenty of sharpening options, in this tutorial we gave much more gravity to exposure treatment and coloring techniques. So for sharpening we will use a simple unsharp mask. After we merge all the layers to a new one, Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E (PC) and Cmd+Alt+Shift+E (Mac), Select from the top menu Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask. Setting the radius somewhere around 5, while adjusting the amount to the point were we get enough detail and minimum noise for that detail.


Step 32 - Sharpen Control

As the Sharpening only looks good for the ground details and we choose the clouds to be soft and pluffy, we create a mask for this layer and use the Gradient Tool to hidethe sharpen effect from the Clouds and only keep it to the ground. Also because in full size looks a bit oversharpened, I adjusted the layer opacity to 50%.


Final Results