The Labyrinth

Sean Bagshaw’s Photoshop Workflow

Sean Bagshaw is an Oregon-based photographer who produces some stunning work. Sean is best known for combining multiple exposures to create natural-looking high dynamic range images. His Photoshop workflow is fined-tuned to make viewers feel like they are looking out of the window.

Infocus Magazine sat down with Sean and talked to him about creating natural-looking high dynamic range images. Here are some simple-to-follow tips from Sean about capturing and processing high dynamic range photos.

  • Deschutes Sunrise shadows

    Canon 5D MKIII | 16-35mm f/2.8L II | Multiple Exposure | f/16 | ISO 100

  • Deschutes Sunrise highlights

    Canon 5D MKIII | 16-35mm f/2.8L II | Multiple Exposure | f/16 | ISO 100

  • Autumn Sunrise, Bend, Oregon

    Canon 5D MKIII | 16-35mm f/2.8L II | Multiple Exposure | f/16 | ISO 100

How do you define a High Dynamic Range photo?

I’m not sure about the official definition of a high dynamic range photo and the term has been largely co-opted over the years by a certain type of software processing. My definition of a high dynamic range photo is one in which the range of tonal values cannot be recorded in a single camera exposure. If more than one exposure is required to render detail across the entire tonal range, then it is a high dynamic range photo. By this definition, what constitutes high dynamic range is always changing as new cameras become better at recording high contrast light. Additionally, different cameras on the market have different dynamic range capabilities, so this affects what might be considered high dynamic range by my definition. A multiple exposure, high dynamic range situation for one camera may be comfortably within the dynamic range of a single exposure of a different camera.

Do you need any special equipment to capture these photos? If not, what are the minimum equipment requirements for capturing these photos?

I do not use any special equipment to capture high dynamic range light in a scene. My standard outdoor photography equipment consists of a camera, lenses, a tripod, usually a polarizing filter and sometimes a cable release. When I am photographing, the main tool I use to evaluate the dynamic range is the camera’s histogram. By using the histogram, I easily know when to switch between shooting single exposures for standard dynamic range light and multiple exposures for high dynamic range light. Sometimes this requires just two exposures and other times it requires as many as five or seven or even more exposures.

  • Secret Beach shadows

    Canon 5D MKIII | 24-105mm f/4L IS | Multiple Exposure | f/22 | ISO 100

  • Secret Beach highlights

    Canon 5D MKIII | 24-105mm f/4L IS | Multiple Exposure | f/22 | ISO 100

  • Secret Beach

    Canon 5D MKIII | 24-105mm f/4L IS | Multiple Exposure | f/22 | ISO 100

Can you summarize your post-processing workflow?

My exposure-blending post-processing workflow begins in Lightroom (or Camera Raw) where I make basic raw adjustments such as perspective control, chromatic aberration removal, noise reduction (if needed), input sharpening, white balance, and dust spot removal. I synchronize these adjustments across all the exposures and then I open the exposures as layers in Photoshop. In Photoshop, I begin by ensuring that all the layers are aligned and arranged with the lightest exposure on the bottom and darkest exposure on the top. Then I place black layer masks on each layer but the bottom, lightest layer. Using a variety of masking techniques, I begin masking in the properly-exposed pixels from the darker exposures to replace areas of the lightest layer that are over-exposed.  While the concept is simple, the skills and techniques can be quite complex. The masking techniques that I use include hand-painted masks, gradient masks, color-range masks, and other types of masks made from selections, including luminosity selections and masks.

Where should a beginner photographer start with Photoshop? In other words, how should I go about learning post-processing if I am just starting out?

It is important to note that exposure blending is an advanced Photoshop skill requiring proficiency with layers, selections, and masks. If you are new to Photoshop, you should begin by becoming familiar with its basic layout, tools, menus, panels, adjustments, and filters. You should also learn to make general photo developing adjustments for exposure, contrast, color, and clarity to single exposure images. There are many good books and e-books on Photoshop available for beginners. Many people find that they learn best visually, so I would highly recommend taking a class or watching instructional videos. I offer a Photoshop Basics video tutorial series, as do some of my colleagues.

  • Now Comes Spring shadows

    Canon 5D MKIII | 16-35mm f/2.8L II | Multiple Exposure | f/22 | ISO 100

  • Now Comes Spring highlights

    Canon 5D MKIII | 16-35mm f/2.8L II | Multiple Exposure | f/22 | ISO 100

  • Now Comes Spring

    Canon 5D MKIII | 16-35mm f/2.8L II | Multiple Exposure | f/22 | ISO 100

Once a photographer has mastered the basic that you mentioned above, what are the next steps?

Once you become comfortable within the Photoshop environment, it’s time to start adding new skills and more advanced techniques to your repertoire. The next step is to begin working with adjustment layers, filter layers, selections, and layer masks to accomplish very targeted and localized adjustments and affects. Don’t rush. Add new skills one at a time. When you feel you are proficient using layers, selections, and masks, you are ready to begin learning exposure-blending techniques. There are books, e-books, videos, and classes available for learning more advanced techniques but they can be harder to find than more basic materials. I offer several video series on Advanced Photoshop Techniques.

Sean is a founding member and one sixth of the Pacific Northwest based photography team known as Photo Cascadia. He frequently teams up with fellow Photo Cascadia members leading workshops.

What is your post processing workflow? Feel free to share it with the viewers in comments below.

About Guest Author

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Sean Bagshaw is an outdoor photographer, digital image developing enthusiast and photography educator based in Ashland, Oregon. He resides there with his wife and two sons.

Combining modern techniques with a traditional darkroom sense of pre-visualization, he approaches photography as a two part creative process. The capture of the image in the camera and developing it with artistic intent are given equal importance and attention on the path to the final piece. Twice since 2008 his images have been winners in the Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice International Awards and have also been honored in the International Conservation Photography Awards and other competitions.

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1 reply
  1. Hans Petter Birkeland
    Hans Petter Birkeland says:

    Hi,
    I just want to tell about my kind of alternative workflow. Since I use Linux Mint as my main OS, I can’t use Photoshop and Lightroom. I always shoot RAW, and my RAW developer of choice is Darktable. It is very advanced and resembles Lightroom in many ways, although it works in quite a different way.
    For exposure blending and all the other stuff that “most people” use Photoshop, my application of choice is Gimp. Now Gimp is fairly well known for only supporting 8 bit files, but on Linux the development version Gimp 2.9 is easily available. This version has support for both 16 and 32 bit files and is very stable. I have never had it crash on me, even though it is an “unstable” version.

    I do quite a bit of HDR/exposure blending, using different techniques. I use both HDR software and manual blending with layer masks in Gimp, and often a combination of the two. I like very much a simple little app called Macrofusion that only does HDR merging and no tone mapping. It inputs the bracketed images (16 bit tif exported from Darktable) and merges them into a new 16 bit tif. There are some sliders to adjust, but they don’t do much, so most of the time I only use the default settings. What I then do is giving the image my personal touch. First I import both the merged image and the bracketed ones as layers in Gimp. Then I paint in parts of the over- and underexposed images where I feel they are needed for the look that I want. I also do some cloning if required, color adjustments and dodging and burning before finishing off with sharpening. Then I take the image back into Darktable where I often do some extra color adjustments and maybe gradients or vignetting. Darktable is also my main organizing app.

    One disadvantage of Macrofusion is that it can align the source images before merging, but it can not export the aligned images separately. Therefore, if I have shot handheld or I for some reason don’t trust my tripod, I bring the images into another app called Luminance HDR for alignment and re-export, since I need everything to be spot on when i go into Gimp. Luminance HDR also has tone mapping options. I have used this a few times, but at the moment I don’t like it too much. I should definitely look more into using Luminance HDR without tonemapping, though.

    Links to software:
    Darktable: darktable.org
    Gimp: gimp.org
    Macrofusion: sourceforge.net/projects/macrofusion
    Luminance HDR: http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net

    Reply

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