A Complicated Blend: The Coming Storm

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Sometimes, I can finish post-production work in just a few minutes… and sometimes, it takes a lot longer. This shot from Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado was a real challenge. Let me see if I can give you an idea of what made it difficult, and how I handled the processing. First, taking this shot was an amazing experience. We watched this storm coming toward us for a short time, and then grabbed our cameras and headed out to get a few shots. The first thing that caught my eye were the colors. The brilliant golden leaves were a perfect compliment to the deep blue tones in the approaching storm. I wanted to capture that juxtaposition – and also capture the chaos in the sky. I chose a simple composition – ignoring the lake behind the trees and choosing a single peak to minimize distractions. I took several shots, waiting for a moment when the skies were full of textures.

Because the leaves were moving in the high winds, I knew I would need to capture the entire dynamic range with a single exposure. If I couldn’t do that, I would end up with a “ghosting” effect as I worked on a blend. If I could process a single image twice – once for the leaves in the foreground and once for the background – I would get a much cleaner blend. Because the skies were heavily overcast, I was able to get the shot I needed.

As the storm blew closer, I could hear the rain falling on the water of the lake – getting closer and closer. As the first drops fell on my camera, I packed up and headed back to the car – just in time. We both love storms, so we watched the rain for a while, and then continued on our way.

The first step in post, was to process the image for the leaves in the foreground and then again for the background. You can see those two images below.

I processed the image once for the leaves…

…and once again for the background.

Then, I created a mask using the color selection tool to isolate the yellow leaves on the lighter layer. The blend sounds simple enough… but moving leaves can be difficult to deal with – even when you are processing a single image twice for a blend. The problem is that some leaves are moving more than others. So, some are slightly blurred, some are completely blurred, and others are sharp. When I make a color selection, I feather it slightly for a smoother blend. The problem is that the selection needs more feathering in areas that are more blurred, and less feathering in sharper areas. That’s a tough problem when you are dealing with thousands of leaves.

I blended the images in Photoshop using our manual iHDR techniques.

Of course, there are lots of different ways I could have solved the problem in Photoshop – some easier than others. But there was no quick fix this time. I tried several different methods for refining my mask – from isolating and subtracting the blue channel to creating a soft light layer and using a targeted luminosity mask to capture those edges. I even converted the image to the ProPhoto color space so I could create a smoother luminosity mask for a cleaner transition in high contrast areas. The problem was worst where the branches reached above the horizon into the sky, so I used a mask to target that area on another layer.

Here are the layers I used for blending. Notice that I also used curves layers to bring out some contrast in the background layer, and to bring back the blue tones I remembered from being on location.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied. In the end, I decided to work on a pixel-by-pixel basis. I zoomed in close, and used the Precision Mode option on my Wacom Intuos 5 tablet to work on those tiny details. I made very slight adjustments to the mask for the foreground trees layer – painting on the mask itself. I went back and forth between my black and white brushes, changing the size of the brushes with the touch ring as I went.

Leaves at 100% – before mask refinement. Can you see the dark lines around some of the leaves?

Finished leaves at 100% – shadows on the leaves, and similar tones in the background made masking difficult. I used Precision Mode on my Wacom tablet to clean up my mask for a clean finish.

Of course, I didn’t make adjustments to every single leaf. I targeted those that seemed distracting and took a few extra minutes in those areas. Post-production for this shot took more than an hour – though some of that time was spent experimenting with techniques that didn’t work. You can see the finished image at the top of this post. What do you think?

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.