Creating the perfect photo | Episode #2

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byMATIC BROZ

Welcome to the second episode of Creating the perfect photo series.

Be sure to check the previous Creating the perfect photo | Episode #1 in case you missed it, where I talked about finding new shooting spots, deciding on a composition under challenging sunset conditions, and editing the photo in way that covers-up oopsies made on the shoot.

Criticism, questions, ideas, suggestions, and advice are welcome. Feel free to post in the comments or email me to [email protected].

Also keep in mind that the editing process I show here is the same/similar to the one I use when I edit your photos. If you want to save up on the software that I use, you can always ask me to edit the photo for you.

Photo of the Episode #2 of Creating the perfect photo

I took this photo during a sunrise a few days ago on a nearby Perniško lake (Slov., Perniško jezero).

https://www.instagram.com/p/B_78SVFlj3g/

Location

Pesniška valley (Slov., Pesniška dolina) is an area in the northwestern part of Slovenia best known as a filming location of the beloved Slovenian film “My Dad, the Socialist Kulak” (Slov. Moj Ata, Socialistični Kulak), castle Hrastovec (Slov., Grad Hrastovec), and most importantly for us, landscape photographers, 5 man-made lakes. The largest and to me the most important of these lakes is Perniško lake. 

This highly humid area often offers spectacular foggy sceneries, especially in the cold mornings, that precipitate the fog and are a favourite of mine.

I don’t always have a  clear vision of what I want to shoot when I go there, I rather assess the situation once I arrive at the location. There a lot of different degrees of fog, which greatly influence the availability of certain compositions and critically change the scenery.
There can be no fog, a light mist just above the lake, light fog, or the zero-visibility you’re-not-going-to-see-the-sun-today fog. 

This time, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to shoot – I wanted to recreate a photo that I messed up a year ago. All I had to hope for were the perfect weather conditions.

Pernica failed image

I was very proud of this photo at the time. The conditions were perfect, however, there’s at least one deal breaker in it.

As the sun rose above the hill it backlit the fog creating unnatural looking sunrays I couldn’t remove. I tried Photoshopping them out, burning (darkening) them, overlaying them with different sunrays, but nothing turned out great.

Otherwise, this photo’s composition was pretty good. It has 3-4 layers following the rule of thirds, a dark forest on the right side balancing the interesting house on the left side, some fog in the background to put an emphasis on the main object, and a decently interesting sky. 

Although I had caught an amazing scenery I was left with a mediocre photo, so I decided to recreate it.

This time, I once again followed my advice and woke up early in order to be on the location at least an hour early. 

It was a cold May morning with temperatures as low as 3 °C (37.4 °F).

When I arrived at the Perniško lake to give this photo another try, I rejoiced at the sight of light fog and fair weather. The weather conditions were nigh on perfect.

Composition

I tried almost entirely recreating the composition from the last time, with one key difference – this time I took a higher ground in order to avoid any unwanted “through-the-fog” sunrays.

However, as soon as the sun climbed atop the hill it shone over the lake, exposing a lot more high-laying mist than I previously noticed. Luckily, I quickly realized that composition won’t work.

I quickly grabbed my tripod and camera, and raced 200m closer and to the right of the house. This way I removed the sun from my composition putting the end to the menacing sunrays. 

Also, you can notice the sunlit background of the house, which improves contrast between the house (the main object of this photo) and the background, making the house stand out. 

Another thing I like with this composition are the arcs created by the background hills, which also reflect in the water, giving this photo some more dynamism.

You can read a book like The Landscape Photography Book by Scott Kelby to learn the more composition basics.

Rule of thirds

Although I usually follow the Rule of thirds, at least as a rough guideline, I dismissed it this time. 

Why? Well, first you need to notice that I didn’t disregard it completely – my central object, the house, is still on located on one of the thirds. I followed it vertically, but not horizontally.

I also have 3 levels in my photo: the foreground (water), the object and hills as background, and sky. However, these elements do not abide by the rule of thirds. The entire composition is shifted downwards.

Look at the photo and try to figure it out by yourself why’d I do that. I’ll give you a few seconds.

Ok, time’s up. Did you figure it out? You can let me know in the comments if you got it right.

The answer is: I shifted the entire composition down, towards the water, because the water was faaar more interesting than the sky.

There’s mist on the water reflecting the warm (yellow) morning light, and what’s even more important – there’s a lovely reflection in the water, reflecting the arcs of the hills and the house. 

If the water wasn’t as calm as it was and the sky’d be more interesting I’d shift my composition upwards in order to capture more sky.

Episode 2 Rule of thirds
Episode 2 Rule of thirds

Sun’s position

To avoid complications with sunlight dispersing on fog/mist particles creating unwanted sunrays upon hitting my lens’ I decided to eliminate sun from my composition this time.

Since sun rises and sets off the borders of this composition, I could choose any time of the day to make the shot. 

Obviously, I opted for the golden hour to avoid strong contrasts of the midday, however, the lingering question is “Why during sunrise and not sunset?”.

There are three reasons, the first two being facts and the third being a personal preference:

1. I wanted mist in my photo, which can only be encountered in the mornings when the air is still humid and cold.

2. In this time of the year, (spring) sun rises just right of this composition, shining on the hill left of the house and emphasizing the background. During the sunset, the light source would be on the left, inverting shadows and highlights in comparison to the sunrise.

3. I prefer sunrises’ colder yellow/orange and blue colour palette to sunsets’ warmer orange and blue/purple. 

Camera Gear

I was shooting with my Canon EOS 60D camera and Canon 18-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens. The camera was on my Slik 700Dx Pro with a 3-way panhead tripod.

I used Marumi CPL to shear off mist reflection and improve the background colour saturation, while preserving the reflection in the water. 

“How is that possible?”, you might ask. 

TL;DR: When light (electromagnetic radiation) reflects of a surface it becomes polarized meaning it, EM, only has one direction of fluctuations. By the use of a polarizer you can completely “block” some sources of the polarized light and only let through those that you want. 

Apparently, mist and grass in the background reflected similarly polarized light, which could not pass through my filter, while water’s reflection could. 

If you want to learn more about polarization make sure to check this awesome KhanAcademy’s video.

Episode 2 Gear
Gear used to take the photo

Camera Settings

My settings for this photo were quite straightforward:

  • Mode: Manual
  • White balance: Auto
  • Focal distance: 35 mm (56 mm – 35mm Focal Length Equivalent)
  • ISO: 100
  • Aperture: f/8.0 – my lens is the most sharp at f/8.0
  • Shutter speed: I used bracketing at -2.0, 0, 2.0 exposure levels, resulting in 1/160, 1/50, and 1/15 of a second.
  • Focus – I focused onto the house

Editing

To edit this photo I used Lightroom, Luminar 4, and Photoshop.

HDR

Last week, I added another photo editing software to my repertoire – ON1 Photo Raw 2020

This photo editor is packed with a combination and variety of tools I haven’t encountered before. Atop of that it has HDR and Panorama merging, Focus Stacking (similarly to Photoshop), however, it also has a variety of creative tools, similarly to Lightroom. 

I shot three different exposures (underexposed, properly exposed, and overexposed), which I tried merging into HDR in 3 different photo editors – Lightroom Classic CC, Aurora HDR 2018, and ON1 Photo Raw 2020.

Aurora’s HDR’s output was too saturated, grainy, and structured, while ON1’s seemed washed out. So, I went with Lightroom’s, which is my go-to HDR merging tool, anyway.

Basic panel

Still in Lightroom, I applied the lens correction of my camera and lens model, and removed chromatic aberration. 

In the Basic panel I lowered the highlights to get some detail in the sky, and increased the shadows – these two setting are the basics of editing an HDR photo.

Then, I decreased the contrast. I noticed that a lot of my old photos are too contrasty, and I think that’s a mistake most of the rookies make. Increasing the contrast does make a photo look more dramatic, but it should never be overdone, as it looks tacky. 

I started heavily decreasing the contrast slider in Lightroom, because later in the editing process I use tools that add some contrast.

I also decreased the saturation and made up for the loss of colour by increasing the vibrance – this procedure is rather standard for landscape photography.

Detail

I sharpened the image to around 60 and masked to almost 80.

Read more about sharpening in Lightroom.

Local adjustments

To lead viewers’ eyes into the photo I created two Gradient filters and lowered the exposure, on at the bottom to darken the water, and another on the top to darken and desaturate the sky.

The red areas represent where the filters were applied.

Episode 2 Gradual filters
Two gradual filters used in Lightroom

Luminar 4

I opened the photo in Luminar 4 as a Lightroom’s plug-in. Luminar 4 can work as a plug-in for both Ligthroom and Photoshop.

I highly recommend that you read this article on Luminar 4 and why I think it’s in many aspects better than Lightroom. 

First, I used AI Accent tool to emphasize HDR look of the photo even more. Although, Skylum tried hard to create its AI tools as smart as possible, it still introduces A LOT of noise, if you move this slider too far to the right.

I used some Detail Enhancer and AI Structure to add some more structure to the image. Beware, be very gentle with these as you can easily overdo these effects and create a posterized looking image.

In the last step, I used two tools that are unique to my style.

Every photographer should develop their own style, if they want to become recognizable, however, in the modern world where there are literally hundreds of thousand great photographers, the journey to success can arduous and exhausting.

Final touches

In the last step I opened the photo in Photoshop, to emphasize curves and edges using dodge and burn tools.

I burnt the shadowy part of the hill and trees, while highlighting the sunlit trees.

I also brightened the house ever so slightly to make it pop just a bit. 

Pernica Hiša Megla-3

Conclusion | Creating the perfect photo Episode #2

I am very glad that I finally caught almost perfect weather conditions and successfully took a very good photo of this scenery, which can be a challenging task to accomplish.

A more interesting sky would definitely improve the photo, although a more careful post-processing approach would be needed in order to avoid creating a tacky image.

Water was very still that morning, yet the reflection is still not perfect. Coming back on an even less windy day would be optimal. 

My last issue with this photo is a dull background. Some fog behind the house would definitely add to the uniqueness of this scene.

If you like this new Creating the perfect photo tutorial, let me know in the comments. You can also Buy Me Coffee to help me keep doing this.

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Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and are based on my experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. This post may contain affiliate links.

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