Blown-Out Highlights: Waterfalls (and the Silky Water Effect)

Blown-out highlights.  No, I am not referring to a bad hair color.  I’m talking (writing) about photos you have seen or taken where the lighter colors of a photo (in particular the whites) are so blinding/glaring that you see no detail at all, even though you know there was detail within those light colors when you looked at the scene you ultimately photographed.

In this post, I’m going to show you what I do when attempting to recover some of the detail in a photo with blown-out (over-exposed) highlights.  Sometimes, these procedures work really well for me, sometimes not so much.  I know there are other methods out there I haven’t yet mastered (which is why I someday want to take one of those week-long Photoshop courses offered by Rocky Mountain School of Photography http://www.rmsp.com/ or Santa Fe Photographic Workshops http://www.santafeworkshops.com/ ).

In 2008, I went on my very first organized photo workshop – to Glacier National Park, MT.  In future posts, I’ll discuss my photo tour experiences (and post photos). One day during the workshop, we hiked the short trail from the road to a place called St. Mary Falls.  I’d never really photographed running (rushing) water before.  There are others out there who have water photography down to a fine art:  Darren White Photography, for one  http://www.flickr.com/photos/drwhite75/sets/72157610515657296/  I was definitely not one of those people.

Most people, when photographing waterfalls, are aiming toward what is called “silky water”.  Basically, the camera shutter speed is set to “slow” (for example: 1 second instead of 1/500 of a second) to capture more than just a passing glance of the rushing water.  The longer the shutter speed, the more “silky” the effect…and the more potentially blown-out (over-exposed) the image may become.

Here’s a (un-edited) non-silky water shot – well, relatively non-silky.

Versus a silky water (way un-edited) photo (an example of silky water and blown-out highlights):

At the time of the workshop, I didn’t quite know enough about photographing water to realize that I did not even own what I really needed, which was a dedicated neutral density (ND) filter (this is why you take workshops – to reach beyond your comfort zone and learn about stuff like this).  I’m not referring to a graduated (split) ND filter, but an actual “all-over” ND filter, which is a round or square piece of gray glass or resin compound that fits over (or in front of) the lens.  The gray comes in varying shades or “densities” or “stops” (1-stop, 2-stop, 4-stop – meaning that’s how much the camera’s exposure is “stopped” down or lowered when capturing a scene with that filter attached).  ND filters are great for long shutter speeds to slow down motion such as running water in order to create that “silky” effect, while keeping the light colors of a scene from being blown-out.

If you are going to purchase a ND filter, then remember: you get what you pay for.  When it comes to camera equipment, get the best that your budget will allow.  Don’t short-change yourself or your photos.  I’m not advocating that you break the bank or starve yourself (or your family) in order to purchase the higher-end stuff (I know it’s difficult to maintain priorities, but sometimes camera gear doesn’t come first).  I’m just recommending that you get the best you can afford and not go onto ebay to pay $3 for something that you will ultimately trash upon viewing the results.  BH Photo  www.bhphotovideo.com and Adorama  www.adorama.com carry a wide range of ND filters and pricing to fit all budgets – and really, these photo sites I have listed carry good stuff.  It’s where I do all of my shopping for photo gear.

All I had with me at the time was a graduated (split) 2-stop ND filter and a polarizing filter.  So I screwed on both filters (watch out when doing this and trying to use your wide-angle lens because you will definitely get vignetting). Below is the original shot as it came out of the camera:

Attractive, right?  Well, it has the potential to be attractive after a little post-processing.

For one thing – I definitely remember standing at this spot, marveling at the lovely dark turquoise hue in the waterfall itself.  You don’t see much of that in the shot above.  Following are the procedures I took to eliminate as much of the blown-out highlights as possible and bring out the colors to achieve the end result pictured below:

Better, yes?

I am sure I will say this in almost every “how to” post I write, in case you don’t read any of my previous posts.  First and foremost, I am not an expert – by any means.  I am simply writing about what I know and how I do it.

Regarding photo editing applications – there are a ton of them out there and everybody uses something different: Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Aperture, Picasa, Picnik, Lightoom, etc.  What I tell you here can pretty much be applied to whatever post-processing software you use – different commands, different tools in the virtual toolbox, but the result will essentially be the same.  I personally use two programs:  Lightroom 3 (LR3) and Adobe Photoshop CS5.  I do some things in LR3 because they are easier for me to utilize, and I do other things in CS5.  I don’t know the total ins and outs of either of these very complicated programs like Scott Kelby  http://www.scottkelby.com/  or Rick Sammon http://www.ricksammon.com/Rick_Sammon/Home.html do, but what I do know, works for me, and I’m constantly learning new stuff in both of these programs.

So, I upload the photos to LR3.

I choose a photo (that first one highlighted) and click on the “Develop” link at the top right.

One of the first steps I always take is to scroll down to the Lens Correction panel on the right side of the screen and click on the “Enable Profile Corrections”.  This corrects distortions inherent in whatever particular lens you may be using on your SLR (I’ve noticed that this option doesn’t appear to make any difference on photos I upload from my point & shoot – a Canon G11).

Once that is done, I start to play around with the photo.  Since there are plenty of blown out highlights in the whiteness of the water, the next thing I want to do is bring back a little detail wtihin those whites.  I scroll up to the top right side of the screen and play around with the Recovery slider.  It’s an awesome little tool that works really well to bring back detail, although it tends to darken the rest of the photo.  I also utilize the Clarity, Vibrancy, and Saturation sliders to bring back the “oomph” to the photo and to add saturation to the colors.

FYI, Vibrancy and Saturation are oftentimes confusing.  Saturation boosts the color saturation of the entire photo.  Vibrancy is more selective (don’t ask me how it knows) and boosts only those colors in the photo that are undersaturated.  So, why not use just the Vibrancy slider and ditch the Saturation altogether?  It all depends on what you are after – what you want to see in your photo and what you want your photo to show you (and others).  I usually play around with both sliders, then either keep both, or set one or the other back to zero.  Be careful when using these two tools, as it’s quite easy to over-do.  You don’t want a fakey or fantastical-looking photo….unless that is your aim, of course.

The photo above still looks a little blown-out to me, so I use one of my very favorite tools in LR3: the Gradient Tool.

I use this awesome little tool mainly for exposure control for parts of a photo.  However, as you see from the panel that opens up when the gradient tool is clicked, there are other slider options which may also be used with this tool.  All you have to do is drag the little plus-sign (which turns into lines as pictured above) through the areas you wish lightened/darkened/saturated/etc.

Note:  if you are going to drag a straight line horizon from top toward the bottom or from the bottom toward the top, remember to hold down the Ctrl key (on a Windows PC) as you hold down the left mouse button and drag the gradient up or down – otherwise, those lines will go every which way.  Just test it out for yourself to see what I mean, since I don’t think I am explaining that aspect very well.

I fiddle around with the blacks, contrast, and brightness sliders, too.

When I’ve achieved what I want in LR3, I do one last thing:  scroll down to the Tone Curve panel and use the Light slider.  This slider is more subtle than the Exposure or Brightness tools – it adds a nice glow to the entire photo.  CS5 also has a Curves tool, but I find I have more control using those sliders in LR3 and I understand them a little better in this program than in the more complicated CS5 – that’s just me, of course – you may find it easier to work with Curves in some other program.

I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do in LR3.  So I compare the before-after views before finally exporting the photo as a TIF which I will then open up in CS5 for further tweaking (because it still does need further work IMO).

I’ve saved the TIF file and now open it up in CS5.

One of the first things I do to a photo in CS5 is go to the menu bar, select Images – Auto Tone and take a look at what CS5 would do to the photo.

Some of the whites look a little to harsh to me, so I go to Edit – Undo Auto Tone.

I next choose Images – Adjustments – Brightness/Contrast and fiddle around with those sliders.

I’m still not sure I like what I see, so I go to Edit – Undo Brightness/Contrast and move on to the Images-Adjustments-Levels panel.

Sometimes I use one or a combination of the three tools I’ve listed above to achieve my results.

I noticed that my image, while looking good, has a bit more of an aqua cast to the entire photo than I really want.  I decide maybe I need to do a little color balancing.

Image-Adjustments-Color Balance.  I tweak the Red slider a little bit to eliminate some of that aqua (cyan) cast to my photo.

Much better.

As I work on this image, I see little spots here and there in the white: they might be water spots or dust particles on the image sensor.

I definitely wish to get rid of those, so I use one (or both) of the following:

The Content Aware tool, which is accessed by selecting that little lasso icon on the left side of the screen.

Use that lasso to outline the item you wish eliminated, right click, select Fill and make sure Content Aware is shown.

Click OK and voila!  Most of the time, this works like magic – sometimes, though, it does not, and you have to do a manual clone job.  Note: this Content Aware tool is only on CS5 and now on the latest iteration of Photoshop Elements.  So in all probability, if you don’t have either of those programs, you must use whatever clone tool is available in your program’s arsenol.

You will see a little empty circle on your screen.  You can adjust the circle size.  For CS5, you need to place the circle in an area of the photo which you would like to “clone” over to the part(s) of the image that need to have those spots eliminated, Ctrl-Alt to capture that area, then place the circle over the spot and click on the left mouse key.  Voila! spot(s) all gone!

My final act before I apply a little sharpening to this image is to use a bit of selective dodging and burning (lightening and darkening).  In CS5, you can switch between the two tools by left-clicking and then highlighting the option you wish.

I finllally apply a subtle bit of sharpening: Filters-Sharpen-Unsharp Mask and I’ve vastly improved upon the original photo.

You can take these instructions and apply them to any images with blown-out highlights: skies, horizons where it’s dark on the bottom and light on top (like mountain photos), any other photo with alot of light-dark areas in the shot.

Of course, the instructions above are not the only methods to achieve these results; many photographers more experienced with Photoshop use Layers for this purpose.  I don’t know a thing about Layers, in all honesty, which is why I never mentioned them in this post and won’t mention them in any other post until I myself am proficient enough to ponderously expound upon this issue 😉

I see this is another looonnng post.  Sorry.  As I attempted to describe my editing processes, I came to the realization that post-processing is not always simple or straight-forward.  I don’t think about it because I happen to LOVE photo editing.  Photography is an art, I’m an artist, the photo is the canvas and the editing software contains my box of paint  brushes. Oftentimes, it takes more than a single editorial”brush stroke” to create a Masterpiece.  It all depends upon how well your in-camera settings captured the shot (about which many photographers will brag online) and how much time you wish to devote to an image.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Blown-Out Highlights, Lessons, Photography, Waterfalls

One response to “Blown-Out Highlights: Waterfalls (and the Silky Water Effect)

  1. You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the
    finest blogs on the web. I’m going to highly recommend this site!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s