Is that Real?

by Robert Bush: June 10, 2015




“Is that really what it looked like?”  “Did you Photoshop that?”  These are the kinds of questions that are often asked of photographers and some of the kinds of questions I got after returning from the trip to Oregon and Washington.  The fact is that digital capture is not really any different that what film photographers did when they created a negative, and then went into the darkroom to develop that negative.  The camera does not make the image – the photographer does.  The extent to which the photographer wants to make something that “looks like nature” is up to the photographer.  My goal is not to create a new reality, but to try to communicate the beauty of nature as it exists.

Fine art photography has never – with the exception of a relatively short period of time when slide film was being used – been created in the camera.  Instead, the camera is used to capture information – on a glass, film or now, digital, negative – and the photograph is created in a darkroom.  When the information was captured on a glass or film negative, the darkroom was really dark and the tools were light and chemicals.  The digital darkroom is a computer in a well lit room and there is no need for chemicals.  But the essence of the process is the same – to create a photograph from information stored on a negative.

The subject of this post is how to get from the digital negative to a finished photograph  using Lightroom and Photoshop.  Or perhaps more accurately, it is the way I got there.  There are numerous ways to get things done in both programs. and different photographers would almost certainly take different paths in the processing of the image.  Indeed, from the same digital negative, different photographers would almost certainly come up with different final images.




Capture 3

Robert Bush_Bandon Beach Sunset Panoramic



These are the before and after pictures of a sunset photograph taken at Bandon Beach, Oregon.  The image on the top is a screen shot of the image in Lightroom before any adjustments are made.  This is the digital negative.  The image on the bottom is the completed image after the negative has been processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.   Here is a short description of how I processed this image.

1.  Composition.  You will note that the finished image is a panoramic and the lightroom digital negative is not.  I decided that there was too much sky and too much foreground and I cropped from the top and from the bottom.

2.  White Balance.    Using Lightroom, I adjusted the white balance by selecting “cloudy” from the dropdown menu.  There was not a lot of need to address light balance in this photograph.

3.  Exposure and Contrast.  Obviously, the digital negative is too dark and I lightened it by increasing the exposure.  But surprisingly, it didn’t take much.  The main thing that helped was by lightening the shadows by using the shadow adjustment slider.  I also reduced the highlights by using the highlight slider – that reduced the exposure of the sun and permitted increasing exposure over the rest of the image.

4.  Saturation.  As is often the case, the digital negative is under saturated.  I increased the saturation by increasing vibrance and clarity as well as a touch of saturation.  To the question of “is this real”, the answer is “yes.”  This is what the sunset looked like.  Adding the saturation made what was an “unreal” dark image look like the glorious sunset that I saw.

5.  Noise Reduction.  Both Lightroom and Photoshop have great tools for reducing “noise” – the extraneous pixels more often generated in unacceptable levels in  in low light, high ISO images.  This image did not have much noise and there was not much of an adjustment necessary.

lightroom step 16. Result of  Initial Adjustments:  And so – after these initial and basic adjustments – the image looked something like the screen shot on the right:

7.  The next steps are the more advanced – but certainly not terribly difficult – adjustments that greatly enhance an image.  This is an area that was very technical and difficult – and still can be  – but which has been made much easier by the increasingly powerful tools available in Lightroom and Photoshop in recent editions of those two programs.  The more technical way of making additional adjustments involves the  use of adjustment layers and masks and those tools are still available.  I have found extremely helpful a “plug-in” that can be used in Lightroom and Photoshop from Nik Software (now owned by Google).  These programs are very easy to use make adjustments as layers that can be deleted if you don’t like them.  They provide powerful shortcuts to multistep adjustment processes.    The program I often find helpful is in the Nik program called Color Efex 4 and it permits easy and powerful adjustments of highlights, midtones, shadows and saturation.  All of these adjustments could – and still can- be accomplished by using layers and layer masks, but Nik makes it faster and easier to do all of those things.

9.  Finally, I used a very powerful Nik program that should only be used selectively – the Nik Color Efex 4 Detail Extractor.  This program brings out details in a way that I could never do using the traditional Photoshop or Lightroom tools.  If applied to an entire image, it would  ruin most images.  However, Nik has several tools that permit you to apply adjustments to only certain areas of an image and in any strength that you want to.  In this case, I used the Detail Extractor around the rock, sand and pools of water in the foreground. on the thin veneer of water on the beach on the leading edge of the waves ,  and  on the white foam of the waves on the left and right of the image.









capture second imagenewsletter 4


This is an image of the same Bandon sunset  taken from the same vantage point as the first image but with a longer lens – a 70-200 mm lens.  You can actually see the area that is the subject of this image as a small part of  the other image.    Although the photos were taken with the same lighting conditions, very different adjustments were necessary.

1.  Composition.  This image just required a small crop at the top of the image to cut out the strip of light sky that would have been distracting in the final image.  Since I did not use a tripod on this image, the horizon was not perfectly horizontal and that needed some adjustment also.

2.  White balance.  One of the major difficulties of this image was white balance.  The water needed to look white with just the right amount of reflection of the colors of the setting sun.  Instead, it was overly magenta.

3.  Exposure.  The previous image needed to have the shadows lightened, but in this image that adjustment would not work since the rocks needed to remain dark.  In this image the use of the clarity adjustment tool in Lightroom was very useful in bringing out some of  the details of the water.  In the previous image, the highlights had to be brought down so the sun would not be overexposed.  In this image, the highlights had to be brought up to bring out the whites of the water.

4.   Noise.  Since this camera was handheld in low light and with a long lens, it was necessary to crank up the sensitivity of the camera to light.  This is the ISO setting on your camera.  New cameras have remarkably high ISO capability and can capture images in near darkness.  The problem is that the higher the ISO, the more “noise” that is generated.  This image had quite a bit of noise and it was necessary to decrease that amount by using the Lightroom noise reduction adjustment slider.  Care should be taken not to reduce the sharpness of the image when reducing noise – sometimes a tricky thing to pull off.

4.  In this image, the initial adjustments really did not accomplish much in the way of turning this image into something worth showing.  The image looked like the screenshot on the right.

Capture lightroom image 25.  Nik software was important in making the first set of additional adjustments to this image.  In this case, I used Viveza 2  – which permits selective powerful adjustments to exposure, contrast, structure, and saturation.  That was helpful in pulling up the light highlights of the waves without lightening the dark rocks.

6.  Final adjustments on this image were done in Photoshop which permits an every finer tuning of adjustments using Nik and some other tools.  In this case, the most important tool were the  Detail Entractor and Pro Contrast tools in the Nik Color Efex 4 program.  Both were  applied to the waves only to make them brighter and to reveal the details in those waves.

7.  Finally, this image required more  work on color balance in Photoshop.  For that, I used the Photoshop levels hue/saturation adjustment tool.




The purpose of all of these all of adjustments to these two images was not to make something that did not exist in nature.  To the contrary, my goal was to try to capture the essence of what I saw.  I don’t pretend to duplicate – much less remember – exactly how it looked, and I imagine it looked different even to those who were on the beach with me that night.  But to the question “is that real”, I would say “yes.”.  To the question – often asked to imply that something was creating that did not take place  – “did you Photoshop that” – I would also say “yes:”  Who wants to look at a negative!!