How to vastly enhance landscape shots using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and then Photoshop. This tutorial will show step by step tips and tricks in order to get out the most out of your landscape pictures.
Preview of Final Results
Amazing Landscapes using Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop
Step 1 – Photo Selection
Select the photo you’d like to edit. This is apparently the obvious, but there are some important criteria here. Photoshop is an image enhancer, not Jesus Christ, meaning that it makes good pictures look astonishing, mediocre pictures look good, while bad images will just look mediocre. A good landscape shot, is a shot that keeps the maximum detail possible inside the digital color and exposure range. The biggest problem when shooting landscape is the exposure difference between sky and ground if you are not using filters on your camera to prevent this. This difference can be huge in bright noon daylight, up to 12 stops, while it gets smaller during sunrise or sunsets, up to 6 stops. Here in this tutorial we will work on a mediocre picture though, taken during a sunset, in order to perform a lot of enhancing actions regarding exposure, contrast, white balance and vivid colors. But the important fact is that the exposure difference between the sky and ground was not vast, 6 or maybe 7 stops. This picture was taken with a net lens, without any polarizing filter or graduated nd filter attached. Also note that we are working on a JPG, not a .CR2 image.
Step 2 – Open in Adobe Camera Raw
So opening in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), is the obvious step. First get a good look at the image and spot out what this image could use in order to get top notch. No Photoshop tool replaces a good eye for what needs to be done, so just dedicate some time observing, even if your photoshop skills are not great, both skills and your intuition can be trained simply by observing. So for this image I made a few remarks. For you to comprehend them better I note them on the image using red. This is just to show my mindset when observing an image to enhance, I never actually write anything. I made 4 quick remarks here:
- Exposure difference between the ground and the sky
- Plants are dark and lack light detail
- This area is pale and less contrasty than the rest of the ground
- Cloud detail is minimum because of darks absence.
and generally this image has very low contrast, it is colorless, somewhat underexposed but in the little histogram that ACR offers you can see that all information of this image is inside the exposure range, no information is lost, and you can obviously see the two little histogram mountains there, clarifying the two worlds of exposure in this image, ground and sky.
Step 3 – Set the Goal for this Image
So what we are about to do in this tutorial is bring the image dynamics so that all elements of this picture keep a high dynamic range. Does high dynamic range ring a bell? Yes, it is HDR, but it’s manual. The process we are about to make is a better alternative to HDR images, a more natural looking and friendly to the eye one at least. HDR has a great wow effect, but in the long term, it is not a method that will create those astonishing landscape shots like National Geographic. This method is not 100% National Geographic quality wise, but is surely closer to it than a plain HDR tone mapping. This tutorial will provide an HDR example of this exact same image for you to compare later on.
So we will begin with the two basic tools in ACR, Recovery and Fill Light. Those two are the initial steps in order to bring the sky and ground closer exposure wise. Bringing both Recovery and Fill Light values to 100 shows in the histogram that exposure of sky and ground comes towards the middle, blending both in the same exposure range. But 100 is for both an extreme value, and result is like a bad washed out pseudo HDR. Also, using Recovery and Fill light in extreme combination creates some grey outlines around the details in the image, which is bad. So we are going to take little steps, in order to bring those two a bit closer.
Step 4 – Initial Adobe Camera Raw Adjustments
An initial recovery of 40 and fill light of 20 is ok. We need cute little steps in order to enhance this picture, as a few big ones will only prove destructive in our result. Photoshop is only great when working in little steps and that is a basic rule for all forms of use!
Step 5 – Adobe Camera Raw Graduated Filters
It’s time for the first cool trick! I have been mumbling about the difference in exposures between the sky and ground. So it’s the point to start. The tool to use is a graduated exposure filter in ACR. This way we will imitate all the proper landscape photographers that use polarizing and graduated exposure filters when taking pictures and not all us unfortunate enough not to have one. So select graduated filter, set it to -1.00 exposure and draw the line from top to bottom.
Step 6 – Adobe Camera Raw Graduated Filters
The same way we may also select a new Graduated Filter, set it to +0.30 exposure and draw the line upwards, but not all the way to the top, not to affect the clouds. Also I am using a far lower value, only +0.30 as I checked it that it was enough to bring the detail needed in those plants and eliminate the darkness. Remember at this point that we are only imitating the human eye, that in live view eliminates those exposure differences and sees those details, while cameras yet don’t. In our histogram we see that those two little histogram mountains mated and are no longer far away from each other.