Before & After: Fokker at Sunrise

Some of the most beautiful photographs are taken during sunrise, sunset, or the famous “magic hour”.  The soft, colorful, diffuse light present in these situation often lends itself well to some truly gorgeous shots.  However, sometimes the light, your camera, or other factors conspire against you and you’re not able to really capture the atmosphere of those dawn/dusk moments.

While I was shooting the Virginia Beach “Biplanes and Triplanes” show, I woke up at 6am one morning to get shots of some of the planes taking off for some early morning flights.  The light was great, but my camera had some trouble capturing the nuances of the soft, pink light and the golden hue of the sunrise.  One of my guiding principles when it comes to my processing is that I process my photos to look the way I perceived the moment.  The processing I did below was meant to give the beauty back to the sunrise-lit moment that I saw.

Here is the before and after comparison, side by side:

Click below to see what I changed, why I changed it, and how!

This is the “Before” shot.  Though it’s exposed and composed well, it lacks “punch” and interest.  Additionally, there is little to no indication of the beautiful pre-dawn light that was actually lighting the shot.

Keeping in mind the original location of sun, the way the sky looked, and other conditions, as well as the lack of interest and punch of the original image, I spent about 20 minutes processing the image in Lightroom until it looked like the photo posted below.

Though a step by step tutorial will be eventually be available for this image through Ready Set Shoot, my member’s only section, I will talk here a bit about how I achieved these effects.  Note: all terminology refers to Adobe Lightroom.

The first thing I needed to do with this image was to add “punch”.  I did this by increasing the contrast, vibrance, saturation, clarity, and black levels, as well as increasing the exposure ever so slightly.  Once that was done, I wanted to add back in a suggestion of the sunrise that was actually occurring when the shot was taken but which my camera did not pick up on.  By adding in an adjustment gradient with a higher exposure and a slight yellow/orange tint coming from the left, the side where the sunrise was, I was able to mimic the golden light. Once I had that done to my satisfaction, I also re-emphasized the pink and yellow hues of the sunrise by adding a touch of yellow to the highlight tones and a touch of purple-ish pink to the shadow tones.

In order to draw the eye toward the plane, I added an adjustment gradient with a lower exposure to the bottom portion of the image, creating both a simulated shadow and also a darker area which would help to push the eye up toward the center of the shot.  I also added another lower-exposure gradient to the top quarter of the image, to help darken the sky and bring out the clouds.  I then took an adjustment brush with a higher exposure and painted in a bit of light along the tail of the plane and in the cockpit, as well as on the trailing edge of the left wing.  Once this was all done, I added a tiny bit of vignetting and then added some sharpness in key areas with the adjustment brush.

All in all, this shot took me about 20-25 minutes to perfect, but I was very pleased with the results and it is in fact one of my favorite images.

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7 Responses to Before & After: Fokker at Sunrise

  1. Laurie McKay says:

    Hi Kelsey, very impressive blog so far. Wish I could subscribe it to my Google Reader but it won’t let me yet for some reason. So keep posting on FB for now and hopefully I will keep seeing it there.

  2. Katie says:

    This sounds ridic complicated at a first glance, LOL. When I saw this picture I actually thought you just applied some kind of filter or curve to the entire photo to get that look and had no idea it was way more than that. Do you ever use CS5 or is it always lightroom? And if you prefer lightroom, why do you chose it over photoshop? :3 I have both but since I went through highschool using photoshop, it stuck with me. I tried using lightroom several times but… meh. Just never got into it, if that makes any sense.

    • Kelsey Freeman says:

      Oh yes, proper processing can be quite complicated – I’ve spent up to an hour on a single image before. This is one of the biggest differences between hobbyist and professional processing – most hobbyists don’t go much beyond a simple filter or a photoshop action. But, it makes a huge difference in the appearance of the photograph.

      I do use Photoshop from time to time, but mostly for the content-aware fill feature, rather than processing. I used to use Photoshop, but I switched to Lightroom a few years ago, as its features and the way it deals with images is tailored to photographers rather than generalized image artists. Right down to the terminology in the functions (fill light, recovery, exposure, etc) Lightroom is designed to truly be a digital darkroom made for processing photos (and in fact can’t do anything else), whereas Photoshop is more of a general image creation and editing tool. Almost every professional photographer I know uses either Lightroom or Aperture (Apple’s competitor) as their primary processing tool.

      A lot of folks who don’t have a photography background have a hard time with Lightroom because it really works in the same way that an actual darkroom does, and it really helps to know all of that photographic terminology, as that’s what the software uses as well. I’ll be posting some tutorials about Lightroom, so keep an eye out for those if you’re interested.

  3. Katie says:

    Also, I might not understand the explanation because I’m a visual learner

    • Kelsey Freeman says:

      The explanations on the Before & After posts are meant to just be quick explanations for folks who already use Lightroom or who are learning the program. I’m soon going to have a member’s only section that will be available for a nominal monthly fee ($5 or less, possibly pay as you wish) which will have downloadable walk-through tutorials for those who need more help.

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