Our Save the Date Sunset Photo – Behind the Photoshop Magic

Ok, so I’m about to do something I’ve never done before… I’m going to explain how I made one of my images, and even more daring, reveal the original, raw image before it was edited.

I’m going to start regularly posting guides, and how-to’s to my blog, starting with this “behind the processing” look at how I made one of my favourite shots of 2014.

Let’s start with the finished product, here it is:

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Click on it if you want a closer look.

The idea behind this photo was to create an image for Louise (my fiancee) and I to use on our Save the Date cards we’re sending out for our wedding.

The location is a field behind Hockley Woods in Essex (UK) and it has some sentimental value to us, as we used to enjoy walking our, sadly now passed away, greyhound called Jed in the field. We now have 2 different greyhounds, and they also mean the world to us, so we were very keen to get them involved in the image too.

We realised we were in danger, by doing this, of  being one of those crazy couples that people mock. You know the ones, who treat their dogs like children, and send out Christmas cards with the dogs “signatures” in them, and so on. But we went ahead with it anyway.

The vision was clear in my head. I wanted us to be in the field, facing away from the camera (maybe even walking), as the sun sets. I knew I’d have to do some creative lighting, and that we’d need the perfect night… so, we patiently waited for a couple of weeks until the moment was right.

Frustratingly though, we left it very late to make the decision on the day to go ahead and do it, and with a big rush to the location as the sun was setting, we got there too late! The sun pretty much disappeared below the horizon as I set the lighting up.

But I wasn’t about to let something like a missing sun ruin the moment. As some of you may know, I’m a dab hand at Photoshop, and I just simply uttered those famous words: “never mind, I’ll just add it back in, in Photoshop”

That’s right, it’s not a real sun you can see in the photograph.

So here we go, I feel a bit “naked” doing this, but what the hey…. here’s the actual, unedited image:

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The first thing to point out here, is that this isn’t me taking a photo incorrectly and having to “recover” it in Photoshop. This is exactly how I intended to take the photograph, in order to eventually get the results in the final image.

I shoot to edit, and by that I mean that the style I shoot in, and the settings and exposure I use, are deliberately chosen to maximise the potential when edited using my style of processing in Photoshop.

I do this with all of my photography.

The reason the image is so dark, is because I wanted a good exposure of the sky, i.e. no blowing it out / over exposing it, and I also needed to make sure the flash lit us and the dogs up well enough to have an impact on the scene. I didn’t have some huge studio light with me, it’s just a Canon 580ex II flash gun, so it was struggling against the huge amount of ambient light hanging about fromt the still very well lit sky.

What I knew, was that as long as I got a small hint of exposure on the ground and trees, and shot it in RAW format… there’d be enough detail for me to work with later, and bring it out from the shadows in Photoshop.

Let’s quickly look at just how much detail the RAW image actually preserved. This is just from bringing up the shadows in Camera RAW before opening in Photoshop, you could also do the same in Lightroom if that’s what you use to edit RAWs:

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As you can see, there was loads of detail hiding there in the darkness! I’ve also dropped the highlights down quite a bit, to make sure we’re getting a nice healthy balance across the range of the bright sky and dark ground.

Up next, I need to create a sun. This is actually very straight forward. There’s no detail in an object like a sun, as it’s just one solid shape of bright colour. There is however some effects needed to make it look hazy, and have some element of “heat ripples” around it, but even that’s pretty straight forward stuff…

Start with a new layer, and slap a bright circle on it like so:

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No need to worry about the size right now, that can be adjusted later.

Next up, apply the ripple filter (it’s under distortion in the menu) like this:

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Then add a little bit of Gaussian Blur too (the Sun is millions of miles away, so along with the heat, it’ll also be out of focus!)

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Now cut the bottom of the sun off inline with the horizon like so (you’ll probably want to do a better job than this, but this is just for demonstration purposes):

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And finally, add some glow using the Outer Glow layer effect. Don’t worry that the glow goes under the horizon level, this is a realistic effect (or at least it looks pretty realistic to me anyway)

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And now the sun is done! If needs be, before merging down the layer, the sun can now be resized if it looks a bit too big or small.

Up next was to get rid of the lighting equipment. This is done very easily using Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill feature. Simply select what you want to remove, and hit the delete button:

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As long as the Contents property is set to Content-Aware, when you hit OK, Photoshop will try to work out what should be in the image, in the area you’ve selected, rather than what’s currently there. It does this by sampling the areas around the selection and applying some fancy algorithms the guys at Adobe have cleverly come up with. All of this of course is possible manually, if you want to play around using the clone and patch tools, but Photoshop’s Content-Aware tools have really helped speed this sort of thing up.

It doesn’t always work perfectly though, take a look at the results below:

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As you can see, it’s left a bit of a mark in the sky. There’s a couple of options at this point. You can either use the patch tool and do some sampling yourself around the dodgy bit of sky (my preferred approach) or you could even try selecting the bad bit of sky and hitting delete again, to see what Content-Aware makes of it a second time around.

And that’s it. I then cropped and straightened the image, and applied my colour styling. I’m not going to reveal my techniques for that, as it’s all down to my individual style, but I’m sure you can guess some of it anyway, such as using Lens Correction to get a nice subtle Vignette in the corners, and playing with Curves, Levels and Saturation to really make everything pop out. There’s a little bit of Cross Processing going on in there too (I’ve made the blacks quite blue-green).

One last thing, on gear. I used a 580ex II flash gun, with a Lastolite Ezybox (that’s the big black softbox you can see on the stand) to get the lighting effect around us.

We were quite a distance from the camera, so using a self timer wasn’t really a good option. But I used my Canon EOS 6D camera for this, which has the wonderful built-in WiFi functionality. Basically, I have an App on my Android phone, which lets me control the camera. My phone is in my right hand.

Finally, I’ve got some Yongnuo YN-622C wireless triggers in play (one on the camera, one on the flash gun) to allow the camera to remotely fire the flash gun.

Hopefully this was interesting and helpful to some of you. I’ll be doing some more “how I done it” posts in the near future.

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