Out of a series of photos taken at a small nearby lake on a visit to NJ last winter, this photo was never processed until very recently. The original judgement concluded other images taken from the same sequence, of the same general scene, were deemed to be more worthy of the time to bring the raw file to match the hopes and desires at the time of exposure. But judgements can change over time, and different choices are possible in finalizing which files show the most promise to become what was the original intent.
As is usually the case, searching through my files for a particular image, brings me across many photos that never even rated a flag, used to indicate a particular frame deserves additional attention and possible processing later on. Originally, this particular frame didn’t even warrant the lowest form of interest by simply adding an indicating flag or star in Lightroom. Neither of them was attached to this image.
So it was surprising to me that I lingered over the image for a few moments, and decided to jettison my original search that brought me to this frame in the first place, and give it the “quick test” to see if more time was warranted. The test is simply moving four sliders in Lightroom: Highlights to minus 100; Shadows to +100; Whites into positive territory and Blacks into negative territory, each to taste, and decide from there. In literally seconds, the image will take on a character that initiates more interest and exploration, or indicates the original judgement was sound, and the frame probably belongs in the trash along with countless others.
The initial draw to the scene is fairly obvious: the singular, severely leaning white birch, with much support from the surrounding winter grasses soaked in saturated warm tones from a heavy mist throughout the day. But because of the long lens used for this photo (300mm), and the dreary day lighting, the entire image seemed flat. To counteract that, there are several techniques to create or emphasize the separation between the major players in this frame (birch and grasses), from the background of forest tangle.
One method is simply creating a greater disparity in light values between the major players previously mentioned (the birch and surrounding grasses), and everything else. The brighter tones will then project forward while darker tones will recede.
Another is making those same darker tones cooler, since cooler tones recede; again moving the major players forward. For this particular image, and others lacking depth, the help comes from split toning. Increase the saturation of the highlights in the Split Toning panel in Lightroom by moving the slider to the right. Color choices for the highlights can be adjusted as well, but for landscapes, leaving that slider alone is generally the way to go, since the default setting is for the warmer tones within the image. In the same panel, increasing the saturation of the shadows with blue by entering 225 (in place of Zero) into the box across from Hue to select the blue tones, and again, move the associated saturation slider to the right.
In addition, softening the sharpness of a background adds to that separation, since sharper subjects appear closer, while softer elements within the frame will appear further distant. In Lightroom, selecting the background with a brush, radial, or gradient, and decrease clarity, sharpness, or a very slight decrease in Dehaze should do the trick. In Photoshop, use any blurring filter or technique, and select the area for the effect with a layer mask.
Any of these techniques can be used alone, or in combination, to achieve the desired separation and give a two dimensional object, a photographic print or computer screen, additional apparent depth. It must be remembered though, that each of these methods should be done with a gentle hand to your taste; to what you feel produces the affect you’re looking for. Being overly heavy handed though, can be worse than the original flat image you’re trying to improve.
Of course, obvious foreground subjects, or leading lines within the frame, can achieve depth compositionally. But when none of those is available, or images are visually compressed using a telephoto lens as it was here, the three methods mentioned above can help improve an otherwise flat perspective.