A couple of days ago, I shared this photo I took last Fall in Kentucky. It’s an old barn located near Rough River lake with hanging tobacco waiting to be fire cured.
The photo was well received but I had a few comments from people telling me “It’s HDR”.
Now, on the one hand, I want to ask: “Does it matter?“. This shot is supposed to be a beautiful artistic shot. It’s not a documentary so, it doesn’t really matter what style I use to make it look the way it is. What matters is that I like it and the public likes it.
On the other hand, I’d like to add: “No, this is not HDR”.
This image was processed in Lightroom only and I’ll show you step by step how I achieved this look in less than 10 minutes. Keep in mind that I work with Lightroom 4 (Update: I now obviously work with Lightroom CC) so some of the sliders have different names (or don’t exist) in older versions. If you haven’t upgraded, I urge you to do so.
So let’s start with the original image below. This was shot handheld at sunrise with a Canon 50D and a Sigma 10-20mm lens. This was the best exposure I could get without completely blowing out the sky. Despite what it looks like, it was much darker and the sun was juuuust below the horizon, so I had to overexpose the sky in order to get enough details on the barn which obviously, is the main subject. Reminder: I only shoot in RAW (VERY important if you need to process your images).
Obviously, this image wouldn’t be published in a magazine, or anywhere. The sky is too bright, there’s not enough contrast and the colors are dull.
I didn’t crop the image at all, I liked the way it was. So, why did I work on this image? It’s not very obvious at first but I liked the fact that the colors are warm on the left side and cool on the right side (due to sunrise). I wanted to enhance those colors, as well as the gritty old look of the barn.
Main priority: Rescue that super-bright sky. I head out to the Highlights slider and decrease it all the way to -100. This brings back a little bit of the colors.
You can see the top part of the image is slightly darker. But it’s still not enough. I want it darker.
I click on the Adjustment Brush (K), select a fairly large brush size, decrease the exposure and highlights sliders a little bit and paint over the sky. To make it easier, since there’s a clear separation between the sky and the barn, I tick the “Auto Mask” option so that I don’t accidentally paint over the barn too.
No need to go overboard. The left side of the image is still very bright but it’ll be toned down later with the addition of a vignette so I don’t worry too much about it right now. Here’s the result so far.
Much better than the original one. The sky is not crying for attention and we can notice a few warm colors appearing on the right and left side.
I’m done painting over the sky right now. I’ll fix the colors in a moment. But first, I like to add clarity in my shots so that it gives the barn a gritty look and doesn’t mess up too much with my exposure later (the clarity slider slightly brightens the image).
I increase the Clarity to +30 just to give me an idea of how it’s going to look.
Even though it’s an improvement from the original image, this shot still lacks punch. Looking at it, the colors are dull and there’s not enough contrast. So let’s boost that up!
I adjust the Vibrance slider (+50) and the Contrast (+20) to really make the colors stand out. In my previous tutorial, I already explained why I prefer the Vibrance slider instead of Saturation slider. Also, I usually add contrast by adjusting the Curves but … the contrast slider did its job ok.
Here’s what we get now.
Some might say that now it looks fake and unnatural: It doesn’t matter. Most photos with a “wow” factor all have enhanced colors. Color is good.
So now we have a nice looking, colorful image. I’d really like to enhance the difference between the left warm side and the fading cool right side. I could just saturate colors even more but then the barn and grass would look awful and radioactive.
Instead, I decide to use the Graduated Filter (next to the adjustment brush) to achieve the effect I want. Now pay attention, this is getting complicated: I create 2 filters, one that I place on the left side with a temperature adjustment of +7 (warmer), and one that I place on the right side with a temperature adjustment of -7 (cooler). The filters are placed diagonally so that the warm filter covers the side of the barn facing the sunrise, and the cooler filter covers the blue sky and the remaining side of the barn. Hard to explain in words, but if you check the below image, you might get it.
If you look carefully, you can see that all the bottom+left side of the image became warmer and all the top+right side of the image became cooler. This helps enhance the colors and give the illusion of warm sunlight hitting the barn from the left.
Now that I’m happy with the colors and the sky, it’s time to direct the viewer’s attention to the barn. And the easiest way to direct attention to the center of an image is to use vignetting.
As I mentioned above, I used Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4 to create vignetting, because it gives me more control, but it still works well in Lightroom alone.
I go to the Post-Crop vignetting section and decrease the slider to darken the edges of the frame. This also helps pull your viewer’s attention away from the bright patch of sky on the left side. I am a big fan of vignetting and I recommend you use it to help the eye focus in the center of the frame.
You can clearly see how the eye is now focusing on the barn instead of the sky around.
Next step, I continue doing a few adjustments here and there to achieve the look I really want. I go to the Adjustment Brush again and add some more warmth, clarity and sharpness to the barn and the grass in the foreground. I also slightly increase the exposure of the barn to make it brighter. You can just play around and try various effects to see if it fits better or not.
Here’s my semi-final look.
At this point the photo is basically done, but since I also want my viewers to notice the hanging tobacco and not just the barn, I decide to use the Dodge tool (in the adjustment brush) to make them a little brighter.
Finally, I add some overall sharpness, noise reduction and that’s it!
Here’s the final image:
If you scroll back up, it’s almost exactly the same as the top image, except that the vignetting is a little darker.
Could all this be done using HDR? Maybe, I don’t really use HDR (I’m not very good at it). I love spending time processing my images so I’d rather achieve the look I want by having total control on the process instead of using an HDR software.
Hope this has been helpful. Please post any questions you have in the comments below and I’ll try to reply as soon as I can.
And again, don’t hesitate to Pin, share, comment and spread the word.