Processing Fall Color

The original capture of the burning bush was fairly flat, lacking contrast throughout the image, as well as having some distractions in the lower-left corner.

By setting the White and Black points to use the entire tonal range, as well as making a small increase on the Clarity slider, the image came alive. Although it appears as though I’ve made a major saturation adjustment, in fact, I’ve made only a very small Vibrance adjustment. Most of the effect is due to correcting the contrast. Also note that I’ve removed the distractions in the lower-left corner by applying a slight crop, as well as some image cleanup.

As you edit your fall color images filled with dramatic reds, commanding golds, perhaps mixed with greens and sometimes gorgeous blue skies, think about what you want to emphasize—where you want the viewer’s eyes to land. It’s easy to get caught up in the dramatic colors, particularly if you used a polarizer or color-enhancing filter while capturing the images, and go crazy with saturation while processing the images, but ultimately, if you want your images to have the most impact, you need to think through your processing and develop a game plan.

Be clear what your subject is and where you want the viewer to look. A common issue is that often people take a photo because they generally think what’s in front of them is pretty, but they don’t take the time to think through exactly what it is that captured their attention and what they want to communicate. Your composition in the field will be stronger if you’re certain what you’re trying to share with your viewers. Likewise, when it’s time to process the image, you need to be sure of what you want them to experience.

Ideally, your adjustments will visually guide the viewer through the image. For most images, this means making the subject obvious and processing the other areas to enhance the subject, but not compete with it.

We’ll take a look at the steps I take when optimizing my fall color images in Photoshop. In recent years, Camera Raw has become so powerful that I do much of my processing there (which is quite similar to the Development Panel in Lightroom). Being able to access Camera Raw as a filter from the Filters tab within Photoshop is a huge bonus.


Straight out of the camera, the image looks pretty good. However, the clouds are quite light and tend to draw your eye out of the foreground into the sky.

I’ve slightly reduced the exposure in the sky using a gradient filter in Camera Raw. I had to be careful not to increase the contrast within the clouds, because doing so would have made them compete with the foreground even more. I’ve also increased the Clarity in the foreground to help hold your attention there, and also added a very small saturation increase in the greens and yellows. It was important not to increase the saturation of the sky in order to let it recede.

1 Check the Exposure and MidTone Contrast
When shooting fall colors, it’s easy for some in-camera meters to get fooled by bright light reflecting off leaves, particularly the brightest yellow leaves. Take a look at the histogram for the image. Sometimes although the overall image is properly exposed for capture, the midtones need to be brightened. With most images, I begin by setting the Exposure setting in Camera Raw so that the midtone values are close to where I want them, before I set the White and Black points, which determine how light the lightest pixels will be and how dark the darkest pixels will be. Hold down the Alt/Option key and drag each slider. The preview becomes all white or all black, and as you drag the slider, colored areas appear. Back off the slider slightly until the colored areas disappear.

Although those steps get the image close in terms of exposure, often there’s one more step I take to add impact—I increase the midtone contrast. There are two ways that I do this, and because they use different algorithms, the effects will differ. One way is to use the Clarity Slider. In some images, this will have a dramatic impact, and in others, it will be more subtle. It may look as though it’s sharpening the image and increasing detail. Resist the temptation to go overboard, though, to avoid a harsh appearance with artifacts.

Another way I increase midtone contrast is to use the Tone Curve tab in Camera Raw and make the Lights lighter and sometimes the Darks a little darker. What this does is increase the contrast within that tonal range without losing highlight or shadow detail. Depending on the image, you may want to use one or both methods of increasing midtone contrast.

2 Dealing with Color Casts
Working carefully with color is paramount with fall color. There are several aspects to this. The first step is to check your white balance. Sometimes auto white balance does a great job with fall color, but if you’re standing in a canopy of color, you might find that your image has a strong color cast to it.

Applying the standard technique of using the White Balance eyedropper in Camera Raw to click on something that should be neutral gray may not give you the results you’re after, because there may not be something in the frame that should be a neutral gray for you to use and you may want the image to retain some of the color cast. With most fall color images, you want to convey the warmth of sunlight, so you’ll need to adjust the white balance Temperature and Tint sliders visually so that the overall image looks good.

Tip: If the color cast is still a problem, open a Selective Color adjustment within Photoshop and select Neutrals. Then adjust each slider there to further tweak the color cast within the image.


Although the exposure is correct in order to capture all the highlight detail, the midtones are too dark. The lack of midtone contrast causes the image to have a muddy feel.

Brightening the midtones and adding some midtone contrast livened the image, as did increasing the saturation of the yellows and reds. It was important to limit the saturation of the greens in the water to add depth to the image. Slightly desaturating the leaves in the background areas helps focus attention on the leaves floating in the puddle.

3 Emphasizing Color with Saturation and/or Vibrance Adjustments
Whether in Camera Raw, Photoshop itself, or Lightroom, you have a choice of Saturation or Vibrance sliders. These sliders can make a huge visual change in the image, but are best used with a gentle touch. With a heavy hand, it’s easy to create garish results and even to lose detail in your image.

The two adjustments are similar, but there are some important distinctions between them to keep in mind. The Saturation slider will increase (or decrease) the saturation of all the colors within the image equally. Vibrance is basically a “smart” saturation slider. It’s smart because as certain colors approach pure saturation, which would result in clipping (which means loss of detail), it limits the saturation. In addition, it increases the saturation of less saturated colors more than it does for colors that were already saturated. Adobe notes that it also prevents skin tones from becoming oversaturated. Since skin tones contain reds and yellows, that’s salient for fall color. Using the Vibrance slider means you’ll be less likely to oversaturate your reds and yellows.

Tip: As any color becomes saturated to the point of clipping, pushing the saturation further will cause you to lose detail as more pixels become fully saturated.

4 Tweaking the Colors
Often, I find it helpful to modify the hue of the yellows, reds, or greens within the image. The easiest place to do this is within Camera Raw (or Lightroom’s HSL tab), although you can make similar adjustments using a Hue/Saturation adjustment within Photoshop. HSL is short for hue, saturation, and luminosity, and this tool makes it easy to get the precise colors you’re after. You can opt to make the yellows more orange or more green, greens can be made more yellow or blue, reds can made be more pink or more orange, and so forth.

After you’ve established the hue, you can adjust the saturation and luminosity of each color. This is a very visual adjustment, and if you have a before/after view open in Camera Raw, you can readily see the differences. By adjusting colors using the HSL tab, you can easily emphasize certain colors by saturating some colors more than others, and change the mood by altering the hues. Setting the yellows to a slightly greener hue suggests early fall, while making the yellows more orange suggests later fall.

Tip: With many fall color images that contain a variety of colors, I make the yellows just a little lighter, using the luminosity setting, to help them stand out without oversaturating them

5 Guiding Your Viewer’s Eyes
Keep in mind where you want the viewer to linger, and give those areas more visual energy by making them slightly lighter, more saturated, and/or more detailed. Applying Clarity to the areas to which you want to draw attention using an adjustment brush is one way of increasing the visual intensity of your subject. Subtle vignettes around edges can direct the eye inwards, but you can attain similar results by slightly desaturating the colors in the background areas, as seen in my image of a puddle reflecting trees with leaves floating. To decrease the saturation in the background areas, I use a layer mask with a Vibrance adjustment, and paint in the decreased saturation wherever needed.

Tip: When you make these adjustments, most of the time you want a subtle effect that gently guides the eyes—so subtle that most people will never know why they’re looking one place in the image rather than another.

6 Remove Any Distractions
As you look at the image, ask yourself whether there’s anything pulling your eye away from where you’d like to be looking. You might be able to visually ignore something distracting, but your viewers may not be so forgiving. In any image, there are no elements that are neutral—either they’re contributing to the image or taking away from its impact.

To remove distractions, I work on a duplicate background layer. Depending on the image, I may use the Clone, Healing or Content Aware Fill tool. Content Aware Fill is impressively effective at filling in areas with patterns like leaves, but you still need to view the results at 100% magnification to be sure they look natural. Sometimes you need to finesse the results using the Clone Stamp tool and/or Healing Brushes, which can be used at reduced opacities to help the new pixels blend naturally with the image. By working on the duplicate background layer, I can add a layer mask and undo a change I made several steps earlier, if necessary, without having to redo other steps. When I’m happy with the results, I merge this layer with the background layer.

Tip: The closer to the edges of the image distractions appear, the more visually annoying they are.


Initially, this is a rather boring image. The trees have some nice colors, but there’s nothing about it to hold your attention.

By applying a digital Orton effect, the image grabs your attention. The technique adds a dreamy quality due to the blur, in addition to the increase in saturation.

7 Consider Alternative Processing
Many programs let you apply painterly effects including filters within Photoshop, such as the Oil Paint filter. One technique I use emulates the “Orton Effect” that in the days of film was achieved by combining an in-focus and an out-of-focus slide together. It results in a dramatic, dreamy, painterly look. To create this effect, duplicate the background layer in Photoshop; change the Blending mode for that layer to Overlay. Initially, ignore the exposure and saturation changes. Go to Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Increase the blur until you’ve removed most of the detail in the preview window. Apply the filter, then adjust the overall exposure as needed. You may also need to slightly reduce the saturation. This technique can take a ho-hum image and add major intrigue.

The colors of fall make it easy to create images full of drama and impact. Make your adjustments call attention to the subject and let the background elements be supporting players. That way, your viewers will see what captured your eye.

Ellen Anon is an internationally recognized fine-art and nature photographer, educator, speaker and writer. She has received numerous awards for her photography, including awarded images in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competitions, and is the co-author of best-selling books including “Photoshop for Nature Photographers; A Workshop in a Book” series (Anon & Anon, Wiley) and “See It: Photographic Composition Using Visual Intensity” (Anon & Anon, Focal Press). Currently, she’s a Master with The Arcanum (thearcanum.com).

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10 famous stage divers that will surely won the Oscar this year

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5 celebrity chefs that will inspire you to try some new recipes

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Featured Format Portfolio: Michael George

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Within 48 hours of posting images to his Format portfolio, photographer Michael George was contacted by National Geographic. The series “Portrait of a Pilgrim” was printed in the magazine, and the rest is history. In a few short years, the Brooklyn-based adventurer has documented stories from London, Brussels, Tel Aviv and across the USA. His work has been featured in Wired, Popular Mechanics and Inc. Magazine.

We caught up with Michael to find out how he curates his Format portfolio, his essential gear for an outdoor shoot and the secret to making your work stand out.

Hi Michael! Let’s start with the basics, how did you get started as a photographer?

I didn’t pick up a camera until I was a junior in high school. I fell in love with it immediately and attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts for college. During that time, I went on a cross-country cycling trip that became a photo series called “This Is Not Real.” I discovered that I’m interested in storytelling and travel writing. My self-funded trip to Camino de Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage through southern France and northern Spain, became “Portrait of a Pilgrim.”

Why did you decide to host “Portrait of a Pilgrim” on your Format portfolio?

Everyone raves about how seamlessly “Portrait of a Pilgrim” on my Format portfolio mixes photos, text and video. I’ve had so many people tell me that they love how it’s set up. I don’t know how in the world I would have designed it without Format. That series was published in National Geographic and they discovered it on my website.

How do you decide which photographs to feature on your online portfolio?

There’s a long editing process. When you’re editing photography, you have to constantly revisit the images. You can’t sit down, edit a project and then, boom, you’re done. You have to let it sit. It’s kind of a bummer, but you have to let time pass. When you revisit the project with fresh eyes, you can feel which images are sticking and which ones are forgettable. I usually put a few edits on my site and keep them hidden for a week. Once I’ve visited it a few times and I’m comfortable with it, I’ll finally make it visible on my site and share it.

What’s your favorite feature on Format?

I like how easy it is to use. A lot of photography is about good sequencing and if I need to make a quick edit to image order, I don’t have to rewrite code or anything. When I was in high school, I wrote code for my website and it was a nightmare. Now I can sequence images easily and change them around until they feel right. It’s almost like moving around images with your hands.

What would you recommend to someone starting their outdoor photography career?

The hardest thing is to develop your own voice. People look at Instagram photos and end up mimicking what they see. It’s a bad way of starting out. Editors are not going to hire you unless they feel like you have a unique voice and can bring a specific artistic view to the story.

What do you bring with you to an outdoor shoot?

My main camera is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. I really have three lenses that I shoot everything on: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L, Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L and Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L. For lighting, I use my Profoto B1s. They’re battery-powered, so you can bring them with you and you don’t need cords. I also always bring a reflector because it’s easy to carry and allows you to control natural light really well. A reflector is a godsend on natural light shoots when I’m traveling.

Visit Michael George’s Format portfolio here: http://home.michaelgeorgephoto.com

Start making your Format portfolio today at Format.com

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Working With Mixed Light

Broad images taken in open shade at midday will have a slightly cool look because the illumination is coming from the blue sky.

I started my professional photography career back in 1979. That year I sold my first image for publication. In the ensuing 35 years I have been continually selling images as an editorial photographer and a stock photographer, portraying the world as I find it rather than working in the controlled environment of a studio. Along the way I have continually evolved. I embraced digital imaging in 2003 and started to work with video four years ago.

Over those three and a half decades, the definition of what makes one a professional publication photographer similarly has been changing. I say this because, with the democratization of photography through digital imaging and smartphone cameras, it’s more important than ever to clarify the definition of just what a pro is.

It used to be a pro was simply someone who was paid for their photographs. Then it became someone who could get the best shot. More recently it was the person who could get the highest quality image in changing situations. In my own experience there is one other under-appreciated definition of what makes a professional publication photographer. In the world of publication photography done outside of a controlled environment, a pro has all the skills noted above. They also must know how to use time of day, and the light that comes with different times of day, to their advantage.

When the midday conditions become too harsh, go into open shade to get richly saturated colors and detailed shots.

Yes, every photographer, pro or otherwise, dreams about getting assigned to spend months photographing a given location for an international magazine. The cold reality of the world that I work in is that being given a week to cover a region in India is more typical. In this article, I will be talking about a November 2012 assignment I did for Saudi Aramco World magazine to make still images and video of the Kutch region of Western India.

My assignment was to traverse as much of that area as possible, giving a sample of each place in the form of still images and video clips. My wife, who is from India and has some language facility, was my assistant, guide and occasional translator. We also hired a driver with knowledge of the roads and who had better local language skills, which was all but a requirement to pull off this project in one short week. Due to the many challenges of moving around this part of India at night, we settled on a plan of shooting sunrise through late morning, followed by mid-day drives to the next location, followed by afternoon/sunset/evening shoots.

With the sun just over the horizon, you can create dramatic backlit images with a dark foreground.

If you look at the map at http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201305/ between.salt.and.sea.htm, you’ll see the 27 different venues we photographed and recorded on video during the week’s shoot. At least half a dozen more were covered, but they did not make it into the final piece, which is typical with any editorial assignment.

Unlike sunrise shots, as the sun gets a little higher in the sky, you will get more light on the ground and longer shadows.

If you look at the images accompanying this article you will see a small sample of the images I made. Most importantly you will see the images tagged according to the time-of-day categories that I use when blocking out and executing projects like this. I have six categories that I use when thinking of when an image will be made or how I will use a given block of time while on assignment. Those are sunrise, morning, midday reserved for detail shots, which can be the same time as the midday reserved for indoor shots of people, followed by afternoon and sunset/night.

Midday is a GREAT time to shoot portraits of people near windows. When making posed portraits, I use the same type of windows to create dramatic portraits. The directional light that comes in from one side creates evocative portraits. The way I control the impact of that is mostly in how I position my subject in relation to the light source and the background. The final variable is controlling how much or how little of their face do I ask them to turn towards that light source. The degree of this varies based on how I pose them and on how I position myself in relation to them and the light source.

Getting close to sunset, make use of the long shadows and make them part of the composition. Here the shadows create a leading-line effect drawing the eye to the tourist couple being photographed.

The Wells Point
While many photographers hew to the idea of only photographing during the so-called Golden Hour, I have always found that time to be too limiting. Yes, the light is warm and beautiful, but it is too short a time for me to work efficiently and there are many other colors I want in my images besides the yellow/orange/red that often dominates that time of day. I work during the golden hour, but I continue working right up to the point where the sun reaches 45 degrees above the horizon. Then I stop working outside until the sun arcs through the sky and reaches that same 45 degree point in the afternoon.

I use something that I call The Wells Point to tell me just when that is, to know how late in the morning I can shoot before the light goes bad, and at what point in the afternoon the light turns good. The Wells Points, as I tell my students, are when the shadow is the same length as the object that casts that shadow. I am 5′ 7″ so when my shadow is 5′ 7″ in the morning I stop, and in the afternoon I will start again when the shadow gets to that length or longer.

Following The Wells Point and shooting further into the late morning light and using the early afternoon light after The Wells Point expands my shooting time, which is something critical on shoots like the Kutch project. That same light also has more contrast and yields images that are nicely saturated in terms of their colors. The nice thing about using The Wells Points is the idea works around the world, regardless of season. In the dead of winter in the Northeastern U.S., for example, the sun never gets above The Wells Points, so winter light in places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia is always great in the winter.

As you approach a Wells Point in the afternoon, the light is warmer and much softer than at midday.

With my expansion into video, I’ve become a bit more disciplined about white balance. I spent years shooting color slides and I once even owned a color meter for fine-tuning my color filtration. So I know about color temperature and white balance. On the other hand, shooting RAW files with the myriad options for correction in post-production had made me a bit loose when it came to color temperature and white balance. While it’s technically possible to color correct video, why would I want to spend the time doing that when an extra 30 seconds spent during capture will give me video with the white balance I want.

In some cases changing my position will change the white balance. For example, a mud wall with sunlight bouncing off of it can make or break a video clip depending on how close the subject is standing to that “warm light reflector,” so I have to control that variable myself. Similarly, open shade under most awnings tends to be pretty blue during hard midday light. But, controlling where I put myself or my subject can reduce, eliminate or even make that blue color cast a useful part of the narrative I’m creating.

Shooting The Video
You can see finished video from the Kutch project at www.aramcoworld.com/issue/201305/kutch-video.htm. The full video includes stills, time-lapse animation and pieces from the 27 shorter videos that are thirty to ninety seconds each. The short vignettes populate the map at: www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201305/ between.salt.and.sea.htm
The approach that I took while working on assignment in Kutch, especially in terms of how I allotted my shoots based on time of day and thus the resulting light, should inform the thinking of any established or aspiring publication photographer. The difference between working like a pro and an amateur is as much about managing time (and thus, light) as it is about any other skill. As someone increasingly working in video as a one-man-band, those same skills of time and light management are more important than ever.

So, when shooting video I follow two rules that organically spill over to make my still photos better. First, I’m constantly checking the white balance of my video clips to make sure my whites are fairly neutral and that I do not have any wild fluctuations in white balance between video clips—if, for example, the inside of a workshop for handmade embroidery is slightly warmer in one corner and a bit more neutral in another corner, I don’t care. In fact, that variance, as long as it’s not too extreme, gives the final video a more organic feeling. Those lighting situations, where there are extreme changes in white balance, require a custom white balance, which is so easy to do with today’s camera, so why not do that?

To me, the big issue is how to accurately judge the white balance and my potential corrections for the videos in question. This is especially challenging when working in bright sun where the back of the camera monitors are hard to read at best. Having a bright electronic viewfinder on my cameras allows me to see the imagery that I’ve been making through a darkened viewfinder so I can judge the white balance, exposure, etc. Some photographers use magnifiers or external monitors with sun hoods to make this easier.

Two other tools are keys to my success in a project like this—having a camera with an articulating LCD screen and a tabletop tripod. When photographing from high or low, I use the folding screens to compose so as not to contort my body to see through the viewfinder. Once I settle on a composition, I often set up my shot with the camera on my Really Right Stuff Pocket Pod tabletop tripod. It allows me to shoot still images, video and the occasional time-lapse animation and have them all flow together seamlessly.

You can see more of David Wells‘ photography and video assignments at davidhwells.com. Check out his blog at thewellspoint.com.

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