Thursday, May 28, 2009

Saving Detail in Low Contrast Images

I've had this image for nearly 3 years but never produced an edit that was good enough to show anyone. The original RAW file was pretty low in contrast straight out of the camera, and the gray on gray color tones didn't enable the funnels to stand out well enough. The standard dodge feature in Photoshop was an awkward tool to try to use accurately.

My first epiphany upon rediscovering this shot this week was to try the Automate -> Singel File Conversion feature in Photomatix 3.1 (HDR) software. That allows you to perform tone mapping (detail and contrast enhancement) on a single file.

The second productive technique was to bring the output result from Photomatix into Adobe Lightroom 2.3. In addition to an overall contrast boost, there's a preset called "Punch"(in the Library features) that among other things seems to increase local contrast. It may increase middle grays, as opposed to operating strongly on the lightest and darkest areas, but whatever it does, it works. I also used the adjustment brush (in the Develop section) to select the funnel clouds and increase contrast. The adjustment brush tries to identify, help you select, and operate on the content you're trying to modify, so it can be more efficient and effective than a simple dodge or burn.

Lightroom also lets you adjust the radius of the tools you're using simply by rolling your mouse wheel, and its dust spot removal tool lets you see where it's selecting replacement data and pick new data to substitute, making dust spot removal much more flexible, effective, and faster. You can even copy your dust spot removal steps to other photos, since the other photos probably have the same defects (you can go back and modify ones that don't work well due to different underlying image data).

Overall, image editing tools have gotten more powerful, flexible, easy and efficient to use, and more effective.