How I Got The Shot: Desert Road - Digital Photography School
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How I Got The Shot: Desert Road

This is the final image I created from a single shot, processed twice.  Taken with the Canon EOS-1D X, EF 24mm f/1.4L II.  Exposure 15 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 800.

This is the final image I created from a single shot, processed twice. Taken with the Canon EOS-1D X, EF 24mm f/1.4L II. Exposure 15 seconds, f/1.4, ISO 800.

Some exposure situations become difficult to handle in-camera without a little post processing later on.  A perfect example is this shot of a desert road in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, that I took a week or so ago.  There was no moon, which made it a great night for capturing the stars, but an awful night for capturing the road surface in the foreground.

First, I needed an exposure for the stars.  I started with my usual base exposure for that, 15 seconds, ISO 800, f/1.4.  That gave me exactly what I wanted on the stars, but the foreground was too dark.  I was prepared for this, having brought an LED flashlight with me to “paint” the foreground.  So, during the next 15 second exposure, I held the flashlight on for five seconds, shining it indirectly down the road.  I did not aim it straight at the road, I simply aimed it down the road, allowing the light to skim along the road.  This avoided any hot spots. The 5 second exposure with the flashlight was the result of some experimentation with time. The entire 15 seconds created overexposure on the foreground, so I scaled it back to 5 seconds, and was pretty happy with that.

In the screen shot on the left, I adjusted the white balance to render the sky the way I wanted it- that deep indigo we normally see.  In the shot on the right, I adjusted the white balance so the road looked the way I remembered it.

In the screen shot on the left, I adjusted the white balance to render the sky the way I wanted it- that deep indigo we normally see. To do this, I simply adjusted the color temperature to 3000°K. In the shot on the right, I adjusted the white balance so the road looked the way I remembered it. Again, I used the color temperature setting and adjusted it to 5400°K.

I always shoot RAW when shooting landscapes.  There are several reasons for that, but one of the biggest for me is that I can adjust my white balance for creative purposes in post processing.  As you can see, if I tried to adjust for the sky, correcting that yellow cast that came from the glow of a distant city, the road became a deep blue area.  But if I corrected for the road, the sky became this garish orange.

There are two ways this could have been fixed. The first one could have been done in camera.  By taking a color correction gel, commonly called a CTO gel (Color to Orange), I could have warmed up the light on the road and then as I adjusted the white balance for the sky, the road would have fallen into place.  However, I did not have a CTO gel handy.  So I made the adjustments in Photoshop ACR.

When I adjust the white balance like this, during RAW processing, I tend to avoid the presets such as “Daylight” or “Shadow” or “Tungsten”.  I find I have much finer control by using the color temperature slider, which allows me very fine control over the color tone of the image.  I opened the file in Adobe Camera Raw, and adjusted the white balance for the sky, as shown above on the left, to 3000°K.   Then I opened that image in Photoshop.  I then reopened the image in ACR, and adjusted the white balance again, but this time for the road, as shown above on the right, to 5400°K.  I then duplicated the layer of the properly white balanced road, onto the layer with the properly white balanced sky.  I created a layer mask on the top layer, of the road, and masked out the orange sky, allowing the blue sky to show through.  The distant mountains silhouetted against the sky gave a perfect delineation for the layer mask, making it an easy blend.  After I got the layers the way I wanted them, I simply flattened them, did a few saturation and contrast adjustments, and had my final image.

This image shows the two layers stacked, with the layer mask.  The mask has only partially been painted in.  After adding the layer mask to the layer, you use black or white and paint over the layer.  Black hides the layer, while white reveals the layer.

This image shows the two layers stacked, with the layer mask. The mask has only partially been painted in. After adding the layer mask to the layer, you use black or white and paint over the layer. Black hides the layer, while white reveals the layer.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • http://blog.tonivaughan.com Toni Vaughan

    Great tip and image! i love the processing with the cool and warm tones together. I’m thinking you could also do this entirely in Lightroom 4 by using the adjustment brush to “paint in” the white balance adjustment in the sky. Thanks for the tip.

  • Bram

    Wow, that is an great image!. Thanks for taking the time to write how you acheived the final result.

  • layne

    Breathtaking! Thank you for sharing your secrets to creating this stunning image.

  • shelly

    I LOVE this.
    Such a great learning tool…I want more!

  • http://mjfimages.com/ Michael

    I will usually track stars in one image and then do one non-tracking for the landscape. It is because I really don’t like dealing with the noise. I’m usually at f/2.8 too, which in this case I believe you would have needed ISO 1600. My super fast lens isn’t wide enough for most starscapes. If I did it this way, at least on my camera I would have a lot of noise (though a plugin is capable of removing it). I merge the sky and landscape in PS. Considered an upgrade but the cost of a tracking mount was a tiny fraction of the cost of the 1Dx (or even the 5D III). Even when I do eventually upgrade, I’ll probably still do it the same way since I’m used to it.

  • Scottc

    Great image and detailed explanation. I want to try using flashlights in night photography but keep forgetting to try it.

    Thanks for sharing your tips.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5081557944/

  • http://www.rococoimaging.co.uk Paul Barrett

    This is such an inspiring image. Keep these kind of posts coming. Your site has help me achieve awesome standards of work. Keep up the good work

  • Mingo

    Amazing shot! Where is your focus aimed at?

  • Wayne Mathews

    I purchased my first DSLR three years ago – a Canon EOS 7D. I have always loved photography, and I purchased the 7D in the hopes that I could eventually turn my love of photography into a full-time job. I was one of those people who was completely convinced that what made a professional photographer was his or her use of professional equipment. I realized there would be a learning curve, but I still assumed that all I needed to do was figure out how to use all of the functions of the DSLR, and I would be ready to go to work as a professional photographer within a matter of months! Man, was I in for a shock!

    I have been very happy with the 7D, and I was generally pleased with the photos I took. But, I was a little surprised to find that the photos I took still did not look like those I saw online. As a novice, I found myself using the auto modes almost exclusively for the first couple of years. Last year, I started reading a lot more, and I discovered the advantages of using the more manual modes. And as I read, I also discovered something that really surprised me. As an amateur photographer, I was completely unaware of the need for post-processing (PP) your images. I always assumed that the great images I saw from professional photographers were simply the result of their superior equipment, knowledge and technique. But, I still assumed that the images came straight from the camera in that way. The more I read, the more conscious I became that shooting in RAW, and post-processing your image files, was not only recommended, but was actually required! That realization really rocked my world.

    After I became aware of the need for PP, I started shooting in RAW, and playing around with “Digital Photo Professional (DPP).” This is the RAW file converter that came with my camera. And, being on a budget, I also downloaded GIMP 2.8, and started experimenting with that. But, in my reading, I see very few references to these software packages. Instead, I see numerous references to Adobe Camera RAW, Lightroom 4, and Adobe Photoshop. These seem to be the de facto packages in use by the majority of serious photographers.

    So, I have some questions. Can I ever hope to achieve superior results using my current software (DPP and GIMP)? Or, do I need to spend the money to purchase Adobe Camera RAW, Lightroom 4, and Adobe Photoshop? I recall reading an article recently that said I could download Adobe Camera RAW for free, but I have been unable to find it on Adobe’s Website. Is it available as a stand-alone package, or do I need to purchase Adobe Photoshop first?

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  • Glen Cunningham

    Yes, Wayne, you should be able to get good results with GIMP, but it isn’t written about as much because fewer people use it. You will have to search for instructions on how to do equivalent processing in GIMP.
    Before you spend money on Photoshop, I recommend you get someone to demonstrate Lightroom to you. It is cheaper (it has a variation on Camera Raw built in), easier for a novice to use, and probably can do almost everything you want to do. I have both Lightroom and Photoshop, and I personally rarely use Photoshop, partly because it is much more complex and harder for me to work out what I want, and partly because Lightroom does so much.
    Another possibility is Photoshop Elements, which also will probably do nearly everything you want to do, and is a reduced size Photoshop (cheaper, but without the more esoteric manipulations available).
    Good luck.

  • John Butterworth

    Wayne, I don’t normally leave comments but having read your article, I would recommend you look at Phil Steele photography, he has a few online courses, for Lightroom and Photoshop, he even has free tasters for you to view. I have taken three of Phil’s courses, and I find his teaching is very relaxed and professional, hope this helps.

  • Sara

    Terrific article. Would love to see more about the technique of light painting the way you used it here. As always, your work is inspiring!

  • Isabelle

    Wayne… Google Rosie Hardy. She’s a young British photographer and she only uses GIMP for her post processing and she ROCKS it. Sure there is a lot more tutorial and actions for photoshop but when you know how to use a program you can make it work

Some older comments

  • Isabelle

    April 1, 2013 07:49 pm

    Wayne... Google Rosie Hardy. She's a young British photographer and she only uses GIMP for her post processing and she ROCKS it. Sure there is a lot more tutorial and actions for photoshop but when you know how to use a program you can make it work

  • Sara

    March 26, 2013 11:57 pm

    Terrific article. Would love to see more about the technique of light painting the way you used it here. As always, your work is inspiring!

  • John Butterworth

    March 23, 2013 07:38 am

    Wayne, I don't normally leave comments but having read your article, I would recommend you look at Phil Steele photography, he has a few online courses, for Lightroom and Photoshop, he even has free tasters for you to view. I have taken three of Phil's courses, and I find his teaching is very relaxed and professional, hope this helps.

  • Glen Cunningham

    March 22, 2013 10:19 am

    Yes, Wayne, you should be able to get good results with GIMP, but it isn't written about as much because fewer people use it. You will have to search for instructions on how to do equivalent processing in GIMP.
    Before you spend money on Photoshop, I recommend you get someone to demonstrate Lightroom to you. It is cheaper (it has a variation on Camera Raw built in), easier for a novice to use, and probably can do almost everything you want to do. I have both Lightroom and Photoshop, and I personally rarely use Photoshop, partly because it is much more complex and harder for me to work out what I want, and partly because Lightroom does so much.
    Another possibility is Photoshop Elements, which also will probably do nearly everything you want to do, and is a reduced size Photoshop (cheaper, but without the more esoteric manipulations available).
    Good luck.

  • Wayne Mathews

    March 22, 2013 03:32 am

    I purchased my first DSLR three years ago – a Canon EOS 7D. I have always loved photography, and I purchased the 7D in the hopes that I could eventually turn my love of photography into a full-time job. I was one of those people who was completely convinced that what made a professional photographer was his or her use of professional equipment. I realized there would be a learning curve, but I still assumed that all I needed to do was figure out how to use all of the functions of the DSLR, and I would be ready to go to work as a professional photographer within a matter of months! Man, was I in for a shock!

    I have been very happy with the 7D, and I was generally pleased with the photos I took. But, I was a little surprised to find that the photos I took still did not look like those I saw online. As a novice, I found myself using the auto modes almost exclusively for the first couple of years. Last year, I started reading a lot more, and I discovered the advantages of using the more manual modes. And as I read, I also discovered something that really surprised me. As an amateur photographer, I was completely unaware of the need for post-processing (PP) your images. I always assumed that the great images I saw from professional photographers were simply the result of their superior equipment, knowledge and technique. But, I still assumed that the images came straight from the camera in that way. The more I read, the more conscious I became that shooting in RAW, and post-processing your image files, was not only recommended, but was actually required! That realization really rocked my world.

    After I became aware of the need for PP, I started shooting in RAW, and playing around with “Digital Photo Professional (DPP).” This is the RAW file converter that came with my camera. And, being on a budget, I also downloaded GIMP 2.8, and started experimenting with that. But, in my reading, I see very few references to these software packages. Instead, I see numerous references to Adobe Camera RAW, Lightroom 4, and Adobe Photoshop. These seem to be the de facto packages in use by the majority of serious photographers.

    So, I have some questions. Can I ever hope to achieve superior results using my current software (DPP and GIMP)? Or, do I need to spend the money to purchase Adobe Camera RAW, Lightroom 4, and Adobe Photoshop? I recall reading an article recently that said I could download Adobe Camera RAW for free, but I have been unable to find it on Adobe’s Website. Is it available as a stand-alone package, or do I need to purchase Adobe Photoshop first?

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  • Mingo

    March 21, 2013 02:41 pm

    Amazing shot! Where is your focus aimed at?

  • Paul Barrett

    March 21, 2013 09:49 am

    This is such an inspiring image. Keep these kind of posts coming. Your site has help me achieve awesome standards of work. Keep up the good work

  • Scottc

    March 21, 2013 08:47 am

    Great image and detailed explanation. I want to try using flashlights in night photography but keep forgetting to try it.

    Thanks for sharing your tips.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5081557944/

  • Michael

    March 21, 2013 07:05 am

    I will usually track stars in one image and then do one non-tracking for the landscape. It is because I really don't like dealing with the noise. I'm usually at f/2.8 too, which in this case I believe you would have needed ISO 1600. My super fast lens isn't wide enough for most starscapes. If I did it this way, at least on my camera I would have a lot of noise (though a plugin is capable of removing it). I merge the sky and landscape in PS. Considered an upgrade but the cost of a tracking mount was a tiny fraction of the cost of the 1Dx (or even the 5D III). Even when I do eventually upgrade, I'll probably still do it the same way since I'm used to it.

  • shelly

    March 21, 2013 04:29 am

    I LOVE this.
    Such a great learning tool...I want more!

  • layne

    March 21, 2013 03:14 am

    Breathtaking! Thank you for sharing your secrets to creating this stunning image.

  • Bram

    March 21, 2013 02:35 am

    Wow, that is an great image!. Thanks for taking the time to write how you acheived the final result.

  • Toni Vaughan

    March 21, 2013 02:30 am

    Great tip and image! i love the processing with the cool and warm tones together. I'm thinking you could also do this entirely in Lightroom 4 by using the adjustment brush to "paint in" the white balance adjustment in the sky. Thanks for the tip.

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