How I Shot And Edited It – Stars, Storm and Basecamp, Nepal

How I Shot And Edited It – Stars, Storm and Basecamp, Nepal

I typically don’t edit my shots heavily, yet one that I brought back from Nepal demanded some help and was eye catching enough by itself to warrant an attempt. My hope is in walking through these steps, you might glean a an idea or two on a similar shot if you really like night photography.  Click on any images in this post to see a 3000px wide rendition for higher detail not possible in the 600px representation.

Starting with the original:

This shot was taken at the basecamp for a climb of a remote peak in Nepal known as Kyajo Ri.  Basecamp is situated in a gorgeous 1.5 mile long hanging valley, a valley that has a steep drop off at its terminus.  This photo is looking down valley and is shot at an altitude of aproximately 14,800′ (4,500m).  It is shot with a Canon 7D and a Canon EF 28-300mm L lens at 28mm, ISO 1600, 30 seconds and f/3.5.  I set the camera on a rock as I was without a tripod at this point.

To start with, this isn’t that bad of a photo.  The clouds are fairly well exposed and you can see the tents, lit up by my two partners.  An electrical storm was brewing and I have many, many shots that did not come out while I waited for lightning strikes in the clouds.  30 seconds was about as long as I wanted to go so as to not streak the stars too much.  I also wanted to give some sense of place and that is lost in the fact that the valley wall on the right is missing.

All the edits were made in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, my preferred photo editor.

The first steps where to remove some of the noise I know exists at ISO 1600 and brighten things up a bit.  While this image was shot at +0 for Exposure Compensation, it is dark around the edges because of the brightness of the lightning and tents.  I moved the Noise Reduction Luminance slider to +38 and Exposure to +1.35.

Now the valley wall is more apparent and the huge boulder next to our tents as well.   I then moved Clarity to +30 and Vibrance to +70.   These had little affect but did add a small bit of definition around the tent and the clouds.  Zooming in, I still found more noise than I wanted and raised the Luminance to a total of +76.

Used the Highlight Recovery to help bring back some of the overblown clouds, but not much, bumping it up to +75.  Saturation was given a slight increase to +18 and Contrast was moved to +45 which helped define the clouds more as well as the tents.

I still didn’t like that the tents weren’t grounded.  There was no real perspective to them.  What were they standing on?  We’re they just floating in space?  To fix this I used the Adjustment Brush with at setting of Exposure +2.40.  I then painted in the foreground as seen in the image below.

That rendered just a bit of the spilled light from the tent cast out on the ground in front of them. In doing this, I also moved the Noise Reduction Color slider to +97 to remove just a small bit of red fringe on the tents.

This is the final image as I enjoy it.  It can use some final small tweaks here and there, but I don’t like spending a lot of time in front of the computer with those minor edits.  This, to me, gives a feeling of place for the tents but also shows the majesty of the clouds coupled with the limitlessness of Space.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • ernied March 15, 2011 10:41 pm

    came out nice! good depth now. the ground light reflection was important. helps put you in the picture and makes the scene inviting.

  • Bishwas Bhatta February 16, 2011 07:32 pm

    Hi Peter,

    I liked the article and the photo(original and edited) very much. But the greater surprise was that you took this in Nepal. Really proud and happy to have my country mentioned in this site. It's one of the most beautiful countries in the world with ample opportunities to taking great photographs as you can encounter all type of terrains and weathers in such a small area.

    Furthermore, Nepal Tourism Year 2011 has just started, so do grab this opportunity to visit this mystical land.

  • Trep Ford February 8, 2011 09:51 am

    Peter, I appreciate your sharing your editing steps on this shot, as they are, as always, very instructive. But I have to say that when viewing this image, my first question wasn't "How did he edit it?"

    My first three questions were "What am I seeing?", "How the heck did he GET there?", and "When does the group field trip depart?"

    Let's face it, there are some images that simply can't be made unless you're in some pretty rarefied spaces. I always have two reactions to such powerful and dramatic images. The first is the pure WOW factor ... amazing image made of an amazing location at an amazing moment. The second, to be honest, is disappointment. Part of me feels "I'll never be in a location like that" (bad knees) ... and part of me wishes this image came with a 20 page essay on how the heck it all came together. High mountain base camp, thunderstorm BELOW you, clear sky above ... these are not just trivial details of one's background. This shot deserves a mini-book of its own, methinks. And yes, I'm serious. I think the story behind the shot is often a multiplying factor to the shot itself. OK, I am biased, as I'm a writer and a photographer.

    There was a time when I got the chance to travel a great deal, and got the chance to see some really amazing places from really eye popping points of view. Sadly, all that was back in the day before I knew much about taking really great images. But these experiences give me a very poignant appreciation of just how important it is to share these rare moments when they happen. Thanks for sharing the photograph, it's awesome. I'll look forward to the book / mini-book / expanded article. ;)

  • UA February 8, 2011 09:09 am

    Kinda like the original one more, but I understand the point to get the foreground of the tents visible.

    I, personally, would have just cropped the image to potrait so that the tents are at the bottom of the picture (no need to light up the foreground then) and that you can see the star sky at the top around 1/3 of the top and keeping the 1.5 aspect ratio obviously.

    I actually quickly tested this on MS Paint and I must agree with myself :-). The tents are not floating around anymore, you get the idea of the cape, the stars give nice feeling and the upcoming lighting adds the drama and emotion. After all, the original picture has mostly just black mountains and star sky visible.. Ok, it makes you feel small (as the tents are), so that adds feeling&emotion also.

  • hanna.lp February 5, 2011 01:19 am

    it is an amazing photograph.. and the things you edited made it better. i think i will use photoshop lightroom the next time i need to edit a picture

  • Paul Saulnier February 4, 2011 10:29 pm

    yup same here ..the original for me also .

  • Kristina February 4, 2011 08:05 pm

    Such a great post and such a wonderful picture. Already loved the original, but the edited one brings out even more the beautiful stars, the valley and the magical glow of the tents.
    Must have been a great trip!!!
    Viele Gruesse, Kristina

  • Sarah Satellite Eyes February 4, 2011 03:54 am

    Beautiful job, Peter! You've improved the photo both technically and artistically. Enhancing the foreground and the background but leaving the middle ground (the mountains) dark adds a new level of interest to the photo. The photo is much more eerie and dreamlike because of it.

  • Suyesh February 4, 2011 02:42 am

    The pics were just awesome and I doubt these similar pics can be found anywhere else in the world except Nepal. This year, Nepal is celebrating Nepal Tourism Year 2011, so I think this is a great opportunity to visit this beautiful country and explore its beauty.

  • Gaard February 3, 2011 02:53 pm

    I must add: I really like the way you treated the tent, it really makes the photo a lot more interesting.

  • Gaard February 3, 2011 02:51 pm

    This is a great post yet, as some have said, I much prefer the original, I think in the final shot the sky has lost a lot of its depth, I really like the way the stars look in the original, they look plenty and the sky looks vast, in the final the sky looks really discolored, almost gray (at least on my screen) too discolored for my taste, perhaps in order to have a better looking sky it was to have a bit of a longer exposure so it seemed to have that bluish hue it has sometimes.. I think it can be fixed by masking it with a bit of blue and an photoshop effect (perhaps color, overlay or multiply would help give it a little hue)

  • Florin February 3, 2011 06:38 am

    I agree original is better, sometimes there's really no need to mess around with the shots!

  • Lon February 2, 2011 07:57 am

    Nice photo Peter, and apart from the hue and exposure of the cloud bank I prefer the final edited version a lot more. Your tweaks really bring me into the setting - they are subtle and effective, whereas the original was too dark and uninteresting. If you'd masked the clouds from the beginning it would be perfect imho (they are too bright and have a purplish hue that seems unnatural to me). As to the reddish foreground lighting, it is definitely on the warm side, but I think that is what is captivating about the camp, and it was definitely the right decision (imo) to paint some exposure in there.

  • David February 2, 2011 02:46 am

    Great article. But I would have to agree that the original looks much better. The darker sky makes the stars pop out more and the dark ground highlights the tents much better as well.

  • Chris Delle February 1, 2011 11:23 am

    I'm with Erin on this one. There are a few things I don't like about the edited version:

    1) While you get a little more detail in the starry sky, you're sacrificing image quality as a result (ie the reddish tint and a bit more noise)

    2) The lightning clouds are blown out now. While I like them lightened a bit, I would go back and lower the exposure in the brightest spots with an adjustment brush to try and get some of the detail back.

    3) The foreground looks pretty bad to me. You've introduced a ton of noise and a reddish tint, and you can easily tell where your adjustments were made by looking at the canyon wall area (it goes from black to a bunch of noise, no gradient). While it may not be that noticeable in the smaller thumbnails, if you ever plan on printing this it will be very noticeable.

    Overall I think this is definitely a case of over-editing. I like the idea of brightening the image a bit but I think you went a little too far. As I mentioned above, I'd try to bring a bit more detail back to the blown out portions of the lightning sky, lower the brightness on the starry sky (or desaturate the red tint) and remove the adjusted foreground. If you want the tents to be grounded (and not floating in nothingness like you said) I would use an adjustment brush to brighten the area immediately in front of the tent (the swath of light extending out from the tents) and nothing else. That way you can tell where the ground is without introducing a ton of noise to the whole bottom of the image.

    I hope my post doesn't come across as too harsh, as I think this is a great image that you should be proud of, I just think it was a little over-cooked.

  • Caroline February 1, 2011 08:22 am

    Please do more articles like this! I'm just starting to get comfortable with Lightroom's adjustment brushes and it's educational to see how others have used them.

    One thing I'm surprised no one commented on is how the exposure adjustment really made the stars come out!

  • Jeff Carter February 1, 2011 03:21 am

    I appreciate what you did with the luminance, saturation, and adding exposure to the foreground so the tents can be connected to the ground. I think the saturation may have added to the redness in the tents. I try to avoid saturation, else if necessary not more than 10%. While I get that you try to avoid spending too much time per image over-tweaking (I completely agree), it could have used some selective color and/or luminosity adjustments to fix that. Nonetheless, I like the "not overly edited" version much better. Perhaps I just didn't pick up on it, but any added clarity or noise reduction wasn't really noticeable to me and doesn't seem much different than the original. I don't find those specific tools in Lightroom to be as helpful on high ISO (slash long-exposure) images as more effective techniques would be in Photoshop or other 3rd party tools, like Topaz InFocus. However, I do appreciate that your article emphasizes the editing capabilities of Lr as a one-stop solution. People that aren't using Lr are truly missing out (I've quickly become proficient in Lr over the past few months I've only been using it and am kicking myself for not taking an interest in it sooner). Still, don't toss out Ps just yet. I find that once I'm done in Lr, I tend to export my images to Ps for doing things like "defogging" and sharpening (and other developing actions I have better control over or not possible in Lr).

    Really great "how-to" tut! No doubt sometimes I wonder "how'd they do that?" So I love it when folks like you share your shots and techniques. The main thing is to do most of the work in the camera so you don't have to do any or much work once you get your images out of the camera. Thanks! :-)

  • photog1107 January 31, 2011 11:51 pm

    Peter, great post, and I agree these types of before/after are really useful. I also prefer the definition and information in the edited version, which I personally do not view as "overedited."

    One question I have is whether you ever use an additional tool for noise reduction outside of LR? I use LR2, and it seems to me that the LR noise reduction tool doesn't compare to the results in Noiseware. I typically use the "Edit In..." feature in LR to export it to PS so I can use the Noiseware plug-in.
    Thanks again!

  • Elja Trum January 31, 2011 08:43 pm

    I for one prefer the final image. It adds more detail to the image and really shows the camp under the starlight night. Without the edits the basecamp isn't al that clear and could just as well be cropped out.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • shutterdog64 January 31, 2011 01:32 pm

    The original picture is fantastic but I really like how you pulled out a more dramatic scene with your edits. Well done.

  • Sumit January 31, 2011 10:05 am

    i cudn't agree more with erin here. I like the original pic much better.. much more real.. much more believable! I'm not against minor tweaks (i use photoshop myself)... bt then, in this particular shot, i like the sense of infinity that the blacked out ground gives. In the final editied image, things might be lit up well, bt all of the elements don't really add up. U have a look n u kinda feel the 'editing'.. The original might not have every part(clouds,ground,..) technically perfect looking, but it all adds up to make a v nice shot!!

  • mr_rax January 31, 2011 09:55 am

    Thank you very much Peter. Great post!
    Although I agree with the previous post that the glare on the foreground is a little too "red", I think the image wins a lot by showing that the tents are not floating in black mist, and the sky also wins with the extra definition the clouds get, but that is personal preference of course.

    In any case, I appreciate the post. It is always interesting and useful to see what photographers are thinking when tunning their images: what they like to highlight, how they want to drive the attention of the viewer, etc. We might not agree, which is obvious since everything is based on personal taste, but the "what was he thinking?" part always helps me understand better the picture and see in what things I should focus when doing my own post processing.

    Thanks again and hopefully we will see many more "before and after" posts like this one.


  • Will McA January 31, 2011 09:37 am

    It's very beautiful, what an awesome opportunity, to go to Nepal! You can be proud of what you came back with :) and for the record I prefer the edited version, for the same reasons as you gave.

  • Erin January 31, 2011 07:52 am

    It's funny, but I actually much prefer the original. I see what you mean about wanting the tents to exist in a space, but the redness of the ground and sky in the finished image looks bad to me. Sometimes when I am shooting in low light my images have that sort of red tint, and I always take it as a sign of bad decisions regarding exposure. I think the original is beautiful as is. What a fantastic shot!