Long Exposure Photography 201 – How to Edit a Long Exposure Seascape

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In case you missed it, in an earlier article I introduced you to the 101’s of Long Exposure Photography, provided a checklist of the essential equipment, and detailed the exact steps to follow so you can capture a long exposure photograph.

In this article, I will share a precise workflow that you can use to process your long exposure photographs.

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Long exposure seascape after editing.

Straight out of the camera (SOOC)

Long exposure photographs, when imported straight out of the camera are, in many ways, a lot like rough diamonds. Sadly, in most cases, the price tag usually isn’t one of them.

Straight out of the camera, it’s inevitable that your long exposure photograph will have a color cast and a degree of undesirable noise. Particularly if you miscalculate the exposure time and underexpose your image by accident (nobody’s perfect right?).

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Underexposed, blue, and noisy RAW image straight out of the camera.

After taking one look at an image like this, it would be easy to feel a little disheartened. You’d probably reject the image, write your time off, and hope for better luck next time.

Noise, color casts, and the occasional exposure miscalculations happen – it comes with the territory. Fortunately, with a little sprinkle of post-processing magic, you can correct these mishaps.

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting you adopt a “fix it in post-production” approach. Like any genre of photography, you want to capture your subject as best as you possibly can in-camera. But, unlike more sensitive photography genres (portraiture, commercial, beauty, etc.), the atmospheric and surreal nature of long exposure photographs provides you with greater tolerance for post-processing corrections.

The chances are there’s a diamond hidden among all those imperfections. Here’s precisely how you can uncover it.

Processing Steps for Long Exposure Images

Step One – Basic Edits

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Step one: Dust it down.

After importing your RAW image into Lightroom, it’s likely it will look a little flat and may have a handful of imperfections. The most common being color noise and color casts.

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This image has a significant amount of Color and Luminance Noise.

Before you can tackle the corrections, polish your image off, and proudly display it for the world to see, you need to be able to see what you’re doing.

Regardless of whether your image is underexposed or overexposed, it’s a good idea to use the Lens Corrections and Basic Tone Panel in Lightroom to strengthen the basics of your image. Doing so will make correcting those imperfections much easier in the next step.

Here’s an example

Load your image into Lightroom’s Develop Module and navigate to the Lens Corrections tab.

Enable the “Remove Chromatic Aberration” and “Profile Corrections” checkboxes. These features will detect the lens you used to capture your image and load a profile to correct any distortion. This is particularly efficient at removing the vignette caused by any ND filters.

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Before and after comparison of the Lens Corrections.

With the Lens Corrections in place, navigate up to the Basic panel. The general aim here is to refine your image as a whole using global adjustments. A good rule of thumb is to correct your exposure, restore detail in your highlights and shadows, and retain a good degree of overall contrast.

The specific values will vary for each image. Here you can see that increasing the exposure slider helps to correct the underexposed image. Further adjustments to the Shadows and Highlights were applied to restore detail. Finally, the Contrast, White, and Black sliders were fine-tuned to boost the overall contrast.

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Before and after basic global adjustments.

Step Two: Correcting Color Casts

Long exposure images are prone to blue or magenta color casts, often caused by using ND filters. Provided you captured your image in RAW, correcting the color cast couldn’t be simpler. Simply adjust the White Balance sliders to counter your color cast.

In this case, the blue color cast is easily removed by adjusting the White Balance to almost 10,000 K.

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The White Balance tool can be used to remove the color cast caused by your ND filters.

Step Three: Correct Noise

Noise can be problematic in long exposure photography. It’s caused by a variety of factors – ISO setting, the length of your exposure, and the heat of your camera sensor – none of which are terribly exciting to talk about.

In short, there are two variations of noise. Luminosity noise and color noise.

Luminosity noise creeps its way into your long exposure photographs through a combination of your ISO and the heat of your camera’s sensor. Essentially, the longer your exposure, or the higher your ISO, the more luminosity noise it will generate. Luminosity noise is colorless and typically shows up as small bright pixels.

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The small bright pixels are known as Luminosity Noise.

Color Noise is luminosity noise’s irritating ugly brother. It typically looks like unsightly splotchy green and red pixels. It’s often found in the darker and lighter areas of your image.

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Unsightly Color Noise.

In long exposure photography (LEP), it’s inevitable that you will encounter noise in your images. Sure, there are techniques to minimize it in camera. Like taking a bunch of shorter exposures, then aligning and blending them all together.

But if you read part one of this tutorial, you’ll know that sitting back and letting your camera do all the work while you enjoy a cup of tea is all part of the fun of long exposure photography. If the price you pay is a little bit of noise then I say, “Boil that kettle!”. Besides, it’s really easy to reduce or completely remove noise from your images. Take a look.

Navigate to your Detail tab in the Develop module and zoom into your image at 100%.

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The Detail tab allows you to reduce Luminosity and Color Noise.

Start by adjusting the Color Noise reduction slider upwards until the bulk of your color noise disappears.

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The Color Noise has been significantly reduced.

It’s likely you will still have some residual color noise. In that case, tweak the Detail and Smoothness sliders until you find a balance that removes the color noise and still retains detail in your image.

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Tweaking the Detail and Smoothness sliders has completely removed the Color Noise.

Now you can turn your focus to the Luminosity Noise. Adjust the Luminosity slider upwards until the bulk of your luminosity noise has vanished. To fine-tune the adjustment, you can tweak the Detail and Contrast sliders.

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The Luminance Noise is almost completely removed.

Be careful not to overdo the Luminosity slider. Retaining detail is more important than complete noise reduction. It’s no good having a perfect noise-free image if your subject now looks like it’s carved out of wax.

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Before and after noise reduction.

Step Four: Restore Presence

By now, your image should either be noise free or have a degree of acceptable noise. If you’ve had to be a little heavy-handed with your noise reduction, the chances are your subject might have lost a little texture and overall presence.

To restore this, navigate to the Basic panel and adjust the Clarity slider upwards. This will bring a little texture and presence back into your subject.

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Before and after increasing the Clarity slider to enhance the rock formation.

The overall color strength of your image also plays a big role in how your subject appears. In the example, you can see that reducing the overall saturation helps to mute the vibrant colors and lets the rock formation do all the talking.

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Decreasing the Saturation helps to mute the ocean and make the rock formation stand out.

Step Five: Creative Vision

By now your image will have progressed significantly. Let’s take a second to compare the results in just four steps.

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Original RAW versus current image with global adjustments.

You’ve probably invested a considerable amount of time preparing the shot, capturing the image, and processing it in Lightroom. Therefore, you might be tempted to call it a day, settle for the current progress, and share your not-so-rough diamond with us in the comments section below.

Alternatively, if you want to give your image a little extra sparkle before proudly unveiling it for the world to admire, then I welcome you to join me. Let me hold your hand while we lightly step into the world of Photoshop.

To get there, right click on your image, scroll down to “Edit” and select “Edit in Adobe Photoshop…”

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Open your image in Adobe Photoshop.

Photoshop can be a little overwhelming. Therefore, it can help to create a plan and jot down your ideas before you get to work. This will help keep you focused and will serve as a reminder of what you are trying to achieve.

Create a new layer and rename “Notes”. Then use the brush and type tools to jot down your vision and ideas. If you’re stuck for ideas, these questions (and this article) will give you a good place to start.

  • Where do your eyes get drawn to first?
  • Where do your eyes go next?
  • What elements enhance the story?
  • Which elements weaken the story?

Here you can see the notes that were created for the example image. These set the goal for the final outcome.

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Creating notes will serve as a reminder of your goal when you are editing your image.

Step Six: Bring it to Life

Up until now, all the edits have been applied globally (meaning to the entire image). If, like in the example, your long exposure image is looking a little flat and is in desperate need of some sparkle and polish, applying local adjustments to target specific areas of interest is a very effective method.

How do you know which areas to target? When you look at an image, your eyes will tend to gravitate towards the sharper areas that contain the most brightness and contrast. Take a look at the example.

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Notice how your eyes want to gravitate up into the bright sky. And, if they haven’t already left the frame, they may descend to settle in the high contrast areas on the outer areas of the rock.

Controlling your viewer’s eye is both important and quite simple. An easy method you can adopt is to create a series of simple minor adjustments that:

  • a. Gradually decrease the contrast and highlights in the areas you don’t want your viewer to focus on.
  • b. Gradually build up contrast and highlights in the areas that you do want your viewer’s eyes to settle on.
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Referring to our notes, you can see that the aim is to draw the viewer towards the rock formation.

How to do you create those minor adjustments?

Here’s a simple Curves Masking System that allows you to lighten or darken selective areas of your image to control contrast, shadows, and highlights in a natural and subtle way.

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1. Create a Curves Adjustment Layer.

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2. Decide what areas of your image you want to target and lighten or darken the curve accordingly.

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3. Click on the layer mask thumbnail and use the keyboard shortcut Command + I (Mac) or Control + I (PC) to fill the layer mask with black to hide the effect.

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4. Select either the Gradient Tool or a soft Brush with the settings at Hardness 0%, Flow 10%.

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5. Press D to set your foreground color to white.

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6. Apply your Gradient or paint with white over your Layer Mask to reveal the effect of the Curves Adjustment Layer.

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This is what your Layer Mask will look like after applying the Gradient tool. The white areas of the Layer Mask will reveal the effect of the Curves Adjustment Layer.

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7. Create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, clip it to your Curves Adjustment Layer and reduce the Saturation slider to desaturate your adjustment. Note: Only do this step if you Darken the curve in step 2.

Using your notes to guide you, work your way around your image. Apply several versions of the Curves Masking System to lighten or darken particular areas and control the viewer’s eye, each time varying the intensity of the Curve to create a subtle and natural result.

Here you can see how the Curves Masking System allows you to:

  • Selectively darken the sky to push the viewer’s attention down towards the rock formation.
  • Lighten the foreground to draw attention to the bottom half of the image.
  • Create contrast, presence, and depth in the rock formation to capture and hold the viewer’s focus.

Using the Curves Masking System to Darken the Sky

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Two applications of the Curves Masking System were used here to gradually darken the sky.

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The darkened sky helps to push your focus back into the middle of the frame.

While darkening the sky helps to keep your eyes inside the frame, you’ll notice the image is still looking a little flat and not very interesting. To inject a little more life into the image, you can use the Curves Masking System to create contrast, presence, and depth in your subject as well. Here’s an example.

Creating contrast, depth, and presence in the rock formation

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Several applications of the Curves Masking System were used here, alternating between lightening and darkening the Curve to gradually build up presence in the rock formation.

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Selectively enhancing the contrast and highlights in the rock formation helps to draw your focus in and creates a point of interest for your eyes to settle in and get comfortable.

With your subject now sparkling and ready to flaunt its new-found presence, you want to make sure it gets seen.

We know eyes love to settle on bright sparkly things. Therefore, you can use the Curves Masking System to strategically lighten areas of your image to practically escort your viewer’s eyes directly to your subject. Here’s an example.

Selectively Lighten the Foreground

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Several applications of the Curves Masking System were used to lighten the foreground to draw your attention to the lower half of the image.

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Increasing the brightness of the water immediately captures your attention. Care was taken to ensure the rock formation still contained the brightest pixels in the image.

Let’s take a quick look at the example image before and after, applying the Curves Masking System:

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Before

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After

After several applications of the Curves Masking System, you’ll notice that your eyes no longer gravitate up into the sky and exit the frame. Instead, your eyes now descend toward the rock formation and go for a little swim in the silky water. Much more refreshing!

All that’s left for you to do now is to give your image a good clean and polish, then share it with us in the comments. Here’s how to do it.

Step Seven: Clean and Polish

Long exposure photograph is not only great for capturing surreal images, it’s excellent for letting you know if your camera gear needs a clean. Upon close inspection of your image, you may notice random dull spots. If so, the chances are there’s a bit of dust on your lens, ND filters, or your camera’s sensor.

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Random dull spot – often caused by dust on your lens, filters or camera sensor.

Removing these spots is incredibly simple.

On a new layer, select the Spot Healing Brush and simply paint over the spots. Photoshop will work its magic and voila! Your once (very) rough diamond is now ready for unveiling to the world for all to enjoy.

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You can use the Spot Healing Brush to remove dust spots and hot pixels from your image.

Recap

Let’s take a second to recap the long exposure processing workflow before taking a peek at the before and after.

  1. Dust it down – start off in Lightroom to apply Lens Corrections and basic tone adjustments.
  2. Correct color casts – adjust the White Balance to correct the color cast from your ND filters.
  3. Correct noise – use the Detail tab to remove Color and Luminosity Noise.
  4. Restore presence – navigate the Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation sliders to give your subject more presence.
  5. Creative vision – open your image in Photoshop and note down your vision for your final image.
  6. Bring it to life – use a series of Curves Adjustment Layers and Layer Masks to manipulate light and direct attention towards your subject.
  7. Clean and polish – Select Photoshop’s Spot Removal Brush and remove the dust spots from your image.

Before and After

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Original image before processing.

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Final image.

Well, that concludes this two-part guide for capturing and editing long exposure photographs. Hopefully, the workflow, tips, and bad jokes shared encourage you to reach for your camera, venture outside, and unearth something special.

Share it below, I’d love to see it.

In case you missed it, you can read part one here: Long Exposure Photography 101 – How to Create the Shot.

Read more from our Post Production category

William Palfrey is a designer and photographer living in Perth, Australia. He teaches beginner and aspiring photographers how to craft beautiful images and develop a unique style using Lightroom and Photoshop. Follow his photography insights over at psitsfun.com or enroll in his new Lightroom and Photoshop courses for free. P.S. It’s fun!

  • Walt

    Interesting jog to PS – but you could do all that additional fine tuning easily using LR

  • William Palfrey

    Thanks for stopping by Walt. You could definitely give it a go, especially if it makes it easier for you.

    In my experience, when applying lots of local adjustments in LR I find the program starts to lag and become a bit cumbersome. Also, if you find yourself making a lot of local adjustments in one specific area (like the rock formation in the example) it’s likely you’ll have a dense population of Lightroom’s ‘Edit Pins’ in one area. This can make it difficult to tweak your adjustments if need be.

    Thanks again for stopping by Walt 🙂

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  • One of my long exposure images
    https://flic.kr/p/mfuMHs

  • William Palfrey

    Looking good @jeanpaulmission:disqus Thanks for sharing!

  • PDL

    Or you could work the image using Capture One and its layers. That way you are using the RAW data not pixel twiddling.

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