The Making of a Photograph – Virgin River 2011

December 1st, 2012
by doinlight

A friend asked me if I’d do a blog on the making of the photograph I took of the Virgin River during the Zion National Park photography workshop in 2011.  He’s a good friend and it’s a nice photograph so let’s do it.  Here’s the end result. (You can click on each of the photographs to enlarge them and get a better look.)virgin_river_2011

And here’s what it started from.


The difference is obviously pretty dramatic so there will be a few things to talk about.  We’ll start with what I was experiencing in the field and take it all the way through the darkroom to the end product.  So let’s get started.

In the Field

The magic starts with your inspiration in the field – when you feel something powerful and start to think of how you can express it.  ‘Here’s this joyful stunted cottonwood tree growing from the side of the cliff above the cool, deep flowing waters of the Virgin River.”  How can I share that with the viewer?

It starts with the many interpretive decisions that lead up to the moment you press the shutter.  What exposure do I need?  Are there any focusing issues?  How will I compose this to capture what I’m feeling?  What kind of light is there and how will that affect the final image? 

We’re at the bottom of a deep, narrow canyon.  It’s mid-afternoon so the sunlight has long since left the canyon bottom.  So we have beautiful open shade with a little bit of warm bounce light where the sun is still shining on the upper canyon walls.  All of this makes for a low contrast scene so exposure is not a problem.  I just need to be sure I don’t under expose or severely overexpose.  If anything, expose to the right (meaning a slight overexposure) is in order.  No particular challenges here. 

Next, are there any focusing or sharpness concerns?  No, I’m using my 24-70 lens at 54mm (full frame sensor) and everything is fairly far from the lens.  I’m shooting at f/16 so there is more than adequate depth of field .  I’ll use autofocus and let the camera choose that to focus on. 

As for the composition, I want the cottonwood to be the focal point of the image so I place it in a very strong position – at the intersection of the top and right 1/3rd lines.  It is balanced by the massive rock in the lower left of the frame.  There are beautiful diagonal lines formed by the joints and fissures coming down the face of the wall.  This provides energy which is enhanced by the warm colors of the wall.  The river at the bottom of the frame provides some very subtle horizontal or near-horizontal lines contributing to a sense of calm, also enhanced by the cool colors of the water.  So there’s a nice mixture of drama from the energy of the diagonal lines and warm colors of the walls to the calm of the river and its cool colors.  Everything is ready.  The final check is to do ‘border patrol’ to make sure nothing is creating a distraction at the edges of the frame.  All is good so it’s time to press the shutter.

In the Darkroom Part 1

The darkroom work begins with Lightroom.  I import all my files from a shoot and it’s there I do the editing to select the handful that I want to work on (see Lightroom Tutorial – When You Get Home).  Once I’ve made my selection I’ll check for mechanical changes like removing dust spots and making the  final crop.  Now I’m ready to start enhancing the image.  I’ll do that in three phases – adjustments first to tonality, then hue and finally saturation.

Tonality is a term used by painters and denotes the lightness and darkness.  Photographers often refer to the same thing as luminance.  I prefer the painter’s term.

I normally begin by setting a black point.  In Lightroom 4 that’s the Blacks slider in the Basic group (of the Develop module).  In this case I set Blacks to –23.  Next the image is a bit on the bright side so I want to lower the overall tonal values.  I use Exposure for this and bring it down to –1.00.  If you look at the rock in the left foreground it’s very bright to the point of loosing detail.  So to bring down this bright spot I first try Whites and bring it down to –100.  That helps but it is still too bright.  So I turn to Highlights and bring it down to –100.  Ah, that’s better.  Here’s where that brings us.


A little more contrast would give it some drama so I bump the contrast adjustment up to +24.  And Clarity does some exciting micro contrast adjustments that make an image pop.  So let’s give it +50 clarity.  You can see that the image is starting to get a little life to it, starting to glow.  You’ll also notice that these tonality adjustments have increased saturation.  That’s why we wait until the end to do saturation; the adjustments along the way are going to affect it.


That’s about all the tonal adjustments we need, at least for now.  The next component I like to turn to is Hue.  Hue is another word for colors such as red, green, blue, etc.  The photograph having been captured in open shade, the light is cool, rendering a cool look to the whole image.  But that complements the mood of peace and tranquility I want to convey.  So the hue is just fine, meaning there are no apparent color casts to the image.  If there were I would use Temperature and Tiny to correct them.  But it’s fine

The final area to adjust is Saturation.  That’s the purity of the color.  This scene will benefit from some selective saturation.  To do that I turn to the HSL group.  Let’s start with that happy cottonwood.  I open the HSL group and make sure Saturation is selected.  Selecting the Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT) I use it to adjust the saturation of the cottonwood.  The TAT automatically selects the colors to adjust and it selected orange and yellow.  Orange came up to +45 and yellow to +5.  But that didn’t do the trick like I had hoped.  It still wasn’t standing out enough so I switched to Luminance and brightened the tree up a bit more with the TAT, bringing orange up to +54 and red up to +1.  One final adjustment is to make the color a little less red and more yellow.  So, again with the TAT I select Hue and bring orange up to +20 and red to +6.  It’s looking pretty good now and is starting to call attention to itself like I want.


Now it’s time to do some subtle saturation changes with the Vibrance tool.  This is a very effective tool and generally works on the more subtle colors although I’ve found that at least in Lightroom it tends to saturate blues more than any other color.  So we can expect it to do nice things with the water.  So applying +25 Vibrance (using a preset I set up for that) the water becomes a bit more interesting.  But as an added benefit the foreground rock on the left looks better too.

I’ve done about all I want to do in Lightroom so it’s time to move on to Photoshop.  But let’s take stock of where we are.  Here’s what we have now compared with where we started.



In the Darkroom Part 2

Many people do all their processing in Lightroom and it’s a fantastic tool.  But I prefer to use Lightroom for the things it does best and Photoshop for the things it does best.  So all my photographs end up in Photoshop and that’s where we go next – Edit In Photoshop.

When you move from Lightroom to Photoshop, Lightroom creates a TIFF file from your RAW file, launches Photoshop and imports the TIFF.  I always start a new Photoshop session by running a Start action I wrote.  It creates three layer folders – Global Adjustments, Local Adjustments and Soft Proof Adjustments.  They hold layers that are pretty self-explanatory.  The Start action also runs a mid tone contrast mask action that does some pretty amazing things with the light, giving it a velvety look  (for some other time).

Next I want to cool the image off just a little more so I use Color Balance and increase blue to +5 and decrease red (increase cyan) to –3.  That was a global adjustment so it goes into the Global Adjustments layer group.  That’s pretty much it for global adjustments.  Here’s what we have now.


Now it’s time to turn to local adjustments.  I’m distracted by the lower right hand corner.  It’s lighter and is drawing my eye away from the center of the image.  So I’ll do a little dodging and burning by creating a dodge and burn layer in the Local Adjustments layer group and going to town (more on that later too).  You have to be careful when dodging and burning so you don’t overdo it.  I set the Flow rate on the brush to 5%.  I’m able to take care of a bit of the problem and the rest will be resolved when I vignette the image toward the end.

Next I want to turn my attention to the foreground rock on the left.  I’m thinking a little enhanced contrast will make it a bit more prominent.  But I don’t want it to overpower the cottonwood so the adjustments will have to be discrete.  Using a Curves layer and ensuring the blending mode is set to Luminance so the colors don’t change I darken the shadows a little and bring up the highlights.  This adjusts contrast for the entire image but I just want the foreground rock to be affected.  So I paint out the areas I want to remain unchanged with a black paint brush.  That layer goes in the Local Adjustments group.

There are some shadows on the main wall that are a bit too dark so I’ll return to the Dodge and Burn layer again and using a white brush, again at 5% flow rare, open them up a little.  You want to be very careful with this.

At this point I go back to the layers I already added and do a little tweaking to get the image to glow.  I also decide to add a bit more Vibrance so I add a +40 vibrance to the Global Adjustments group  That does magic on the foreground rock.  We’re ready for the final touch – to vignette the four corners.  I use the PhotoKit Color 2 tools.  It does a superb job.  These last changes have been pretty subtle and really only show up on larger prints.  But they are very important.  Here’s where we are now.


“Is it done?” you might ask.  The answer is “No.”  Looking good on a computer monitor is not the same as looking good on paper.  So now comes the most time consuming part of all – printing proofs.  It could take as many as 10 proofs, sometimes more, to get it looking right.  Easy photographs come together in three or four proofs.  It takes time but it’s something you need to do to end up with a great looking photograph that people will hang on their walls.

That’s it.  Just to give you a comparison as to how far this image has come here is where it all started.


For me art is not about faithfully capturing reality.  That’s documentation.  Art is about expressing the inspiration you felt at the moment a scene stopped you in your tracks and you caught a vision of how you could convey the feelings you had at that moment.

So the next time you’re out photographing, allow yourself to be inspired.  And when you’re back in the darkroom allow yourself to express your inspiration in its fullest terms.

Join the conversation.  Share your comments and experiences with your favorite photographs.  We would appreciate hearing from you.

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Posted in Composition, Expoure, How To Articles, Light, Lightroom, Making a Photograph, Photography as Art, Photoshop | Comments (2)

  • Larry Lindell says:

    Thanks for that post. VEry nice summary of your work flow and certainly gave me some ideas.

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