Nature Tips #3 Shooting The Sun

Someone asked me last time for tips on shooting the sun, so random guy out there, here you go.

When you put the sun the image the trick is to get light between it and the rest of image balanced.  You can balance the light with a filter or some work in photoshop.  A graduated neutral density filter (referred to as a gnd from now on) fits this role just fine.  It still has all of the normal problems of flare and unwanted vignetting that can come with using filters, but it still does the best job.  If you do not have one, simply cannot get the shot without a prohibitive amount of flare, or the scene has too jagged of a horizon for a gnd, you can come back and fix it up in photoshop.

When you fix it up in shop, you can either simulate the effect of a gnd filter, exposure blend, or shoot HDR (which has its own problems).  There are limits to what you can do with a single exposure in terms of 'fixing it.'  First is that when you brighten, noise becomes apparent in the image but to expose the sky correctly you need to underexpose the ground.  Make sure you have histogram on in your display and highlight warning.  Take a test shot and then compensate (it's hard to meter well for this at first, so enjoy the advantages of digital as you learn to gauge it).  You are aiming for a shot that has the sun true white and reasonably small while retaining cloud detail.  The highlight warning will show you when you start clipping the highlights in the clouds, showing that you have taken in as much as you can get away.  When correcting like this, you have to pick and choose the foreground.  Silhouetted or shadow heavy foregrounds, like a forest, the dark side of mountain, etc do not work well, there is just too much correction and subsequent noise.  Well lit sand, brush, flat areas, and particularly snow work the best.  With snow, there often is hardly any correction at all.

Once you have the image in the raw importer, you should notice a little icon shaped like a filter and filter holder on the top menu bar, that is the gnd simulator.  Like with everything that has to do with exposure correction, if you can do it in the raw import, do it there.  The gnd tool allows you to draw the transition line creating a primitive gradient mask in the importer.  While the masking leaves something to be desire, you get a solid set of tools to edit with that draw on data from raw file allowing for less damaging changes to the image.  Once you have corrected the image import it and edit as normal.  Masking based on percent gray is the best way move on from here.  Tony Kuyper has a good tutorial on creating and using such masks over


.  For this image, I made brighter than 50% mask and brought down those tones in the sky while retaining the top ones with a curve.  Then a similar move with the shadows.  Next I added contrast to the moving water with a brighter than 50% mask lowering the mid-tones while brightening the highlights.  Finally I adjust the cyan to true blue in the sky and removed the yellow in the sky along the horizon.

Now suppose you were smart enough to bracket your shots and you have multiple exposures to work with you can blend exposures or do HDR now.  Pick two exposures, one for the sky and one for the foreground and open them in Adobe Camera Raw.  In ACR process the exposures with only the relevant area in mind.  Once you are satisfied, adjust for the color on which ever has the most information.  Then, in the upper left, select both images and click "synchronize."  In that menu select white balance to make the two match in color.  Leave checked anything else you want synced between the two images (like cropping or leveling the horizon).  With both selected, click open images.

After opening the images select all of one of the images (for the example I selected the one set for the sky) and then copy paste it into the other file.  With the top layer (sky in the example) selected click on the layer mask button.  Into the mask were going to make a gradient, to make sure it is level you will want to turn on your grid lines (hot key cmd ' on mac).  The gradient tool will auto snap to these lines.  Usually to get a gradual enough change you will want the gradient to cover up a fair portion of both the ground and sky.  What will look best will be different for each image.  In the example image you can see the placement of my mask in red.  On the right is the final blend, from here you can continue to edit as normal.


How to vignette not like an idiot hipster

Nature Tips #2 Cyan, Cobalt blue, and You messing with the Hue

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A quick and easy trick to make your skies more aesthetic:

You may notice in some images the most amazing blue skies and you are not quite sure what it is about them that is so appealing. In some cases, it is lack of cyan. While this will not be a universal tip for skies, it works in many cases, particularly when you are creating darker images.

When you darken a sky in Photoshop, especially when using luminosity masking, you will get these kind of muddy dull cyan colors mixed in with the brighter areas of the sky, particularly when the sky is filtered by clouds and horizon haze. To fix this, open up a hue and saturation adjustment layer. Select Cyan from the menu and then move hue to the right until you have the desired sky. Then mask out the rest of the image to preserve the color balance you achieved on the raw import. A quick little fix like that can make or break an image.

Similarly this can be done when you have large bodies of clouds. In these cases I find simply de-saturating the cyan out of the clouds gives a better cloud color. Keep in mind when you are removing this cyan, what you are doing is creating an image that is closer to what we on some level believe it ought to look like. Clouds are black and white with shades of gray. Skies are a Parrish or cobalt blue. Similar things can be done with yellows to greens, though the adjustments are often more slight.

The point of this tip is to bring to attention the power of targeted hue adjustment. In the example images consider that sand is orange and the sky is blue which are complementary colors. If the sand was more yellow, I would consider targeting it to make more orange or targeting the sky to make it more magenta. This is applying basic but effective color theory to a static environment.


Shooting the Sun

Nature Tips #1 CPL – Circular Polarizer Lens Filter

This one is pretty basic. If you are going to be out shooting in nature, this is your single greatest tool.


What a CPL does is remove unattractive reflected or glare light. When light becomes reflected from a surface, it becomes polarized. By rotating the filter, you can block this light. This is how photographers remove reflections off of water, give foliage a more saturated feel, and create deep graduated skies.

reflection removal

In the example of the water running over the rocks you can distinctly see the effects of a CPL. Keep in mind that a CPL when set to block reflections reduced on average one stop of light.  Both of the images were shot at the same settings at show this loss of light in addition to removal of reflection.


The CPL darkens the sky creating a strong and apparent graduation of tone (which is not only aesthetically pleasing, but can help create the illusion of a greater dynamic range) but this can be drawback in some cases, especially when shooting with a wide lens. In the example image you can see that the CPL creates a giant unpleasant wedge shape of tone in the sky.  The wedge becomes apparent at wider angles.  Keep in mind though, the angle of the graduation of tone is related to where the sun is in relation you. In the image the sun is rising and I am shooting the northeast. If I had been facing west, the sky graduation would go up and down and not an angle.

There are other drawbacks to using CPL, but they can be ameliorated somewhat by simply buying a nicer CPL. The problems will always be there, but the higher quality filters will suffer from it less and in less conditions. Cheaper filters can cause your images to be slightly blurry.


The worst problems appear when the sun shines directly onto your filter. Two things can happen; contrast loss and flare. When the sun shines onto your lens some of it is reflected off the filter, washing out the image. When the sun hits imperfections and the like or becomes split, it can flare. See the example image for flare. More expensive filters try to prevent this with different coatings and lens materials. Keep in mind that is may not be just the filter causing this, but the lens itself. Lenses like filters suffer from these problems.

Flare and contrast can be fixed in photoshop, but its better to get it right before hand. Every edit you make degrades the image slightly. Another two edits can make or break a sky from being a nice gradient to a banded mess of garbage.

A rare but terrible problem that can happen is when light reflected off the lens itself on the filter becomes strong enough to be visible in the image. This occurs under very certain conditions. I have only had it happen to me with CPL a handful of times out of the 20,000 or so shots I have made up to this point.

The bottom line is, buy a CPL as a tool it is essential for photographing nature even with its drawbacks and problems.

All the images presented with this are unedited raw images resized and labeled

Next will be Cyan, Cobalt blue, and You messing with the Hue

Further Examples

reflection removal

reflection removal