The weekend post – AuroraHDR is very fast to work with

The old Maritime building

Karlskrona in Sweden processed using AuroraHDR.

A few weeks ago I posted my test drive of AuroraHDR. In the meantime, I have got my new MacBook Pro and have been using AuroraHDR a lot more.

One of the risks of taking a new tool into use is that you change your style because you adapt your style to that of the tool.

The photo above is an old one from Sweden and it has been one of my ‘test-cases’. I already had processed it using Photomatix and my standard processing flow. I had got a different, yet similar result. I did not try to get a 1:1 version.What I particularly like to have in this image, is a strong texture on the building and the reflection in the water, so this was what I chased in AuroraHDR.

What I particularly like to have in this image, is a strong texture on the building and the reflection in the water, so this was what I chased in AuroraHDR.

What I have done, is to research what is possible to get out of AuroraHDR, and when I have found something that I like, I have created a preset. I have been trying to create presets that support my style, rather than adapt AuroraHDR presets into my style. You might feel different about that, which is perfectly ok, I just like to be myself with my own style.

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The Weekend Post – How to prepare for a huge print

Rubjergknude lighthouse

Rubjergknude Light house stands in the middle of a moving sand dune. The surrounding houses lies as debris around the light house. It is predicted, that it will fall into the sea in 10-15 years.

This Weekend Post is about, how I prepared this image for a huge print.

When you have to prepare a large print, you must be more careful, than with a smaller print. Even small irregularities and dust spots will be easy to see and can potentially ruin the whole print. And a larger print is more expensive.

So time spent preparing your photo, is time well spent.

Recently I had to prepare a 130cm / 52 inches wide print for an exhibition at Photographers Lab in Copenhagen, and some problems showed themselves.

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The Weekend Post – The Wizard at Work in his digital Laboratory

The Wizard is working late in his tower
The Wizard can feel the warmth as he enters his Tower of Wizardry, thanks to his is ever burning fireplace. Even though he has been on the road for a few days, the ever burning fireplace, keeps his tower nice and warm.

He has been out collecting components for his spells, and he is physically tired and cold to his very bones. He looks around, but everything is where he left it, nobody would be stupid enough to try to steal from a wizard.

He can’t wait to study his harvest. He closes the front door and goes straight to his laboratory. There are many strange smells and odors, but he likes it that way, some sweet and some more acid.

His workbench is an old table made of oak wood and full of magic silver rune inscriptions. The magic orb sits on its stand. He uses the orb to figure out, where he can find his components; it’s magical. He can look for specific components, but he can also search geographic areas, and the orb will show him, what he can find there. This way, he finds new components he which existence didn’t even know.

As he bends to puts down his Bag of Holding, containing the harvest from his trip, he notices mud on his robe, but he doesn’t care. The Wizard can’t wait to play with his new components, and see what magic he can produce. He found a few rare components, and he has been pondering on what to use them for all the way back to his tower of  Wizardry.

He opens his bag and takes out the components, one by one, and he scrutinizes them and smells to them, before placing them on his work bench. When done, he studies them, roots out a few, that doesn’t have the quality he needs to work his magic. And then he picks up his Wacom wand and starts working.

I truly believe that post-processing is a kind of magic. The post-processing puts magic into a photo, and photos wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t do it. I have been thinking a lot about this for the last couple of years.

To begin with, it was the post-processing that triggered my interest for photography. Once I read someone who said ‘if you diguise a turd, it’s still a turd’ referring to that you can’t save a bad photo in post-processing.

Of course, to some degree, that is true, but I still like to disagree, because I believe, that you can do magic in the post-processing. And as a digital wizard, I have to feel that way. I am obligated to do that!

I started out three and a half years ago, and it started the very day, that I figured out the importance of post-processing. Going into details on what I have done and learned, would probably result in a spellbook.

The Dungeon

In broad terms I have been exploring and working digital magic in Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix, various tools, and last but not least the new AuroraHDR.

I have found tons of tips and ways to do things, and I keep exploring, because I believe in being curious, and I love the digital magic. A famous Danish author once said: ‘I do not want to die curious’, and that’s my tagline.

I believe one of the most powerful tools a digital wizard has, is dodging and burning. Traditionally dodging and burning is the art of changing the exposure of your photo locally. It’s a term that stems from the old film days and dodging, and burning was a technique you used in the dark room; in the post-processing.

When the negative was exposed through the enlarger to the photographic paper, you blocked the light, shortly in various places. This way you gave some parts less exposure by moving a lollypop looking cardboard stick around. The photo would be lighter in these areas, and this is ‘Dodging.’

‘Burning’ is the opposite process. After having given a normal exposure, you give extra exposure to some parts of your image. By using a piece of cardboard shaped to fit your needs, you would more let light pass and darken these areas.

Remember that the photographic paper was sensitive to light and therefore less light, was lighter (dodging) and more light darker (burning). Ansel Adams was a pioneer in burning and dodging.

Tower Bridge and City Hall under the Stars

Modern digital dodging and burning is much more powerful. If classic dodge and burn was a wand of light, modern dodge and burn is a wand of fireballs. And as with all magic, use it with care.

Adobe Lightroom is the leading digital darkroom, and it has very powerful dodging and burning capabilities. Aperture for Mac is also a digital darkroom. However, it has been discontinued. Other options exist too, but Lightroom is by far the best digital darkroom on the planet.

Digital dodging and burning is a much wider thing, than the old film days dodging and burning. Not only can you change the exposure, you can change the white balance, sharpening, saturation, clarity etc., this is powerful stuff.

In Photoshop, there are classic dodging and burning tools. I have used these tools to lighten up dark leaves backlit on a bright sky, but they are destructive tools in their nature. But there are other and better ways of dodging and burning in Photoshop.

However, I do a lot my dodge and burn in Lightroom. Lightroom is a cool and strong tool, and in many ways much easier to use, it does a fantastic job and more important it is nondestructive work.

Let’s do some magic!

Let’s add and remove light magically

Street in Mont Saint Michel

My goal with this photo from Mont Saint Michel in France was to create a rich warm, inviting and magic night shot of a medieval street and make you wish to be there. But to get there, I had to work some magic.

Mont Saint Michel before and after

0-exposure                                    Final photo

First I did my usual post-processing (my classic HDR Workflow Photomatix and blending layers). When I was done with that, I still felt, that I did not have quite the feeling of warmth that I wanted.

I had chosen to make the sky a bit darker than it actually was. It did some of what I wanted to achieve, but the houses and street lacked the warm feeling, that I wanted.

How to do magic dodge and burn in Lightroom

Let’s walk through the final steps I took, to complete my magic. First I reimported a 16-bit TIFF file into Lightroom. In Lightroom, I used the Adjustment Brush for dodging and burning. When using the adjustment brush you have these options:

Lightroom Adjustment Brush options

As you can see, there are many options. More than just changing the exposure as Ansel Adams could do in his darkroom.

Let’s see how I did some artificial lights in the old medieval village of Mont Saint Michel just off the shore of Normandy:

Mont Saint Michel Light up 4

As you can see, I removed a streak of light on the wall in the middle of the image. It’s a streak of light coming from a spotlight just outside the image on the left. It doesn’t do anything good to the image.

I also added some artificial light below the lamp on the right-hand side. The eye believes the light to come from a light source, and it adds tothe mood of the image. Just what I wanted, but not everything I wanted.

To make the magic work, I have to simulate the already existing light sources. Brighter light in a different color typically characterizes a light source. Both light intensity and the color of the light have to match pretty good, to make the magic work.

In this case, the light is quite warm, and I increased the temperature by +71 and the tint by +57. I also increased the saturation by +36 and then I set the exposure to +0.67 (2/3 of a stop).

Mont Saint Michel Light up 5

The exact values I have to try out for each image, because different color of light exists in almost any photo. The light in this particular image is rather warm, and by adding even more warm light, gives me more of what I wanted to achieve in my goal.

I added an artificial light source by painting (dodging) where I wanted it in order to make it warmer and lighter, giving exactly the same result as if real light source shun on the area. You could say that I painted with light. It is important that the light sources you add, fall in naturally. You don’t necessarily have to see the light source making it, but it has to be likely that a lamp could be making the light.

I removed the light streak on the wall, by doing just the opposite. I burned it (made it darker), but I also changed the temperature. By decreasing the exposure and adding Blue and Green instead of Yellow and Magenta I could paint on top of the streak, and it vanished. That’s burning.

Burning can be used for many different things. One of the things I like to use it for is to burn shadows to make them even darker and more prominent. This can have dramatic effect on images.

Adding more light sources the easy way

Adobe Lightroom 5 introduced Radial Filters and by using them you can quite easily simulate light sources. The light of a lamp is reflected as a round or elliptic shape on a surface. The Radial Filter is round or elliptical too, which makes it very easy to use for this purpose. The Radial Filter you can apply the same values to, as you can to the Adjustment Brush.

By default, the Radial Filter will target everything outside the radial area. This is great for making advanced vignettes, but luckily you can use ‘Invert Mask’ to target the inside of the Radial Filter, and that is exactly what we want:


I used the Radial Filter in several places in this photo:


Notice how I have lit up the passage up the stairs and the platform at the far end of the passage, in order to make the viewer curious, and think  ‘what’s up there?

I also added some lights to the street, supposedly to come from the street lamps hanging above the street. Each Radial filter has its own size and slightly different values. I placed radial filters here:


I started by adding one Radial Filter, with similar settings as I used for my Adjustment Brush. Then I duplicated and resized it to fit new areas.

You can duplicate a Radial Filter by pressing CTRL + ALT (and CMD + Option key on Mac) and then drag it to a new location. That will make a copy of  the same size and with same settings.

Resize the new Radial Filter to fit the new location. You might also want to change the exact exposure adjustment and white balance settings because the light is different in the new spot.

By dodging and burning in this way, I achieved my goal of making a warm, inviting and magical image of a street the in the medieval village of Mont Saint Michel.

And when I am done doing an image like this, I feel like a Wizard.

The Weekend Post by Jacob Surland

If you find my articles interesting and consider getting AuroraHDR, please use the link on my webpage and support me that way. I only recommend software and tools that I use.

I am not ‘bought’ to say nice things with sugar on top. I say what I think and feel about products. I get nothing for writing these articles, but I do get a kickback if you use my link to buy AuroraHDR, as well as if you use my 15% discount coupon code “caughtinpixels” for buying Buy Photomatix Pro. Thanks.

If you like my work, why not follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. I post photos daily.

–Jacob Surland

The Weekend Post – How to find the perfect Sunrise Spot

Soft light in Nyhavn

I shot “Soft light in Nyhavn” in Copenhagen in Denmark.

Timing and location can be a game changer for a photo and sometimes you have to option to plan for something special. At other times, you just have to accept what it is, good or bad. But you can help yourself, if you have the right tools. More about that later, first a story about how I learned a lesson or two.

When I shot this photo on a very early morning, I didn’t realize that I had a gem in my hand.

This location is a place in Copenhagen called Nyhavn and it is a very famous location. And as any other famous location, it has been shot to death.

However, this morning, I captured something special, and I only have shot two shots of it. This is the second. When I published the first one, some local photographers called it ‘the best shot of Nyhavn ever seen’. Wow! The bad part is, that I didn’t see what I shot when I shot it.

This is shot very close to midsummer, and my clock radio had been on at 3 AM, and this photo is shot at 4 AM. But, what was on my mind, was something completely different. I was afraid that I was going to miss the moment when the Sun rose behind The Opera House all the way down in the other end.

I had misjudged the timing and been delayed by a couple of drunk Polish guys looking for a ferry to Poland. I was so focused on my target, that I didn’t see this one. I just made two quick shots and moved on.

Had I seen what I had, I would have made a whole series from this location. The colors and the light were just fantastic, but I didn’t see that. The lines formed by the clouds are fantastic, but I didn’t see that.

The only thing, that was on my mind, was getting the sunrise behind the Opera House.

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The Weekend Post – How to use Select Color Range

Trailing Again

This photo ‘Trailing Again’ is shot in London.

This post is The Weekend Post – sign up on the website, and get it on email. Last week’s post was my hThree most important tips for photographers. If you missed it, you can read it here.

This Weekend post is a ‘The Making of…’ post. Something that I will regularly be doing in my Weekend Posts. I show how I made the image ‘Trailing again’, on a request from Steve Evans, who wanted to know how I made it.

This photo (and the title indicates it) is actually version 2 of a photo.

Normally, I don’t go back and make changes to an already published photo, but sometimes I do, and the reason usually is, that there is something nagging me, about the image.

In this case, there was, but I didn’t find the solution until I got some feedback from my mentor Robin Griggs Woods, and she was spot on my pain. She showed me an easy way to solve the problem, using the Select Color Range and Colorize. I will get back to that later.

While I was at it and had the patient cut open, I enhanced the futuristic look of this photo further.


The originally posted ‘Trailing’.

This particular evening in London gave very smog orange looking photos, and I did not like that. This is the original shot:

Trailing Original

The photo is 5 shot HDR series ranging from -2 to +2, which I processed as I typically would treat an HDR.

I put the five original photos into Photomatix Pro, and create first one tone mapped image, and then a second tone mapped image (see this article How to make double tone mapped images the details).

I know that Photomatix has a lot of bad publicity among photographers, but I believe that it is one of the strongest High Dynamic Range tools on the market, but it is a bit like a Ferrari, you have to learn how to drive it. How do you get the good stuff? And how you avoid the bad stuff? If you learn to control Photomatix, you can get awesome results using it.

Trailing - the making of step 1

I blend the layers to a coherent image, with a mood, look and feel that I like.

What I like about Photomatix, is that it is very flexible, and I can often create the mood that I like. I don’t always use Photomatix, but I almost always give it a try.

The double tone mapped image has a very strong effect, and applying it globally on the picture, would look terrible, but using it locally on the stairs and the tiled pathway works well. This choice turns out to be an important factor in creating this futuristic style.

I don’t know what a photo should look like before I start, at least not when it’s an extreme one like this one. I feel little bit like Alice tumbling down the Rabbit hole when I make a photo. I see what I get from Photomatix, get an idea and move from there to the next idea. Other tools will give me more ideas along the way, and this way, a photo develops.

Problems that arise, I solve as they show themselves.

Typically I try various effects and presets to get ideas, but what is important in my workflow, is that ‘I never use a full press-a-button-effect‘. I always apply effects locally, and often only in much less than a 100%. This takes a little longer, but it is worth the while.

Sometimes I end up with using less than 10-20% of the tone mapped image from Photomatix. Typically I use probably somewhere between 40-60% of the tone mapped image.

You could ask, why I include it in the first place if I don’t use more than that? My answer would be that it is an important part of the magic, and you can tell, if it is not there. It does make a difference.

The first step was to blend the seven photos to get an overall working photo (two from Photomatix and five original shots). The second phase was to optimize the sky and the railing.

The railing I made more gray, but the sky proved to be a real problem. I tried to find a proper color balance for, that would match the rest of the image.

After trying for a long time, I ended up with this version, and I was not 100% happy with the sky. It nagged me.

Trailing - the making of step 2

This is how I ended up, with the first version of the image. The sky had an magenta sort of hue to it.

The problem with this image is that the sky doesn’t play too well with the colors in the rest of the picture. I tried many things, including making it go completely gray, but that didn’t work either.

How to change color in the sky using Select Color Range

Later I learned, during a critique that was given to me by my mentor Robin Griggs Woods, what the solution to the sky was. There’s a lot bluish and cyan colors in vast areas of the image. If the sky contained some blue or cyan instead of magenta, it would play along in a much better way. And she showed an easier way to change the colors of the sky than I had been using earlier.

I took the first version into a new Photoshop file and worked from there.

Step 1 – Create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer

The first step is to create the layer, which will modify the colors in the sky. I use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer for that.

Trailing - the making of step 3 - Color adjustment layer

Step 2 – Use the Select Color Range tool

I only want to apply the color changes to the sky, and there are many ways to select the sky, but one of the faster and easier ways for this case is to use Select Color Range tool in Photoshop. This tool will let allow you to select areas having a particular color range, applied with some fuzzy algorithm. It does a fantastic job of it.

Trailing - the making of step 4 - Find the Select Color range

The tool itself shows a mask, and when I click in the sky, I can see that some of the masks will turn white. What is white, is what my Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, will target.

The task is to use this tool, to select to all of the sky, and by pressing SHIFT and keep pressing SHIFT, I can click more places and the selection increases. I collect samples this way.

The two sliders ‘Fuzziness’ and ‘Range’ I can slide from left to right, and if I do that, Photoshop changes how it calculates what to select, based on the samples I have made.

Trailing - the making of step 5 - Select Color range

There is no precise way of doing this, and it’s a triangle of the sampled areas, fuzziness, and range. Try moving them around, and find the best selection you can. In the case of this sky, it was fairly simple. When you are happy, click OK, and the mask will be put on the Adjustment Layer.

Step 3 – Changing the color of the sky

The next step is to change the color of the sky.

The mistake I had made when I made the first version was that I tried to change the individual colors in the Hue/Saturation panel, and it quickly got complicated to get something that looked nice.

Double click the small “Hue/Saturation” icon on the layer and I open the panel.

I then click the checkbox “Colorize”, which will make the layer monochrome, but with with a color overlay. And because we made the mask for the sky, only that area will be affected.

Just by clicking it, the default color is switched on, and I get a purple sky.

Trailing - the making of step 6 - Change the color

There are three sliders:

Hue: Changes the hue and by dragging it back and forth you can see the colors change. I want to search for something in the bluish section.

Saturation: This changes the saturation. I don’t wish to have a highly saturated sky so that I will look at the lower end of the scale.

Lightness: This controls the how bright or dark the layer should be. Again, it is late at night, and I will be searching in the dark area.

Trailing - the making of step 7 - My color of choice

After searching for a short while, I found the right balance of blue, saturation and lightness. I made smaller changes to the mask along edges, primarily around the lambs, to make the new color work seamlessly with the photo. I used the brush for that.

At this point, I now had a photo, similar to my version 1, but with a sky that worked together with the rest of the image, but I still wanted to try one more thing.

Step 4 – Adding the Orton Effect

The Orton Effect can add a dreamy blurry and yet still sharp effect to the photo (you might want to read my tutorial on the Orton Effect). The Orton Effect can sometimes add a magic touch, and in this case, it did in the same areas as I used the double tone mapped image (the tiled pathway and the stairs). You can see the change here:

Trailing - the making of step 8 - Orton effect

To create the Orton Effect I need two extra duplicated layers.

The first layer must be a merged version of all the layers. I don’t want to delete the layers, and there is a secret key combination for doing this. I haven’t found it in the menus, but it is one of the features I use the most in Photoshop.

I make sure that I am on the top layer, and then I use the secret key combination SHIFT + CTRL + ALT + E (on Mac SHIFT + CMD + ALT + E).

I get a merged layer, but without deleting the original layers.

The second copy I get just by pressing CTRL + J (on Mac CMD + J).

Trailing - the making of step 8 - Orton effect creating it

I then change the Blend mode to Overlay on the new top layer, and I use Gaussian Blur to blur the layer just below the top layer. The amount of blur I choose changes what the Orton Effect looks like, and I search for something that looks good.

I then place the two layers in a group, and add a black layer (CTRL + I / CMD + I will invert a white mask to a black mask) mask to that group, and then I paint in the Orton Effect where I want it, to the extent I want it.

If you look at the layer called “Orton Effect” you can see, the black areas and they will get no Orton Effect. That is the rail that doesn’t get any while the tiles and stairs get almost a full dose of Orton.

And that is the story of how I tumbled down the rabbit hole to the final result.

I needed some feedback to get the final idea.

It is always good to find someone you can ask for feedback. That could be a community or someone you know. I often ask my wife or my son for feedback, and they often give valuable feedback, that I can use.

–Jacob Surland

The Weekend Post: The Three Most Important Tips for Photographers

The old main building of the University of Copenhagen.

This post is The Weekend Post – sign up on the website, to get it on email. Last week I showed how to get two great and yet somewhat different photos, out of one photo. If you missed it, you can find it here.

This week I will dive into three things, that I find very important to improve if you want to improve as a photographer. I will put this into three solid tips, that will improve your photography. It’s not the usual tips, but it’s three things that make a big a difference.

We all know the phrases ‘Composition is everything’, ‘Timing is everything’ and ‘ Light is everything’, and somehow they seem both to work together, and yet still, if they are not contradictory, at they are least not the same thing. So which is right? Well, sort of all three at the same time.

If you have a poor composition, your photo will, no matter what you do to it in the post-processing, not be very successful. I once read that a bad composition is a turd, and no matter what you do in the post-processing, it will still be a turd. I tend to agree, and yet I have some reservations. I believe it’s a balance of several things, the composition being one of them. A weaker  composition, can to some extent be compensated by great light, timing and post-processing, and you will still end up with a successful photo.

Tip #1 Learn to post-process and learn it fast

If you can make everything peak, you will have a stunning photo. If you can get the perfect composition, in the perfect light, with the perfect timing, you will have a perfect photo … IF you know how to process the photo perfectly too. If you do not know how to post-process the ‘perfect photo’, it will never be a winner.

One of the reasons, why I got into photography, and the very essence of “Caught in Pixels” is the realization, that an SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) photo usually is not interesting. It is the post-processing, that brings a photo to life. No matter how good your composition, light and timing is, if the photo has a poor processing, everything falls apart. The post-processing is the glue that ties everything together. And the better post-processing, the stronger is the glue.

Far too many people, think that extreme processing makes a good photography, but it doesn’t. If you want to have success with your photography, you need to have control of post-processing and have it on a (tight) leash. Have a look at this photo, in a badly processed version, and afterwards in a good processing.

Bad processing 2

An example of a poorly processed photo. This is a 30 second processing process. It almost hurt my eyes to look at this, and they keep floating around searching for focus points.

And now the exactly same photo, just processed competently.

The same photo processed in a good way. This is a 2-3 hour processing process. This one is much more peaceful, and the eyes wander straight to the pulpit.

In the first version of the photo, is a classically badly processed HDR. And it is that kind of processing, that has given HDR photos a bad reputation. It is too much of everything, and the depth is completely gone, because everything seems equally important. If everything is enhanced, nothing is enhanced.

You might be able to see, that a strong photo and composition is behind the bad processing, but a poor processing takes the away the quality of the photo. In the first version, the first thing that comes into my mind, is ‘too much, too much of everything’. In the second version, there is a much stronger balance in the photo, and this is the difference.

I have often received the comment “Normally I don’t like HDR photos, but I like this one you have made'”. Of course, this makes me happy, but it also makes me think. I have received that kind of comment, where I think I have knocked myself out in HDR, and gone quite extreme, like in this one from Copenhagen Central station:

A heavyly processed HDR photo, with the award “I dont’ like HDR, but I like this one”.

Why that comment is given to the photo of Central station in Copenhagen, does make me wonder. HDR apparently divides people into two groups, those who like it, and those who hate it. And yet, some of the people, who are dedicated haters of HDR, still likes photos like mine. Even if I have done an extreme HDR processing. Why? I think it is because I have kept a foot in the real world, and I don’t have a lot of classical processing mistakes.

There hundreds of ways I could have processed it, and another person could have processed the photo in yet another hundred ways, and anyway would have made it to a successful photo. The way I did it, I just made it mine. I keep depth in the photo, by controlling highlights and shadows. I play with them, and enhance some, and flatten others, but I don’t enhance everything, and that is an important part.

If I had released the photo from Copenhagen central station, in a crazy psychedelic HDR processing, like the one from the cathedral above, this would never have received any appraisal from an HDR hater. It would have been categorized as ‘a typically HDR’. HDR is not a synonym for bad post-processing, but unfortunately, there are tons of badly processed HDR photos out there.

A large part of my game is HDR, but it is generally applicable. You need to learn to do proper post-processing, to make quality photos.

It requires more than pressing a button or perhaps even investing 30 seconds on processing images, to create something, that is pleasing to more people, even people who are declared ‘haters of HDR photography’. That is because the quality of the HDR photos increases, by doing proper post-processing.

Learn post-processing and learn it fast. It’s one of the most important factors. Do not rely on ‘press a button’ processing. In these Instagram and Snapseed days, everyone can do that. Don’t be everyone else. Be yourself!

Learn to post-processing, and learn it fast. Be yourself… No, you will not make nearly as many photos in the same time, but wouldn’t you rather make high-quality photos? I know I would.

Quality is everything!

I believe that is the truth. It is a much more complex matter, than ‘light is everything’ or ‘composition is everything’. It is about the quality of the photo, and light and composition are factors in this equation, but they can not stand alone. Quality is to an extent a subjective matter, but there are also many objective elements. One of them being, bad processing doesn’t fly.

Tip #2 Learn to listen to that little voice inside your head

What you have to do, when making a photo is to strive to get as high a quality as possible. This begins, when you grab your camera, to go out shooting, and goes through many different steps, until you finally stop post-processing, because it is finished.

As time passes by, and your overall skills improve, something else happens. A small voice in the back of your head appears. It says, ‘is that good enough?‘. It happens when you are post-processing your photos, but also when you are shooting photos. No matter where you hear it, you should pay attention to it.

The first time I was seriously aware of that little voice was when I did this shot. First I did the one on the left, and the little voice said ‘You are almost there, you are on the right track, just move the camera a bit‘. I heard that little voice, and three shots later, I had the composition working my way.

Listen to that little voice

Moving the camera a bit to the left, and a bit down, as my little voice suggested to me, makes the difference between a nice shot and a killer shot. It was the last but one shot, I shot that morning, because the Sun came out too strong only a few minutes later and had I not listened to the voice, I would not have gotten this photo.

The same goes when you post-process you photos. Learn to listen to that voice saying ‘ahh, is that contrast just over the top?‘ or ‘something is missing in that area!‘ It takes some practice to be able to hear this little voice, but it is usually right. It is about finding a balance, that works well with a photo, no matter if you are aiming at something natural looking or you are aiming, at something more surreal. It has to be balanced nicely.

A classic mistake made by novice photographers, diving into post-processing, is to be too drastic in the post-processing. Too much HDR effect, too much Contrast, too much Clarity or too much saturation. We have all been novices, and have made all the same mistakes. And it is by listening to that little voice, in the back of our heads, that we improve.

There is nothing wrong, by going a little bit crazy, and wild. You just need to balance it in the photo. The sunrise photo, has a crazy wild processing too, but it is only applied locally. And it is a very strong element in the equation, that gives the image a high quality.

In most cases, global adjustments (saturation, contrast etc) to a photo is not enough, to make a photo reach its full potential. I am tempted to say that the whole difference, between a successfully processed photo and a less successfully processed photo, is the ability of the photographer to apply changes locally, accordingly to what is necessary.

This might be a little bit abstract, but in the photo above, I did a lot of standard processing, but what knocks this photo into being something special, is the heavy enhancement of the jetty.

Local processing

The jetty is heavily processed. The exposure has been increased, and a 100% clarity pen and some detail enhancement from a Topaz Adjust filter have been applied to the jetty. Had I applied those effects globally to my photo, it would have been ruined the balance, due to over processing, but applied to just the jetty is amazing. And it is the little voice in the back of my head that suggests that, and I listen to it.

The little voice in the back of your head will eventually begin to say ‘that does not look too interesting, can we either enhance or hide it?‘ or ‘this is the important element, it needs to be popped!‘. What is important is that you, listen to that little voice, when it speaks. The little voice is your intuition, and the intuition is MUCH stronger than the rest of your conscious brain.

Learn to listen to that little voice saying ‘ahh is that composition or processing good enough?’ Usually, that little voice is right, it’s you sub-conscience, and it is much more powerful than the rest of your brain. Learn to listen to it, and act on it, to improve your photography. You learn from making mistakes, but only if you notice you make them!

Learn from your mistakes. Your little voice points out your mistakes, listen to it! And learn from it.

Tip #3 Learn to separate the good photos from the bad photos

I have more than 100.000 photos in my library. Even if some are series of 3, 5, 7 or 9 HDR photos, it is still a lot of different photos. I don’t have time enough, to process all of them, not yet anyway, but not all are worth processing either. If I was to try to process them all, I would not have enough time at all.

Since I don’t have the time, to process all photos, I should only focus on the ones resulting in quality photos. Not all can be killer shots, but certainly above my personal minimum level of quality.

One of the pitfalls I regularly fall into is that I try to process a photo, that is clearly never going to turn out any good. This is something, I have seen other photographers do too. For some reason these photos attract us, I know I am attracted to them because I see them as problems that need to be solved and I love to solve problems. But some problems are just unsolvable or extremely time-consuming to solve, and I end up wasting valuable time, with mediocre results.

A photo might not be worth processing for many different reasons. It could be the clouds that are boring, the wrong time of the day, or even wrong time of the year or simply, that the composition has failed. Some of these things are fixable, and some are not.

Train yourself in identifying the photos worth processing. I use a star system in Lightroom.  When I imporort new photos, into my catalog I rate them 3 stars.

0 stars: Not in the evaluation process

1 star: I will not look at this photo again.

2 stars: Maybe on a rainy day, but probably never.

3 stars: Unevaluated.

4 stars: Has potential

5 stars: Ready to process.

Often I have a lot of different, and yet similar compositions, and picking the strongest ones, takes a bit practice, but it is worth spending that time. You learn a lot from evaluating your own photos.

Sometimes, when you have evaluated your photos, you can see, that if you had moved the camera, or it had been shot at a different time of the day or year, it would have been a better photo. And sometimes, you have the option to actually go back and reshoot. Put the photos in a folder for reshooting, not to forget.

Don’t work too long on ‘not good enough’ photos, you just waste valuable time. If you have the option, go back and reshoot, and that way you will learn from your mistakes. Or move on to other photos, just being able to stop yourself, is learning too.

There is a lot of satisfaction, as well as a lot of learned lessons, gained from going back and reshooting a location, and doing everything right. The right timing and the right composition, and going back home to do the right processing.

This last example shows an example of, how I deliberately went back to shoot a specific scene. When I was there in May and everything was green and just too green. Grass, fields, trees, everything was just green and then more green. Instead, I returned not long before the harvest, when the fields had turned yellow and I reshot. The Sun was in a different location at sunset, and I had to move into the field, to get the Sun behind the trees in the far background. This allowed me to use the tracks in the field as leading lines.


Going back and reshoot

The photo on the right couldn’t have been shot in May, even if the sunset was nice in May, and it was nice. This I could do, because this is pretty close to where I live, and I can just go there.

If you are travelling, you might not have the option to go back, and yet you still might have. I often travel to cities, and as it turns out, you often pass the different locations more than once. Often during the day as well as night. What I have begun to do, is to shoot daytime photos, and review them, and then go back and reshoot early in the morning or in the evening. This way, I get some ‘practising’ time.

Doing this, saves me time later, because the sorting processes will be easier, simply because I have less photos, trying to find the best composition.


These three tips require something of you, but photography does! You can not improve your photography, if you do not put some kind of work into it. There is no silver bullet, only sweat. Some of the things, might come easier to some of you, while others have to work harder. But eventually, if you work hard enough, you can succeed.

These three tips, will make you a better photographer, and remember a photographer is not only, about being in the field. It is also about bringing a photo to life in the post-processing. And because, it is only you, who does things the exact same way, as you do, you will get your own style, in time.

–Jacob Surland

The Weekend Post: How to create two images from one image

The Dungeon

“The Dungeon” created from the cloister at Chester Cathedral.

This post is the first in my new series of posts, which is called ‘The Weekend Post’. It is a post, that contains something good about post-processing or photography in general. It is more, than just “Hey, this is my latest photo”. If you don’t want to miss this series of posts, sign up on the website, and get it directly to your mailbox. If you have any particular topic, you want to cover, do not hesitate to ask me.

I am no good at painting and drawing, but I always liked to do it. For years, I haven’t painted or drawn anything, but my photography, or rather my post-processing, stimulates the same part of my brain (and heart for that matter). I always strive to get something out of my images, something that wasn’t there, when I shot it. Something that I create during the post-process. I see my RAW files as my oil and canvas, and I work from there.

Some photos have a lot of potentials, others don’t. The photos I get a kick out of processing, are the ones, that come out quite different, than what they looked like, and still look good. You can knock yourself over on the wrong side of the road if you just go crazy. I try not go crazy, but I do experiment a lot. My aim is to add some etherealness, something otherworldly, something surreal and perhaps even painterly to my photos in my photos. That is what gives me a kick.

Not two photos are alike, and they deserve individual post-processing. I am not in the ‘click on a button’ processing business because it is the post-processing that I love most. It is the post-processing that sparkles my creativity, it is the post-processing that resembles painting the most. And I did love to paint.

I have a chest full of tricks, tools, ideas and methods that I apply to my photos. I use the problem-solving part of my brain for creating images. I see all photos as problems, that needs to be solved, because, I am pretty good at solving problems.

Let’s walk through the photo from this post. What I started out with, was this photo:
The Dungeon Unprocessed

The unprocessed 0-exposure. Not a very interesting light, and yet it had potential.

The shot is a 3-shot HDR photo shot with my Sony A6000 in Chester Cathedral. The Cathedral is HUGE and in connection to the Cathedral itself, there is built a cloister like you find in monasteries, around a garth. However, that cloister had Christmas trees, and other objects, that I didn’t want in my photo. However, there wasn’t any way I could exclude them from my photo. I shot it anyway, even if I felt lacked something for the scene. But, better safe than sorry.

A few months later, I came past the photo in Lightroom and thought I would give it try in the post-processing. I often to do that, with photos that I am not sure if they will work out. Sometimes, I get an idea and get something great out of it, and when if I succeed, these are often the photos I love the most.

Some photos are bound to be successful, because the light is gorgeous or the composition so striking, and and light good enough. But a photo like this one from Chester Cathedral, was not a given success.

What I did, was that I started out on my HDR processing workflow. I mostly use Photomatix Pro for creating my more artistic HDR photos. The new HDR feature in Lightroom I also use, but only for less artistic HDR photos.

I liked the mood that Photomatix generated, even if for some of the disturbing objects:

The Dungeon Photomatix

This is what I like about Photomatix. It manages to extract a lot of mood and warmth. You can’t use it straight out of Photomatix Pro, but there is a good start.

At this time, the problem-solving part of my brain kicks in, solving the problem ‘How to create harmony?’ And it didn’t take long, before it came up with the idea to mirror the image. It was the straight line in the roof, that brought the idea into play, combined with one other fact. The Chester Cathedral is only almost symmetrical in every way. NOTHING in Chester Cathedral is symmetric, even when you expect it would be. So my mind had been thinking about symmetry, in connection to the photos I shot there.

My initial intuition, was to remove the window part and the Christmas trees, and that gave me The Dungeon. I instantly fell in love with that, and wanted to finish that. But I got the idea to, try out the opposite and to my surprise that worked out as well. And in the end, I ended up having two different photos, made from one photo.

The mirrored cloister in Chester Cathedral

The mirrored cloister in Chester Cathedral.

This post is a first post in the series “The Weekly Post”. It will be published every Friday. If you want to be sure not to miss it, follow my website, and you will get the post on a mail every time it is posted.

Have a nice weekend.

–Jacob Surland