Workflow: The NDOC “Tree Tunnel” Image

This image I made of a very popular location here in Marin County, California, generated a lot of online feedback. Because I used such a variety of post-processing tools and techniques, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to explain the workflow here. This presentation is an experiment and I look forward to hearing what you think of this format, particularly compared to screencasts and videos.

The slideshow below contains an image for each step in my process. If you hover over it you can pause it or move it forward or back. Below the slideshow is a scrolling area with the corresponding explanations. Click on any image to see it 2x larger. It should work on your mobile devices, too.

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  1. Original. This is the original image, converted without adjustment from a RAW file. Fujifilm X-E1, ISO 400, XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS, 1/640 second, 55mm, f/5.6.
  2. ACR Basics. My preliminary work in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is just to correct for lens distortion and to map the medium dynamic range RAW file down to the low dynamic range 16-bit image that is used in Photoshop. Here I reduce contrast and recover as much shadow and highlight detail as I can coax out of the RAW file. My goal is to end up with a low-contrast flat image.
  3. Endpoints. The previous step typically yields weak blacks and highlights. Now in Photoshop, I start by spreading the luminosity of the image across the entire dynamic range using a curves adjustment layer to set blacks about RGB=2 and whites at RGB=253. I skipped white-balance correction for this image because I knew I was going to B&W, but this is the point at which I would do that for a color image.
  4. B&W Conversion. I created a SmartObject copy and used Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 for the conversion to monochrome. With a more colorful original I typically start by adjusting the color sliders to control each color’s contribution to the b&w version, but in this case I made no global adjustments (color, contrast, brightness, structure, etc.) at all. Instead, I used about a dozen control points in the dark areas of the treetops to bring out some detail there. I also reduced brightness and increased the contrast of the building at the end of the road. I could have done these later, back in Photoshop (I did, in fact), but it seemed like a good time to deal with these issues.
  5. Levels. I’ll often drop in a levels adjustment layer to keep the white/black endpoints under control. Here I also increased the overall contrast after the b&w conversion.
  6. Dodge/Burn Roadway. I didn’t like the lightness of the road. I thought it attracted too much attention to itself rather than supporting the overall composition of the image. (You can switch back and forth between 5 and 6 to make up your own mind.) I also thought the splotchiness from shadows on the asphalt were distracting because they broke up the continuous flow of the roadway’s leading lines. This was a complex step using two curves adjustment layers and luminosity painting, a technique I learned from Tony Kuyper. One curves adjustment layer darkens (burns) the roadway and the leaves near the trees. The second curves layer lightens (dodges) a strip between those areas. The overall effect is to darken and even-out the roadway while increasing the contrast and strength of the lines leading to the building at the end of the road. Once I was done, I decided it was too strong, so I backed off the opacity of the two grouped layers to 78%. The advantage of using luminosity painting or a luminosity mask when dodging and burning is that you can retain and even increase contrast/detail in those areas.
  7. Mid-tone Contrast. So much of this image is in the mid-tones, so I brought out a bit more using a curves adjustment layer with a Basic Midtones luminosity mask.
  8. Dodge/Burn Trees. The light here was beautiful but unusual. Because of overcast skies and the dark canopy of trees, the trunks are actually getting side light from both sides. I wanted to increase the tunnel effect, so I didn’t want too much light on the insides of the tree trunks, particularly in the foreground. That one tree in the left foreground almost looked like it was hit with a strobe. (Compare to step 7.) As with the roadway (in step 6) I used two curves adjustment layers and painted with brushes loaded with luminosity mask selections. This is another good stage to compare, back and forth, with the previous one. It may look like I’m removing contrast and focus from the left and right sides of the frame, which is true. But I’m doing so to focus the viewer’s attention on the center.
  9. The Building. Although it’s not realistic — an overcast sky is almost always the brightest part of an image — I wanted the building at the end of the tunnel to be slightly brighter than the sky. Here I used a curves adjustment layer with an edited luminosity mask to brighten and increase the contrast of the building. After tweaking, I reduced the opacity of this layer to 39%.
  10. The Sky. To complete the effect above, I used another luminosity mask and a curves adjustment layer to darken the sky to just below the level of the building. I ended up weakening this effect too, backing off the opacity to 62%.
  11. Vignette. I wanted to darken selected areas, particularly around the periphery, so I painted with a very weak black brush into a new layer in Soft Light blend mode. Opacity 41%. I didn’t use a luminosity mask here because I didn’t want to maintain or enhance the contrast or detail.
  12. Touch-Ups. I should have done this much earlier in the process, but there were a few bright objects in the close foreground and on the roadway that were driving me crazy. I used a new layer and a combination of the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools to get rid of them. It’s hard to see unless you toggle between images 11 and 12 and look closely, primarily at the lower-left corner. I always use these tools in a separate layer because they’re then non-destructive and I can use the Eraser tool on them.
  13. PPW Sharpening. I frequently use the Sharpen 2013 action from Dan Margulis’ Picture Postcard Workflow, version 3.3. In fact, many of the steps in this workflow I learned from Dan. I ran the sharpening action on a copy of the image, flattened that image, then copied it back to a new layer in the original image. Rather then adjust the sharpening in that second (temporary) image, I often just keep the defaults and copy it back at full/normal strength. I then reduce the effect selectively with a layer mask or (in this case) globally by reducing the opacity of this layer to 45% to avoid over sharpening. The advantage of doing it this way is that since I don’t make any changes to the output of Dan’s action, I can re-create it at any time.
  14. Levels (2nd). After so many adjustments, the white & black points are often off, so I use another levels adjustment layer and the Auto button to bring things back into line.
  15. Warm Black. I decided the image was too cool, so I used an action I developed that warms the shadows (a gradient with black as r=9, g=4, b=0). I backed it off to an opacity of 75%.
  16. Original Color. After warming the image, I decided I wanted to see just a hint of the original color: the green in the treetops and some additional warmth in the leaves along the roadside. I added a new layer with a copy of the original image at 20% opacity in the Color blend mode. The effect is very subtle.
  17. Darken. After that warming and color, the image was too light for the effect I was looking for, so I used an unmasked curves adjustment layer to darken the image overall without affecting the endpoints.
  18. Global ACR Tweaks. At the very end, I wanted to add a bit of local contrast and crunchiness, so I created a merged copy, converted it to a SmartObject, then ran Adobe Camera Raw as a filter with the following global adjustments: Exposure=+0.15, Contrast=+6, Highlights=-31, Shadows=+71, Whites=+17, Blacks=+1, Clarity=+20 and Vibrance=+29 (for color). This last step really brought the image to life with a bit of that Halloween feeling I was going for.

MVFF: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (B)

We had high expectations for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a remake of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye. The new version is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who was present (along with an entourage of producers and 20th Century Fox executives) at the Mill Valley Film Festival closing-night screening. This was only the second time the film had been seen by the public, the first having been at the New York Film Festival.

In the end, we were disappointed. This is a major production, being heavily promoted for a Christmas release. It’s a “pretty good” movie, but left us feeling that it lacked a certain energy.

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MVFF: Zaytoun (B)

There are so many good films set in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it’s almost become a genre all its own. (One we loved was a documentary in 2010 called My Precious Life.) But because there have been so many, the bar has been set fairly high for new ones. Five years ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we were treated to director Eran Riklis‘s marvelous Lemon Tree. The producers of Zaytoun, (“olive” in Arabic) convinced Riklis to direct another film in this genre, and while it’s certainly a well-done film, it doesn’t quite measure up to his earlier work.

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MVFF: August Fools (A)

Last night we were treated to the North American premiere of Taru Mäkelä‘s new feature, August Fools. It turned out to be one of the very best films at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Films from Finland are often some of our favorites, but they’re typically dark and gritty like the great 2009 Helsinki. Even the Finnish comedies tend to be on the dark side. August Fools skirts the edges of that tradition as a smart, uplifting comedy set in the dark context of the Cold War.


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MVFF: Like Father, Like Son (B)

Writer/director/editor Hirokazu Koreeda‘s latest feature Like Father, Like Son (Japanese with English subtitles) won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which primed us with high expectations. Many others at the screening just loved it. I found it to be a very competent and even satisfying film, but not one I’d suggest you go out of your way to see, particularly given how many truly terrific films we’ve already seen at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.

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MVFF: Victoria (A)

This is the fourth film adaptation of Knut Hamsun‘s 1898 Norwegian novel, Victoria. The story is familiar: boy and girl from opposite sides of the tracks since childhood just can’t seem to overcome the social differences keeping them apart in young adulthood. But don’t let this seeming predictability keep you away. This is an excellent film — one of the best I’ve seen this year. (In Norwegian with English subtitles.)

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MVFF: Farah Goes Bang (C-)

One of my personal guidelines when selecting films to see at a festival is to avoid anything with “coming of age” in the description. Based on the glowing reviews for Farah Goes Bang at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and the fact that it won the Nora Ephron Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. I thought I’d take my chances. Fail. I think I’ll re-institute my policy next year.

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MVFF: Imagine (A-)

Some films are almost impossible to categorize, and Imagine, written and directed by Andrzej Jakimowski, is one of them. It’s about a blind teacher, Ian (Edward Hogg) who brings controversial techniques to an institute for the blind. Instead of using canes to get around, he teaches echolocation, the use of sounds like heels on pavement and tongue clicks as a type of SONAR to identify objects and hazards. The kids and the management of the institute are quite skeptical of his techniques, but he persists.

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