Sunday, August 9, 2015

Editing: Before and After Nature Photography (Lightning)

A long time ago (when I took photos) I started a little series of posts showing an unedited copy of an image, followed by the final product - so show the changes that occur during my editing process. For reasons unknown, I wanted to do another. 



One of my favourite things to photograph. Wonderfully challenging and a treat when you get it right. Probably the hardest part is having very little time to practice the craft and long stretches between opportunities. Recent summer storms helped me land another (single) image that I'm pretty happy with (the current header of the blog).

I'm not sure if I have a lightning photo that wasn't "saved" by some editing after the fact. Let's take a look at the UNTOUCHED Raw image as it came out of the camera.

The bolts are overexposed, the horizon isn't level, and I can't even begin to understand what colour temperature to use when photographing this stuff. For the horizon, a simple crop & rotation helped to level it out. For the colour temperature - I stuck with the camera settings and it turned out ok... For the exposure issues - shooting in RAW opens up a world of possibilities with exposure compensation. If something is totally blown out, there's nothing you can do - but here the bolts are still outlined and visible - and even before I had my TIFF copy to bring into photoshop, everything was looking good. After that it was a simple saturation/contrast/sharpening type image and this was the final product:

When editing this image, I paid attention to the surrounding elements - which really "make" this image, as the bolts are striking - but small. The texture of the water, the clouds, the rain, and the contrast below the clouds (to the left of the rain) all had to be preserved while getting the bolts to the right place.

What do you think? Did I get it right? Anything you would change?



A few nights later we had those impressive shelf clouds rip through the region. The second wave (overnight) had the sky LIT UP. It was a great lesson/reminder that a flashy sky (cloud-cloud) may not produce good photo opportunities. You need BOLTS. Bolts I say. Cloud-ground bolts often look better... This photo isn't a "favourite" of mine by any stretch, but it's educational. Here's the untouched RAW file:

Yes, the bolt is boring - but from an editing standpoint it was a challenge due to underexposure. Similar to "overexposure white" staying white - "underexposure black" is just black... If it's truly black - no measure of editing can bring back details. It's dead. Leave it alone. Instead I worked with what was there and brought the bolt back out a bit... Here's the final copy:

Still nothing special, but you can get a better feel for the detail. The horizon actually appears along the bottom of the shot, but it's so dark that I couldn't really bring it back without wrecking the other elements.



This one is actually from last summer's lightning haul. It's one of my all time favourites, and also serves as a reminder when I'm trying for new images. The best bolts are often the biggest and brightest. So you'll have to adjust your exposure settings as the storm gets closer. I can't tell you how many mediocre lightning photos I've taken, only to screw up the biggest blast. This one was saved with editing:

Overexposure central station. It's so bright, I was worried I had lost the bolt. Then I had to worry about the darn colour balance & temperature. What the heck colour is a lightning bolt anyways? The "bonus element" was the horizon and the detail on the surface of the water. I probably edited this image five times before settling on the final copy below:

There were multiple features I wanted to work with:
- The bolt. I had to bring it back down, without losing the "glow" 
- The colour. Just how "purple" should lightning be? 
- The contrast. The bolt was so strong, it lit up the entire sky. Yet it looked odd with everything "lit up" so I had to work at getting some dark/black areas back into the image (it was nighttime, after all) 
- The horizon. Trying to tweak the contrast meant I could easily lose it, but that would be bad!
- The water texture. Some how the texture of the water actually complemented the bolt...

Use the "lightbox" feature to flip back and forth between the untouched file and the final product & let me know if you see any gross errors or have ideas for improving the editing process!


  1. In the top photo, when you were adjusting the lightness/exposure compensation, were you doing it a section at a time (i.e. doing the clouds differently than the water/sky) or were you making adjustments to the entire image at once?

    1. I work with the entire image at once. It is my understanding (maybe wrong) that you have much more control when only dealing with specific elements at a time (eg,/ layers) - but it is just my personal preference to see what i can do with the whole image at once (feels more "real" - even if it isn't).... The only "slection" I made was to brighten/darken the "highlights" and the "whites" in Lightroom..... This selects everything that is within a similar range on your histogram. In the case of that image - it probably only affected the bolts - as it was the only super bright part of the image - not unlike selectively choosing the bolts themselves - but somehow different in my books..... Hope that makes sense - if it doesn't - let me know and i'll try to do it again...

  2. thanks, that makes complete sense. Here's a more basic question, what is the main advantage of using Lightroom, which is really all I see referenced these days, vs Photoshop/Elements

    1. I find it gives more control pre-conversion than photoshop. I broke down and now rent the latest versions of photoshop and lightroom (the photographer's bundle) from adobe....

      Once I've converted the image, I do the final edits in photoshop... I'm fairly new to lightroom (just started using it in the last year) - and there is definitely a learning curve, but overall I'm quite happy with it.