It's no uncommon for me get a comment like this every now and again on one of my landscape images. And I totally get it. Social media rewards a never ending trend towards pushing images over the top. So it seems that more and more the viewing public believes that if you capture an amazing image, it must have been heavily manipulated. Cause often that's how it's done.
I won't lie, I like to create abstract almost painterly images. But my joy in landscape photography is going out time after time trying to find a compelling image and chasing great light. Mostly it's a failed effort but every so often it's amazing. But my ultimate goal is create an image that has a firm basis in the scene that I so patiently sought out.
So is this image fake? Yes and No. No, it is not the image that came out of my camera. But yes it is my artistic interpretation of the scene I saw and experienced on that glorious night.
But we need to dive into the details of the image above to see why the camera doesn't always give me back the image I see with my own eyes. This images was a combination of an amazing location with stunning light. I got there probably an hour early and scouted out a bunch of compositions I liked. But as the sun set I knew I wanted to focus on the contrast between the silhouetted trees and the layered colors of the sunset and the mountains. In addition, I knew I wanted to squeeze every last bit of that magnificent color out of that sunset. So I choose to shoot long at 300mm and drag my exposure out to 30s.
I shoot all my landscape images in RAW format. So here's the before processing (just loaded into Lightroom) and after processing.
Pretty big difference. And this is a disappointment I see almost every time I come home from a promising shoot. The RAW files often just don't do the actual scene justice, they come out flat and without the vibrant color of the original scene. Sometime it's so bad that I take a cellphone snap of the scene or of my camera display just so I have a reference to go by during post.
And here is that, bad, cellphone snap of that evening taken around the same time as the shot above.
Even in this bad image you can see that the imported RAW file doesn't do the scene justice. The question is why?
I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert, but what I'm thinking is it's a combination of color temperture and contrast. Many sunset images are this great combination of warm sunlight being gradually displaced by cool twilight. And during the perfect moment they both occur at the same time in various places throughout the scene. And sunset and twilight each have their own unique color temperature and corresponding while balances.
I had my camera set to auto white balance mode for this shot, which I often do since I know I can, and probable will change it in post. And here is what my Sony A7Rii thought the white balance should be. Temp=4650K & Tint=+11
From my interpretation the sunlit sky is too cool and the clouds are a touch too warm. So yea, the auto white balance did a "great" job of splitting the difference.
So for this next image all I did was increase the contrast to +30 and warmed up the image by changing the white balance to "shade" (T=7500K & Tint=+10). No saturation or HSL adjustments, just white balance and contrast.
Already pretty darn close to my cellphone snap. But the clouds have lost their color contrast with the sunlight because they are now a bit too warm.
After a couple of quick tries, the white balance for the clouds seems about right at T=3000K & T=+11. Of course this totally removes the warmth from the sky.
So for my way of thinking, instead of processing by painting color or saturation I try to find, and apply, the white balance that is appropriate for each part of the scene. That way I hope to maintain the integrity of the image and still create the vision I saw while setting up the shot.
Anyway, that's how my Lightroom workflow has been progressing lately. Chance are it will continue to evolve. Let me know in the comments if I've gotten something terribly wrong or if you have an approach that you like.