Jeff Smallwood Photography
Don't Delete That Photo - A Step by Step on Finding the Inner Beauty in a Throw-away Shot
May 27, 2013

Before and After Great Falls Virginia

Warning: If you get faint at the sight of digital editing or if the creative use of Photoshop makes your stomach queasy, then turn away now :)

Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate. Sometimes the light isn't right. Sometimes we just have a bonehead moment and take a bad shot. But the end result is the same: a shot we might consider tossing into the trash.

But don't be so hasty to save room on that hard drive of yours. Many times a rather "blah" shot can be brought back to life with some creative digital editing. I did this specifically for the Naptown Editing Challenge. The Naptown Meetup is run by a wonderful photographer Jen Casey. She posted a few bad photos for the group and a challenge to everyone who wanted to participate: improve them.

When I saw the four photos she posted I thought "oh boy". There were obvious flaws in all the shots and yes, it would be a challenge to bring them to life. This shot of Great Falls was volunteered by Tim Johnson of Tim J. Images for use in the challenge. This one seemed to have a specific potential to me. Plus, I'm quite familiar with the location so I already had a vision in my head of what this photo could be. Tim was kind enough to volunteer the image for people to use and he was also generous to allow me to post the full resolution final copy, which you'll find at the very bottom. Thanks Tim!

Working in Lightroom

Let's start with the original RAW file without any processing:

 Original unprocessed RAW file
Original unprocessed image. Click for larger view.

The first thing I noticed was that the water wasn't soft. Waterfalls almost always benefit from a longer exposure, anywhere from ½ second or longer to soften the flow and provide subject contrast between the still rocks and moving water. That wasn't going to be fixed here as faking a long waterfall exposure would take more time in Photoshop than I cared to put in. Even though there isn't dramatic light, it appeared the shot was captured earlier in the day with the sun lower on the horizon. I confirmed this by looking at the metadata in Lightroom. Sure enough, taken at 7:09am. Might there be an artistic sunrise hidden here somewhere?

In Lightroom I adjusted the basics, including a significant change in the white balance to warm it up and bumping the vibrance and saturation to add some color. Here are the before and after so you can see what I modified.


Basic Panel Original


Basic Panel Modifications

The basic panel changes in Lightroom


Histogram Original


Histogram Modifications

The difference in the histogram after the Lightroom changes

The next change was to add a slight vignette to bring the attention of the viewer more toward the center. Here's the Effects panel from Lightroom to show my adjustment.

Lightroom Effects

I played with it a little more but ultimately didn't keep any additional changes Here's a full view and closeup of the before/after based on the Lightroom adjustments only (before going to Photoshop)

Lightroom adjustments only
Lightroom adjustments before Photoshop. Click to view larger.

 Side by side before and after in Lightroom
Before and after details of the Lightroom adjustments. Click to view larger.

It was almost there, but I had a few more tweaks in mind that aren't possible in Lightroom. So. I decided it was time to bring out the heavy duty toos and jump to Photoshop.

Working in Photoshop

Since I was going for a hint of an artistic effect, that was the first step. I used the Topaz plugin Simplify. This has two effects. First, it adds a touch of a brush stroke to edges and secondly it works to flatten some of the details. It worked especially well in the rocks and edges of the trees. See the results below.

Simplify plugin
Topaz Simplify plugin at 100% opacity. For the final I dropped it to 48% opacity.

The effect was a little too much though, so reduced the opacity of that layer to 48% allowing it to blend in with the background for a more subtle and natural effect.

The next step was to use the Topaz Adjust Bold plugin. But I only wanted it on the sky and rocks and wanted to keep the change subtle, so adding a layer mask made that easy. A screen shot of my layers palette is at the end so you can see what layer order and masks I used. 

Topaz Adjust Bold effect on the sky and rocks only
Topaz Adjust Bold filter applied to the sky and rocks. Click for larger view

The sky now had a little more pop, but it didn't feel alive enough, still a touch too gray for me. I wanted to cool the sky and add a slight gradient to bring more contrast to the brigher yellow-orange close to where the sun was. Did this with a Filter layer to simulate a blue lens filter and used a mask to limit the change to the sky only.

Cool Filter

Cooling filter
Cooling filter applied to the sky with a mask


Now to bring out a little more detail in the clouds. This was done with the Spicify filter in Topax Adjust. Again, I wanted the effect subtle and limited to the left side of the sky only. This was done with a layer mask. Here is the result:

Topaz Spicify filter on the left side of the sky
Topaz Adjust Spicify filter applied to the left side of the sky

Two more changes to go. Overall, the sky was just a touch too dark so I fixed that with an Exposure adjustment layer and mask to keep the effect on the sky only.

Exposure adjustment layer on the sky


An exposure adjustment layer applied to the sky only



One final subtle touch left. If the sun is rising on the right side and is therefore low on the horizon, it has more direct light on the trees in the background. Therefore, the trees in the background on the left would be facing the sun and they're still a touch too dark show that. So one more Exposure adjustment layer was added, this time just masking the trees on the upper left. I bumped the exposure almost a full stop but it kept the effect subtle as we don't want those trees to jump out, just want it to feel a little more natural. 

Exposure adjustment layer on the trees
Final exposure adjustment layer applied to the trees in the background

 Final Results

Here is my final layer palette in Photoshop so you can see the masks and layer order.

About 30 minutes of play and this is the final result. You can download the full resolution final using the link at the bottom. I hope this step-by-step was helpful in showing you what can be done with throw-away shots.

Final result
Final result. Click to view larger (107kb, 1024x680)

Step by step of each change


Download Full Resolution Final (1.7mb 4288x2848 pixels)


12:59 AM
Glad to have found this great site.

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