Using simple post-processing in Lightroom to transform an ordinary image into a dramatic sunset photo of the Cuchara Valley, Colorado.

Making a Dramatic Photo

City Girl posted one of my sunset pictures from last weekend on the Cuchara Foundation Facebook page today, and someone asked about the kind of camera that I use. The short answer is that I use a Sony A58, but the camera is only part of the real answer. So I wanted to explain in a little more detail how I get my shots in the field and “develop” them at home.

Using simple post-processing in Lightroom to transform an ordinary image into a dramatic sunset photo of the Cuchara Valley, Colorado.
Final processed image captured with Sony A58. Processed using Adobe Lightroom CC 2015.

The most important part of getting a good photo is to be there. In fact, I think this is about 95% of the process. As a photographer, you have to pick the location where you want to shoot, be there at the right time, and be ready for whatever the light presents. Sometimes you get lucky and the land, light, and sky present something spectacular; sometimes you just get to enjoy being outdoors (there’s really no downside, is there?) When I shot this particular picture, I was in a location and set up to shoot the West Spanish Peak (and got this). After the sun went behind the mountains behind me, I turned around and saw the clouds over the mountains lit on fire from below. While the clouds were beautiful, I could not get a good composition from where I had been standing. I walked down the road a ways and was able to get this shot just before the light faded.

Since it was after sunset, I had to use a tripod to get the shutter speed of 1/8 second at f/11 and keep the ISO at 100 for best image quality. I zoomed to 75 mm for this shot to fill the frame with the most interesting part of the light in the clouds. However, the image that came out of the camera (shown below) really lacks the drama of the final image.

Making a Dramatic Photo Cuchara, lightroom, photography, Photoshop, Sony, sunset
Undeveloped photo from the camera. This image lacks the drama in the clouds and the foreground is too dark.

In the image above, the foreground is really dark, and the light in the clouds is missing the color and vibrancy that I saw. This is because the camera is trying to balance the exposure of the entire scene. Even though the sun had already set behind the mountains, the sky was still much brighter than the land. Since the camera tries to process the whole scene, the sky ends up looking washed out and the landscape is too dark. I could have lowered the exposure to capture more of the drama in the sky, but the foreground would have been totally black.

Fortunately, digital photographers can post-process images on the computer to make adjustments to our photos just as film photographers can manipulate their exposures in the darkroom. To me, this is not “Photoshopping” the image. For this photo, I increased the exposure on the foreground, darkened the clouds, and brightened the glow in the clouds to bring out the colors and the drama. The final image looks a lot closer to what I remember seeing than what I downloaded from the camera.

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