Creating the perfect photo | Episode #1

With this post I am starting a new tutorial series  named Creating the perfect photo, where I try to provide you with as much value as possible.

I explain in detail my entire thought process of creating a photo from scratch.

I describe how I find new locations for my shoots, which cuts my dependence on “stealing” other photographers’ locations. 

The next thing on the menu is composition. What are the factors that I considered when I was in the field, how I tackled the problems to make the best out of a bad situation, and what gear I used.

After I come home I edit my photo. I explain the tools I use, my workflow, and the mindset and ideas behind every edit.

Creating the perfect photo tutorial is organised into headings for your easier navigation. This is the general outline of it::

  • How I prepared for the shooting
  • My thought process when shooting
    • Composition
    • Camera settings
    • Camera gear used
    • Light
  • How I edited the photo
    • Software I used
    • Why I applied the edits that I did
  • Thoughts and ideas on the final result

The only information I do not disclose in this tutorial is the exact location of where the photo was taken. Location scouting consumes several hours of my life, and I want to keep some locations just to myself, in order not to spoil the few pristine, undiscovered, and uninhabited corners of Slovenia.

Criticism, questions, ideas, suggestions, and advice are welcome. Feel free to post in the comments or email me to [email protected].

Also keep in mind that the editing process I show here is the same/similar to the one I use when I edit your photos. If you want to save up on the software that I use, you can always ask me to edit the photo for you. Click here.

Photo of the Episode #1 of Creating the perfect photo

This photo was taken during sunset in the northern part of Slovenia, virtually on the border with Austria.

I still (just barely) kept within my area borders – no quarantine rules were broken :D. 

Check the photo on Instagram.

Photoshop result
Final result

1. On the location

I discovered this general area on one of my semi-random hikes – let me explain what I mean by that.

I arrive at my starting point, usually an elevated spot, I look around, and decide what looks the most interesting to me. The winner is often a nearby bare hill, which could potentially offer a great view. Prior to my hikes/shoots I also check the Google Maps for street view or contributors’ photos to get a better feeling for the area.

This time I arrived at the spot around 2 hours before sunrise. I strongly encourage you, that you do the same – or arrive at your destination at least an hour early. This is also one of my most important tips for beginners.

I’ve been looking for a lonely tree on the top of the hill, preferably surrounded by some fields, for a long time. Although the scenery that I found was not perfect, it was very close to my goal.

Top of the hill? Check!

Tree? Check!

ONE tree? Not really, but it was coupled with a cute blossoming cherry tree, to which I say, “we take those“.

Surrounded by fields? Well, there was one field, but by picking the right composition, I made it look like the trees are surrounded by fields.

  • Composition

Mastering composition is arguably the hardest part of photography – first you need to learn the basics and then practice A LOT.

You can read a book like The Landscape Photography Book by Scott Kelby to learn the basics.

In this tutorial I will assume that you at least know what the basics are.

Rule of thirds

I usually go by the rule of thirds, and only every now and then by the Golden ratio rule (for example – I used it for a swan).

As you can see I put the sun on the upper left intersection (node) of the grid, and the beech and cherry tree couple on the upper right intersection. You might notice that both the sun and the trees are slightly shifted inwards.

I started doing this just recently, and here’s why: My camera’s sensor has a crop ratio of 3:2, but I crop most of my photos in 5:4 ratio – the preferable crop ratio for Instagram, which is my most important promoting platform. When I crop the photo during post-processing my objects end up exactly on the thirds. Pretty clever, right?

Notice that the horizon is on the upper third line. 

Also, there is a leading line in the field left by the tractor tires, that leads viewers’ eyes from the bottom left node into the image and towards the trees on the upper right intersection.

Creating the perfect photo - 5x4 rule of 3rds

Sun positioning

I usually choose not to include the sun in my photos. This is due to the fact, that my camera, Canon EOS 60D is rather outdated and sensor doesn’t perform well noise-wise in high contrast situations.

However, I had no other choice for this composition, so I tried to make the best out of suboptimal situation – you’ll see how in the editing part of the tutorial.

Because the sun was setting, I knew the low angle would create a nice texture on the field, and would backlight the trees.

I was trying to achieve similar effect as on this photo of a birch I took a week earlier.

  • Camera gear

I was shooting with my Canon EOS 60D camera and Canon 18-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens. 

I didn’t use any filters to avoid additional lens flare, nor lens shield because I found that it makes no difference when you’re shooting directly into the sun.

The camera was on my Slik 700Dx Pro with a 3-way panhead.

People with allergies have probably already realized that the spring is upon us. What does this have to do with your camera? There’s a lot of pollen in the air, which deposits onto your lens.

I carry a lens pen with me and I make sure to dust the pollen off every now and then.

Creating the perfect photo My gear

  • Camera settings

My settings for this photo were quite straightforward:

  • Mode: Manual
  • White balance: Auto
  • Focal distance: 18 mm (~29 mm because of crop sensor)
  • ISO: 100
  • Aperture: f/6.3 – There’s a reason I shot this wide. My lens is the most sharp at f/8.0, but the smaller aperture causes very visible and undesirable sunrays. By opening it up this effect can be minimized. More expensive gear can achieve beautifully looking sunrays, but not mine so  I try to avoid them as much as possible.
  • Shutter speed: I used bracketing at -3.0, 0, 3.0 exposure levels, resulting in 1/400, 1/50, and 1/6 of a second.
  • Focus – I was focused at around 1/3 into the scene

2. Editing

Photo editing is where you define your style.

Give the same photo to three photographers to edit and you’ll end up with three completely different results.

I really like HDR soft (dreamy) style of photos, with some fade in the shadows, so this what we are going to aim for in this photo.

Most of my edits are done in Lightroom and Luminar 4. Sometime I even add some Photoshop into the mix to work on the final touches.

  • HDR

For HDR photo merging I use 2 editors – Lightroom and Aurora HDR 2018. I always try both and go with the better result.

In this case Lightroom did a better job with both, exposing the sun and adding some light to the trees.

[twenty20 img1=”1877″ img2=”1876″ offset=”0.5″ before=”Unedited HDR” after=”Edited HDR”]

The raw HDR doesn’t look impressive at all, it look virtually the same as the middle exposure, but with one key difference – the HDR version gives us more editing wiggle room without introducing noise or clipping the highlights.

  • Basic editing

Basic panel

Still in Lightroom, I applied the lens correction for my camera and lens model, and removed chromatic aberration. 

In the Basic panel I lowered the highlights to get some detail in the sky, and bumped up the shadows – these two setting are basics of creating an HDR photo.

Then, I increased the contrast and lowered the overall exposure.

Just this once I also moved the clarity slider to around 30, because it gave some texture to the wheat field and some backlight to the trees. However, for  the most of my edits I do the opposite – decrease the contrast and clarity, to achieve that dreamy and faded look.

Finally, I decreased the saturation and made up for the loss of colour by increasing the vibrance.

Curves

I created a slight S-curve in RGB panel, lifted the shadows, and decreased the highlights in the blue panel.

Detail

I sharpened the image to around 60 and masked to almost 80.

Read more about sharpening in Lightroom.

Local adjustments

I applied a Radial filter to the trees and selected Luminance mask. I only selected the midtones, to lift their overall exposure, increase contrast, decrease highlights and add some clarity.

With this I got some more backlight to the trees.

I do these 4 edits in Lightroom, because I feel like I have more control over it than in Luminar 4.

This wraps up my edits in Lightroom. 

  • Advanced editing

I exported the image from Lightroom in tif format and imported it into Luminar 4. 

Luminar 4 can work as a plug-in for both Ligthroom and Photoshop, but I prefer manually importing photos – it gives me more flexibility with the unfinished photo.

I highly recommend that you read this article on Luminar 4 and why I think it’s in many aspects better than Lightroom. 

In Luminar 4, I tweaked the colours, and shadows and highlights. I added some softening effect and fade.

Although I usually don’t do that and I kind of condone such photo manipulation, I added some sunrays. However, I do not consider this cheating, since such effect could be achieved naturally with a better camera. With that being said, I only improved on my cameras performance and didn’t really change the scenery – the sunrays were there, my camera just didn’t capture them very-well.

Creating the perfect photo - Luminar 4

  • Final touches

In the last step I imported the photo from Luminar 4 into Photoshop, to do some local adjustments with dodge and burn tools, and add a custom vignette.

I burnt streaks on the field to give them some more depth.

If you pay attention to the trees, you can see that I lightened it slightly, to give it a some backlight effect.

I also added some vignette at the bottom of the photo, to help lead viewers’ eyes into it frame.

Creating the perfect photo Photoshop

Conclusion | Creating the perfect photo Episode #1

Overall, I am happy with the final result.

I was very happy with my shot on the drive home, but as soon as I uploaded it on my computer my joy faded. The photo looked very different from what I’ve seen when I was there. 

Shooting directly into the sun was a mistake here, but this was the only way I found to make this composition work.

Alternatively to this composition, I could get lover and zoomed in a little bit more. I’d probably have to move more to the left in this case and catch a streak on the field leading to the trees.

Another option would be finding a poppy and using it as a front object. I would take two different exposures, one focused onto the poppy, another onto the trees, and focus stack it in the post-processing.

If you like this new Creating the perfect photo tutorial, let me know in the comments. You can also Buy Me Coffee to help me keep doing this.

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