I spent nearly two weeks photographing Oregon this past summer. I didn’t really bother to check the typical seasonal weather, as I was already going to be in the area. That was a mistake. Probably every Oregon summer is not like this, but there were cloudless skies for 10 days straight. Nothing. A lot of tourists would say that’s amazing. But as a photographer, that’s a nightmare second only to texture-less gray skies.
So you adapt. Shoot night skies, since a clear night sky is perfect for the Milky Way. Shoot in forests, where the sky wasn’t part of the image. And get creative with the sunsets.
There was enough color in the clear sunset sky to make things work, so long as the image included only a bit of sky above the horizon. The yellow/orange/red/purple gradient colors after the sun goes down can be amazing if you wait for the right moment. Selecting a watery foreground and long exposure allowed created a smooth mirror of color around my main subject and give it just enough interest to make it work.
It’s always important to do your homework to ensure good odds for ideal conditions. But work with what you’ve got. With a little creativity, you can usually turn around a less promising situation.
Looking for a way to bring back more color in your RAW files? A way that’s easy, looks natural, and has no banding? There’s a way, and it’s built right into Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW. It’s a bit of a secret and a hack. It’s called “camera calibration“.
Camera calibration is of course intended to do just that, help calibrate your camera. But it’s also an EXCELLENT tool for extracting more color from your photos.
The basic process is incredibly simple. Increase the saturation sliders found under red, green, and blue. Those saturation sliders are the key to the process, and really the only thing you need to know to get a lot of use out of Camera Calibration.
You might expect they only target those colors, but they tend to have a fairly broad impact. That’s what helps keep the result natural looking and avoids banding. Of course, each one has a different result. It can be somewhat difficult to predict, so the best approach is to simply try each slider.
Typically, the red slider is the most important for improving sunrise and sunset color. Green tends to help yellow tones. Increase each one until you see the result you are seeing. Be sure to look closely at small areas of saturated color, such as near the sun, to avoid overdoing it.
Blue can also be very useful, but is probably the one where the most caution is needed. It is very easy to over-saturate blue in the sky, especially near the top or corners of the sky above the sun. An overly rich blue can quickly ruin the sky. If you find the blue slider is helpful in other colors, you can increase blue saturation and use an offsetting decrease of saturation in blue/aqua in the HSL panel.
In addition to the saturation sliders, you might wish to try changing the profile from the default “Adobe Standard” to Camera Vivid. This increases saturation, but also makes shadows very dark. You will likely need to increase shadows and/or blacks in the Basic panel to compensate. There are other profiles, but I’ve never found them to be useful (the Camera Landscape profile tends to be too dark). In fact, most images should stick with Adobe Standard. They saturation sliders are the way to go.
In addition to boosting color with the techniques above, Camera Calibration can also be used to change color. This isn’t something to use often, but it can be helpful to make adjustments.
To adjust colors, use the hue sliders found under red, green, and blue. You can make an orange sunset seem more red by decreasing red/blue or increasing the green hue. Or make yellow leaves appear more green by increasing green/blue or decreasing the red hue. Experimentation is key. Take care to use small amounts.
There is also a slider for shadow tint, to push your dark tones more green or purple. They can be helpful in a few niche scenarios, but this is a slider that most photographers can safely ignore.
A quick note on Process Version
Note that Camera Calibration has a “Process Version” choice at the top. I recommend setting this to the latest (version 4), unless you are working with an old image and don’t want to bother tweaking the Basic tonal sliders. Version 1 and 2 are old, and have inferior highlight/shadow recovery, as well as a less capable clarity slider. Version 3 and 4 are essentially identical, with Version 4 adding the new “range masks”. They are so similar, that Lightroom will allow you to use Range Masks when using Version 3, and will automatically update the image to Version 4 if you use the range masks.
I shot nearly this same sandstone composition in the black and white tutorial I posted recently. Though the images are largely similar (other than the clouds vs clear sky), the effect of color gives them very different moods.
The black and white emphasizes the harsh texture of the rock, and the subtle cool tone of that image emphasizes the imposing nature of the scene. Which reflected my mood after my camera smashed on those rocks right after I took that image.
The color image was taken a bit later, when I’d calmed down and was in a more contemplative mood. The bright yellow sunset draws the viewer’s eyes through the image into the distance, rather than dwelling on the rocks.
When you consider how you want to process your images, try to consider the mood you wish to convey, rather just what will “look good”. There’s no right or wrong, both of these images are great. But they have very different emotional impact.
A lot of photographers have questions about file formats, color space, and bit depth. Who wouldn’t? The list of choices is overwhelming. It isn’t the sexiest topic in photography, but it’s critical to get it right. And it can be overwhelming trying to figure it all out. There are endless options. Thankfully, there are only a few that matter.
There are a few scenarios to consider. The most important is your “working” files. This is the file process, and should be saved in a high-quality format. The other scenario is output. These files may be simpler, and often converted to a color space appropriate for the web or print.
When you take your image beyond the RAW processing stage, you need to make a critical decision about what file format and settings to use. The most important choice is bit depth and color space. Getting either one wrong can result in loss of image quality.
Your working file should always be 16-bit (unless you are working on an HDR image, in which case it would be 32-bit in Photoshop). The number of bits determine how smooth the transition is from one tone or color to the next. 8-bit is fine initially, but as you manipulate the image, the differences become more pronounced. Working in 16-bits protects you from problems like posterization or banding in clear skies. (Note that 8-bits tools are perfectly fine for luminosity masks and selections, it is only the image pixels that benefit from 16-bits).
Color space is essentially the computer’s vocabulary for color. As a photographer, your work is almost certainly going to be in sRGB, Adobe RGB, or ProPhoto RGB. There are literally dozens (or hundreds) of books on this topic. But it boils down to this: sRGB is like using the vocabulary of a 5 year old, whereas AdobeRGB uses adult words, and ProPhoto RGB is like listening to a best-selling author tell a story. For your working/layered files, I recommend using ProPhoto RGB. It is so big enough to describe all the colors that can be created by the very best monitors and printers available. Adobe RGB is also a fine choice, but some high end printers have a larger gamut. One could make the argument to use a niche color space called eciRGB v2 (part of the European Color Initiative), but if you have any clue what that means, you don’t need to keep reading this article. Be sure to always check the option to “embed color profile” when saving.
And finally, we need to choose the file format. There are only two that photographers need to know about: TIFF and PSB (also known as “Photoshop Big” and listed as “Large Document Format” in Photoshop). TIFF is an excellent choice because it can save all the information in your layered files, is widely compatible with most photography software, and supports files up to 4GB. I strongly recommend TIFF over PSD (which is not the same as PSB), because PSD offers no more compatibility/features and is limited to 2GB file sizes. When saving as a TIFF, you will be prompted with several choices. The only ones you should worry about are the image and layer compression settings. If you want to save files as quickly as possible, use None and RLE. If you want to make your files as small as possible, use ZIP for both (or at least ZIP for the layer compression, as that’s where you’ll save the most file size).
PSB offers a couple of advantages over TIFF. It supports files of nearly any size (if you hit the limit, email me, I want to know what crazy project you’re working on). And it can create smaller files if you to to Preferences/File Handling and set “maximize PSD and PSB file compatibility” to NEVER. When compatibility is on, a flattened copy of the image is saved in the PSB file. If you work in Lightroom, you’ll need to use ALWAYS, as LR uses the flattened layer in the file. Note that Bridge works fine with NEVER. The main downside to PSB is that it is not yet supported by Lightroom.
If support for PSB were added to Lightroom, I would stop using TIF entirely. The 4GB limit is something I run into probably 25% of the time, so it’s a real problem when you work with layered or high-resolution images. Just creating a flattened file for a 40×60″ 300dpi print and converting it to a Smart Object for sharpening will blow past the 4GB limit. With high-resolution camera, blended exposures, and layer masks, it is already common to hit the limit without resizing the image.
8-bits is ideal for sharing on the web. The benefit of 16-bits is really only during editing (except for some high-end niche monitors), and JPG only supports 8-bits anyway. But this should always be the last step. The 8-bit file should be saved separately from your working file. Never convert your working file to 8-bits.
sRGB does not have nearly the color detail of ProPhoto. As a result, you can get out of gamut colors and other color problems. In an ideal world, we’d all just use a larger gamut like ProPhoto all the time, but many web browsers and computers are not properly designed to understand anything other than sRGB. So when you are sharing your document on the web or over email, convert the image to sRGB. But only do this for the exported image. Never convert your working file to sRGB.
The main file format for photographers is JPG. It creates vastly smaller file sizes that look indistinguishable from the working file. However, JPG does not support transparency. If you are cutting out a product or subject from a background and want to use transparency, save the image as a PNG.