Adding atmosphere to a sandstorm

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Extreme weather makes for powerful memories, but that doesn’t mean your photographs will necessarily convey the excitement of the moment. In this tutorial, you’ll see how I added sunlight and contrast not only to make the image more visually stunning, but also to help make the blowing sand clouds stand out to help convey just how powerful the wind was. You’ll also learn a very simple trick to make perfect masks for adding light to an image.

A 40MPH wind storm was generating substantial clouds from these sand dunes. The amount of fine dust in the air was unreal. I changed lenses from inside my car and taped a plastic bag around my camera to avoid ruining it. There was so much dust in my ears by the end of the shoot that I was still cleaning them out 3 days later. The visibility was rather poor, as you can see from the distant mountains just barely peaking out of the dust clouds, so I chose a wide angle lens to help capture clear details in the foreground to compare to the blowing sand. At the same time, the light was also flat and created a very low contrast RAW image which fails to convey a sense of the wind because the blowing sand and rigid dunes aren’t clearly differentiated. This is where enhancing the sense of sunlight in post helped truly bring the image to life.

The general processing here uses a mix of techniques I teach in much greater depth in my Exposure Blending and Dodging & Burning Master Courses. The key here was to generate a sense of sunlight and then reveal the glowing air with a radial gradient and across the sand highlights using a midtones luminosity mask.

Gradients are a great way to help reveal anything that looks like sunlight or some other light source. However, getting the perfect gradient can be a little finicky. You’ll often want to squish or rotate a radial gradient to create an angled oval and then move it into place – but transforming and moving the mask will often leave you with a gradient with a clipped edge. The problem is that you cannot paint anything outside what you can view in the mask, but there’s a simple workaround. When you need an oval-shaped gradient mask, the following workflow will help you get perfect results quickly and easily:

  1. Add a radial gradient by dragging from the center of the mask to the closest edge. This should leave you with a round white gradient which is fully black before touching any edges. You may have clipped edges if you dragged to the corner or a further edge, or didn’t drag from the center. If you want to start from the exact center, show rulers and change them to percentages so you can target 50/50 on the rulers as you move your cursor. If you have any clipping, start over. It’s important to get this step right. Once you do, you’ll be able to move this gradient outside the edges of the mask without clipping (the clipping only occurs at the moment you’re painting if some of the paint goes outside the image canvas).
  2. Click <cmd/ctrl>-T to transform. You’ll see a box around your gradient (Photoshop creates the smallest rectangle which includes all non-black pixels in the mask, which makes it easy to transform and confirm that you’re gradient did not get clipped at the edge).
  3. Click and drag from inside the gradient to move its center to be placed at the center of the light source you wish to create or enhance in your image. This might be just off the edge if you’re enhancing sunlight or something else where the source is not in the image.
  4. <alt/option>-click and drag the edge or corner points to squish or elongate the the gradient into an oval shape. This modifier key will ensure the center point does not move as you change the shape of the gradient.
  5. Click and drag from outside the corner points to rotate the oval to get the angle of light you desire.
  6. Click <enter> to finalize the changes.
  7. You can come back and make changes anytime by repeating steps 2-6. Your oval will not become clipped as long as you did step #1 originally. You can even paint further on the mask, however that will make further resizing much more complicated. So it’s best to duplicate the layer and use a separate layer mask if you need to reveal more of the layer and do not wish to lose the ability to revise the gradient.
Greg Benz Photography