Milky Way over White Pocket

I tend to test new gear before I go on long trips. I can’t say I’ve really caught many problems other than my learning curve, but it just seems like a good idea.

I should have applied the same logic to my camping gear. I really didn’t to open a new tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress at home (because who wants to repack that). Turns out my air mattress had a slow leak. Every three hours, my body was touching the ground. I didn’t mind the rocks so much, but it was about 25 degrees out, and direct contact with rocks at that temperature is really cold! So I didn’t sleep much, but I was pretty alert at 4am when I crawled out of my tent to go take this shot of the Milky Way before dawn.

The Milky Way over Sandstone in the Arizona Landscape

How to Use HSL for Beautiful Sunsets and Avoid Color Banding

There’s nothing like a gorgeous sunrise or sunset full of color… unless your image shows a bunch of horrible color banding in the sky.

The HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) tool in Lightroom and Photoshop is an excellent way to boost the saturation of a colorful sky, but it needs to be used correctly. Simply boosting the color saturation is likely to create artifacts in the sky known as “color banding”.


It’s unlikely that you’d ever create something that horrible without noticing, but it’s a problem even when it is too subtle to notice. Even if it doesn’t show up right away on your monitor, it might easily become more apparent after further processing in Photoshop or when you print the finished image. Or, you might run into it and decide to boost the sky a bit less to avoid the issue, when you could have gotten the color you wanted without banding.

Both Lightroom and Photoshop can run into this problem, and there are good ways to avoid the issue in both programs. While the tools are designed differently, the basic approach is to ensure some inclusion of adjacent colors. Temporarily over-saturing to identify and address any banding is a helpful technique, as issues that are subtle now may turn out to be more problematic after further processing or printing.


How to use HSL in Lightroom and avoid banding:

Lightroom offers 8 color saturation sliders in the the HSL panel. Each one covers a fixed range of colors, and that’s where banding becomes a problem. A colorful sky isn’t just one color, it’s usually a mix of blue, purple, magenta, red, orange, and yellow. Sometimes aqua.  Pretty much everything but green, unless you have a rainbow or storm. So almost any color might be relevant.  Typically, your sky probably has 2-4 colors. To avoid banding, you just need to make sure you adjust all the relevant colors.

When you look at the colors in the sky (or use the targeted adjustment tool to help pick the colors), you’ll probably see 1-2 colors that dominate the image. Those are the key ones to adjust, but you typically need to adjust the adjacent colors a little bit to allow a smooth color transition to avoid banding. So, if your sky is mostly orange (like the example above), you should tweak red and orange as well. When it bleeds deep in to the reds (like the top of the image), you should adjust magenta (red and magenta are adjacent colors, when you hit the top or bottom of the color sliders in Lightroom, you need to mentally jump to the other end of the list).

To identify if banding is an issue in your image, push the color slider you want to adjust to the far right. Go beyond the amount of color you really want, because it is easy to see issues when you push to the extremes. You can then adjust the adjacent sliders until you see no banding and a good balance. This will be oversaturated, but you will know the relative adjustments needed to avoid banding. Now just bring all the sliders down proportionally to get to the saturation you want to see in the image.


How to use HSL in Photoshop and avoid banding:

Photoshop also uses predefined color ranges, but the HSL tool in Photoshop is less prone to banding for a couple of reasons.  First, Photoshop splits the color wheel into 6 colors, so each one is a little more broad. That larger range of adjustment automatically helps minimize banding. Second, Photoshop lets you precisely adjust the color targeting and feathering at the edges of the color selection.

The easiest way to adjust in Photoshop is to use its targeted adjustment tool (hand icon) to click and drag from a color in the middle of the range you wish to adjust.  This will automatically select the right color. Bring up the saturation until the primary color looks a little too saturated, and then tweak the color selection range until you see no banding and a good balance, and then bring down the saturation slider until you achieve the desired saturation.


Ultimately, you can get excellent results and avoid banding with either tool. Photoshop is less likely to create banding when moving a single slider, and the ability to customize the targeting or use layer masks ultimately makes it a more powerful and flexible tool.

The Wizard

Last week I mentioned how the sun can make a powerful focal-point when you have a flat sky. On that same trip to Oregon, I took this sunrise shot of Wizard Island and Crater Lake. I would have loved to get some clouds in here, but you get what you get sometimes and need to make the most of it.

There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to shoot a sunburst image like this. First, be ready to shoot right when the sun is at the edge of the horizon or some other object that partially obscures it. Once the sun is in full view, things are just blown out. The magic moment where the sun is visible, but not too visible, is only about 30-60 seconds most of the time. You can try to get creative by moving the camera, using trees, or other objects you can place to keep moving the sun to the edge of an object. If you work quickly, you might get a few more shots this way.

Second, direct sun is very likely to create flare in your lens. Keeping the lens clean is important to reduce this. It’s the little dust and other impurities on your lens that create most of the flare when a bright light strikes. You can shoot an extra frame with your finger blocking the sun (but as little else as possible) to have an extra frame to blend without the flare. That’s what I did for this image. It’s a great trick, but not foolproof. When you block the sun, the color in the area around the flare may change, and it may be hard to blend convincingly. So, some amount of color work or healing/cloning is often required.

Third, if you want a big sunburst, use a small aperture like f/11, 16, or even 22. Even if you are shooting the image at f/5.6 or 8, you can take an extra frame at a smaller aperture to get the sunburst and blend it into the image. Be creative, when you’re using layers and luminosity masks, anything is possible.

Sunrise Over Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon


I spent a couple of weeks photographing Oregon this summer. I hadn’t really picked the time of the trip, as I was trying to coordinate around a family trip. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but I hadn’t given enough thought to the weather. It turns out Oregon summers are pretty sunny.  Really sunny. Like 10 days in a row without a cloud in sight sunny. Not one cloud.

That’s great for vacation, but it really isn’t ideal for landscape photography. An ideal sunrise or sunset has a mix of sun and clouds. Without both, color in the sky tends to be fairly minimal. Forest fires in the area threw enough particles in the air that there was some color in the cloudless sky, but I still needed to be creative.

There are many ways to deal with a clear sky. One is to minimize it, as I did here by shooting in the forest. It wasn’t a shot I’d planned in advance, but by working with the weather instead of against it, I was able to get a really nice shot when the sky wasn’t fully cooperating.

There are many ways to work with open skies. Another is to shoot the night skies. If the moon is minimal, it’s great opportunity to shoot the Milky Way. If there’s a larger moon, it can make a great backlight or side light.

Another option is to make the sun a strong focal point in the image. The best way to do that in clear skies is to shoot with the sun right at the edge of an object, so that you get a sun star (and not a blown out sun). Try shooting a frame with a small aperture like f/11 or f/16 if you want to really bring out the sunburst.

By shooting around your lighting and weather, and not getting too focused on a specific subject, you’ll get many more great shots with the time you have on your next trip.


Twin Waterfalls cascading through a forest at sunset


End of an Era

It’s easy to take for granted that the giant rock formations we encounter will be around “forever”. After all, they’ve probably been around for centuries, millenia, or longer. But they’re more fragile than you might think.

This photograph shows the famous sea stacks at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park. If you Google it, you’ll found an endless list of this stunning location. But if you go there, you won’t find this seen anymore. The giant stack on the left collapsed.

There are many other examples like this. The Tettegouche arch collapsed, which was famous in my home state of Minnesota. The duckbill rock at Cape Kiwanda was destroyed by vandals. And there are surely many more examples.

If there’s a lesson in all of that, it’s probably to make the most of every moment. Don’t take anything for granted. The sky and waves change by the minute, the vegetation by the day, but your favorite might change next time you visit too. Which is probably what makes landscape photography so great, you’re saving a moment you might not ever experience again.

The Now Destroyed Sea Stacks at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park

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