In landscape photography, we are often presented with many challenges when capturing high dynamic range scenes. Shooting into the sun is the focus of this Photoshop technique, and it can be used when the sun creates an ugly blown out spot on the horizon. I often find myself shooting into the sun, and I use this technique to make the “sun-spot” more pleasing. This technique is quite subtle when viewing your final image, but it is sometimes the small things that make all the difference. Although possible to capture a good exposure of the sun by severely underexposing, I find it more pleasing in an image when the sun is slightly blown out. Naturally, the sun appears that way to the human eye except when it is very dusty for example. So to recap, I like a very bright sun-spot, but one that is diffused and not harsh.
Lets start out by showing you an unprocessed RAW file of the example photograph i’ve chosen to better explain exactly what I do.
And a 100% close-up view,
Initially, you may think that working with the RAW convertor can assist in bringing back detail in that blown out area. Although this may work in a few situations, most of the time it does not. I don’t like the effect that the RAW convertor creates when applying minus whites and minus highlights to the sun-spot area. The oversaturated yellow band created below the sun and almost grey appearance to the whites is what I don’t like.
In my opinion, the best approach is to not work those very bright areas at all in the RAW convertor. I prefer to slightly diffuse those areas in Photoshop. I guess this technique takes a few extra steps in Photoshop to fix, but I prefer the effect it gives. Although some readers may view this technique as manipulation, I only use it to fix those ugly blown out areas, those that detract from the overall impact of a photograph and soften the effect of the sun.
In the following steps, I use a Luminosity Mask action created by Tony Kuyper, which you can freely download from Tony’s website. Download the action here.
The first step is to open your RAW file in Photoshop as a smart object. Reasons why I use smart objects in Photoshop are explained in my video tutorial series here.
I have not added any RAW adjustments to the photograph, which will allow direct comparison of the Photoshop technique to the ugly effect created by the minus whites and minus highlights in the example above.
The first step to starting your sun-spot fix, is to open your Tony Kuyper luminosity actions and run the “Lights” action.
The “lights” action will create 5 lights channels into the channels panel, these are different masks of varying light values. For the technique used to diffuse the sun-spot, we are going to use “Lights-4″.
Lights-4 will make a selection of only the very brightest parts of the image, namely the sun area and bright sky adjacent to the sun. Here is what the Lights-4 mask looks like.
Everything that appears white or off-grey will be used to create our sun diffusion. It’s quite a harsh area of the image, and a slight diffusion will soften that sun-spot and create a more pleasing effect.
Once you have run your “Lights” action, go into the channels panel, and while holding CMD (on a Mac) or CTRL (on a PC) click onto the Lights-4 channel to create a selection. You will see “marching ants” as they are called or the selection lines appear around the selection.
Once you have created your selection, go back to your layers panel and make sure to select the layer containing your whole photograph, in my case just the smart object. If you have multiple layers, you will need to create a “merge visible” layer on the top of your layer stack before creating your selection. What we need is a pixel layer of your entire image. To make a merge visible layer, select your top layer, and press Shift+Alt+Cmd+E (On a Mac) and Shift+Alt+Cntrl+E (On a PC) and you will notice a new layer on top which combines all the layers below into 1 layer. This is the layer you need to select. So with your Lights-4 selection active, you then need to create a new layer via copy. What this does is duplicates the information selected with that Lights-4 selection into a new layer.
This will create a new layer, which I have chosen to name “Sun Diffusion”.
Essentially what we are going to do next, is slightly blur out the details contained in this new sun-diffusion layer, and to do this make sure your sun-diffusion layer is selected and go into the filter menu and select Gaussian Blur. We are going to use a radius setting of around 20px.
I choose to lower the opacity of the sun diffusion layer to 75% right away, but change the opacity to a setting you feel is correct. You are looking for a balance between the original image and the diffusion layer. Lets take a look at the 100% crops of the before and after application of the sun diffusion layer. Hover over the image with your mouse to see the before/after comparison. Wait a few seconds for the image to load once your mouse is over the image below.
As you can see, the very brightest highlights are slightly blurred, getting rid of that blown out ugliness. As a comparison, see below for the image showing a minus white and minus highlight RAW adjustment and hover over the image with your mouse to see the sun diffusion technique applied.
The image containing just the RAW adjustments appears darker, but the sun area contains those ugly effects I don’t like. Leaving your highlights as they were without RAW adjustments and then applying the sun diffusion technique creates a naturally bright but softer effect around the sun (this is the natural appearance of the sun to the human eye). I use this technique quite a lot in my workflow, and under my “processing ethics” in landscape photography, this technique is perfectly acceptable to use if kept subtle.
Once you apply the sun-diffusion technique, if other brighter areas are affected and you don’t want them to be, simply apply a layer mask to the sun-diffusion layer and mask away the unwanted areas using a black brush or gradient.
If you wish to ask me a question about this tutorial, please post your question in the comments section below, and we can start the discussion for everyone else to read.
If you want to improve your processing skills on your landscape photographs, please check out my “Landscape Photograph Development” video tutorial series here, where I explain my entire workflow from start to end, including advanced blending and other techniques just like this one described above.