The Making Of A Digital Photograph

Below I describe the steps involved in the process of making a print from a digital photograph, or in this case a series of photographs. The idea for this image took shape as I sat in the Wyold Aspen Studio in Saratoga, Wyoming on June 4th and pondered a location for a photo shoot that evening. The cottonwood trees along the Platte River were an unusually vibrant shade of green thanks to a very wet winter and spring, and the river was raging and nearing record-setting flood levels. The forecast called for intermittent thunderstorms, and I hoped to capture the river and the surrounding countryside in dramatic light. After a few hours spent reading local maps and scouting various river access points on Google Earth, I made my decision and headed south to Encampment and east to the Platte River.

After arriving at the scene and visualizing various compositions, I settled on this pleasing view of the Platte River. A 100mm lens, oriented vertically, provided just the right balance of foreground and sky. The fact that this also happens to be my sharpest lens was a nice bonus. After leveling the tripod and setting my camera for manual exposure and focus, I shot 9 frames, each overlapping by approximately one-third. Despite the necessity of waiting several seconds between exposures by virtue of using mirror lock-up, I completed the series as quickly as possible because of the rapidly changing light. A review of the images on the LCD screen immediately after exposing the last shot informed me that each was properly focused and exposed. At this point, I was satisfied that I had captured the information necessary to realize my vision of the scene in the digital darkroom.

The images and descriptions below review the step-by-step process I used to generate a final printed image of this scene.
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I used the Adobe Photoshop CS4 Photomerge tool to stitch the 9 images together into the seamless panorama shown above. This task was handled perfectly by Photoshop, and no artifacts of the stitching process were visible in the composite image. However, the image still needed substantial work. At the time the stitched images were photographed I elected to be liberal in choosing where to begin and end the scene, figuring I could crop with more precision in Photoshop than in the field. The result was an image that seemed too wide and busy. Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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This cropped version removed some distracting elements and was more pleasing to my eye. Satisfied with the crop for now, it was time to move on to address color and contrast. As can be seen, the unedited RAW images that form this panorama are flat in both departments and do not come close to reproducing the actual appearance of this scene. Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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I opened the image in DxO Optics Pro in order to utilize the program's powerful lighting tools. I find the "exposure compensation" and "DxO lighting" tools to be more useful than those found in Photoshop in increasing the luminosity of mid-to-bright tones an image in a realistic manner without blowing out the highlights. Combined with a minor bump in color vibrancy, the result in this case was an image that began to approximate the way this scene appeared to my eye. Still, despite the dramatic improvement I remained somewhat unsatisfied with the darkness of the green foliage relative to the sky. I wanted the trees to glow as they did that night. Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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Next, I opened the image in Photomatix Pro and applied adjustments using the "Details Enhancer" Tone Mapping tool. The result was a more even balance in tonality between the sky and foreground, which provided a subtle but important increase in luminosity, independent of color saturation, of the green hues in the lush vegetation. Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.

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Finally, I returned to Photoshop to utilize its precision in color editing. I made minor adjustments to the yellow, green, and blue hues. I also realized that I found the open field at the far right edge of the image to be distracting, and cropped this portion from the image. The final panoramic image measures 22 x 62 inches @ 240 dpi and makes a beautiful and very sharp print at this size. As shown here, the image also replicates, as closely as my abilities allow, my vision at the time I photographed this scene. There are doubtless other pathways I might have taken in the digital darkroom to arrive at this point, and this page is not meant to be final word on the correct way to process a digital photograph. The scene depicted here required an unusually intensive (for me) degree of post-processing to realize its potential. In my opinion, the ability to make beautiful prints from digital photographs requires as much skill in the digital darkroom as it does with one's camera. Before you raise an eyebrow at that notion, compare the top and bottom images on this page and ask yourself which you would rather have hanging on your living room wall. Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.



Click here to see a larger version of the final processed image.