The above shot shows a bit of Trafalgar Square at twilight, right after a rain shower passed through. One of the towers of the Palace of Westminster is also in view, nicely lit by floodlights. I was coming back from a boat trip to Greenwich, and was walking back to my hotel, when I stopped in the square to enjoy the view. It was the cool blues of twilight, contrasting against the warm tones of the Westminster tower, as well as all of the typical Trafalgar Square hustle and bustle, that caught my eye and made me take the shot.
The shot looks fairly straightforward - and it is - but I actually put a lot of work into processing it. I thought it would be fun to look at the shot as I first saw it on my computer, and take you through the steps I took to get to the finished image you see above.
Above is the shot after I first loaded it onto my laptop and opened it in Adobe's Lightroom application. Yuck. Not very promising. This is normal, tho. I shoot everything in Nikon's NEF format, which is the raw format for their cameras. I do this because raw images provide the most dynamic range and the least amount of compression artifacts, compared to JPEGs, and provide the greatest amount of flexibility for tweaking colors. The downside of shooting in the raw format is that Lightroom doesn't apply any of the camera settings used during the taking of the photo. Camera settings like contrast, and saturation, and sharpening, are ignored. It doesn't help that I also slightly underexposed the shot. Not to worry - what Lightroom taketh, Lightroom also giveth. It provides a host of powerful and flexible tools to massage the image into what you saw when you took the shot.
The first thing I did was adjust the white balance (to get rid of the yucky bluish tint in the original), and fix the exposure. I also cropped away a little bit of the left side of the shot, where workmen had draped a plastic tarp over parts of the leftmost building. White balance, exposure, and cropping, are very basic adjustments in Lightroom, and are usually the first things I tweak. Already the image looks a lot better. But the sky is still way too bright, and I don't like the color of the fountain water. So . . . .
I played with Lightroom's color sliders a bit - darkening blues, adding a bit of saturation to blues and aquas. It helped, but didn't fix the problems I was seeing. So, time for some more aggresive measures.
My next step was to apply a graduated filter to the top of the image to darken the sky. I didn't darken it by much, but even a little darkening improved things considerably. There are still several things that bother me tho. First, the lion on the right of the image, and the tree on the left, are too dark. There's some nice detail there that's getting lost. Second, when I applied the graduated filter to darken the sky, it also darkened the top of the building on the left, so I need to lighten that back up. And finally, I still don't like the look of the water in the fountain.
To fix those things, I used Lightroom's brushes. These are wonderful things, providing an easy way to brush changes onto selected portions of an image. You can use brushes to lighten or darken (in the old days of darkroom work, this is called dodging and burning), sharpen or soften, add or subtract contrast, and add or subtrack saturation. So, I brushed a little exposure boost to the lion and the tree and the top of the building to lighten them, brushed in some saturation and contrast boost to the fountain base to make it stand out a bit more, and brushed on a saturation and vibrance boost to the waters of the fountain. Wallah.
As a final step, I exported the image from Lightroom, and used Adobe's Photoshop to add a little sparkle or pop to the image. This is done in a very non-intuitive way by using the unsharp mask tool. Set the amount to something between 15 and 25, and the radius to 50, and I think you'll be amazed at what this can do to an image. This "trick" is called a mid-tone contrast boost, and when used in moderation can really make an image shine. I tend to be a bit heavy handed with it, unfortunately, as I was in this case. The settings I used really added a nice touch to the foreground and buildings, but have re-brightened the sky, and added a slight "halo" around the clouds.
Am I finished with the shot? Almost. I want to tweak the mid-tone contrast boost by applying it only to the foreground and the buildings, but not the sky, and see how that looks. I may also try to darken the sky a bit more. Also, the top of the fountain (the part right underneath the water outlet) is too dark, compared to the base of the fountain, and needs to be lightened and given a saturation boost. Finally, when I applied the graduated filter to darken the sky, I also inadvertantly darkened the top of the water spray, and need to fix that. I'll post my "final" version in a few days.