Tools that I have used for this image:
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Canon 70-200mm f/4
- Adobe Camera Raw
- Adobe Photoshop
This image was taken when I was travelling in Tuscany, the wine county of Italy. I have visited San Gimignano the day before and was really impressed by the grandeur of this medieval town, which is sitting on top of a hill. I went back to the hotel and started doing some research to find a location for my photo trip the next morning. I found there is a road that leads up to the hills opposite, overlooking the majestic San Gimignano. The image that I had in mind was San Gimignano being lit at sunrise, with the beautiful hills as the backdrop.
I got up early the next morning before sunrise (really challenging after a night of good food and fine wine!), took the car and drove to the location I had planned. The road up the hill was not paved, bumpy and to be honest, a little scary as it was narrow and steep. I realised the sun was rising so I quickly find a place to stop the car and started shooting. The colour and the light were perfect but the vineyard in the foreground was a bit messy and uninteresting as you can see in the image below.
I snapped a handful of images at this location, walking up and down each time in search for a better frame. About 15 minutes later, I knew I wasn’t going to get any better images here and the sun was already above the horizon. I remembered there was another road that leads up the opposite side, which might have a better view. I managed to get across the other side of the hill with one hand driving and the other navigating MAPS.ME. It was a dirt road east of San Gimignano. The view was much better and I snapped more images along the way.
Before I left, I saw the hills opposite San Gimignano buried in mist and the sun was on the far right, casting a warm light over the hills with beautiful shadows. As a bonus, there was a hot air balloon! I knew this was my shot.
A big mistake I did on the day was forgetting to bring my tripod. So all my images that morning were shot handheld. I bracketed this image at -2EV, 0EV and +2EV. +2EV was too bright so I didn’t think it was necessary to use it in post-processing because the other 2 images have sufficiently covered the dynamic range of the contrast. Both images were shot at f/14, ISO 160 with focal length at 200mm. -2EV at 1/500 sec and 0EV at 1/125 sec.
My initial plan was to blend both together with luminosity masks. After inspecting the tonality, I was very tempted to try single RAW processing with -2EV because there was no highlights or shadows clipping. I thought I could recover the details in the shadows in Adobe Camera Raw. In fact, I thought I could do the same with 0EV too, but I decided to use -2EV.
I did some basic adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw to increase the exposure and recover the details in the shadows while trying to maintain the contrast. I have also added orange to the highlights and a tinge of blue to the shadows with split toning. I also checked the box for lens and chromatic aberration correction.
As you can see, it was already looking pretty good. But we can’t just stop here! I wanted to enhance the colour of the sky a bit more and bring out the highlights in the foreground. I also wanted to enhance the layers of hills in the background. The whole image at this stage needed some general contrast enhancement to make it pop.
I duplicated the background layer and converted it to smart object (this way, any filter adjustment applied will still be editable). I opened Topaz Clarity plugin and picked a filter that boosted the contrast to my preference. If you are not familiar with Topaz, it offers several plugins for Photoshop that you can use to denoise, convert to black and white, boost contrast, colour and etc in one simple click. In this image, it gave the contrast it needed to look more alive.
I was really happy with the image at this stage until I zoomed in to inspect the mist in the background. There was quite a bit of noise. Although it may not be visible on the computer screen without zooming in, I should still fix it (I might decide to print large someday, who knows?). I used Topaz DeNoise and it did a good job.
Now that my obsessive need for detail was satisfied, I can continue to do what I needed to do 🙂 The next thing I did was to bring some colour to the highlights in the foreground. The light from the morning sun had brightened up part of the grass on the slope of the hill. It still looked a bit dull despite Topaz Clarity filter. To do this selectively, I loaded my luminosity masks and chose a bright mask that gives a good selection of the foreground highlights. Before I choose the selection, I added a hue/saturation adjustment layer, increase the saturation just below the point of clipping and added a black layer mask to conceal everything. Then, I selected the bright mask by cmd/ctrl + click on the luminosity mask, go back to the layers panel and clicked on the black layer mask applied to the hue/saturation adjustment layer. I used the brush tool, set hardness to 0 and opacity to 30% and painted over the foreground to bring out the colour more.
I started applying sharpening at this point because I thought I was almost done (but I wasn’t…). I only wanted to sharpen the foreground and leave the hills and the mist in the background as it is. So I applied a high pass filter and applied a layer mask to mask out the background.
I thought about what else I could do to make the image more attractive, to have more impact. My eyes were soon drawn to the mist in the background and it could do with a bit of more contrast especially on the left side. There are several ways that I could have done this: contrast adjustment layer or levels and applying a layer mask to localise the changes to the left. I chose dodge and burn instead because I can have more control over the adjustments without being restricted by the adjustment slider. I created a new layer, filled it with 50% grey and changed the blending mode to soft light. I then used a black brush to burn and a white brush to dodge. I set the hardness to 0 and changed the opacity to 20% and applied several passes to the mist to enhance the contrast gradually.
Before the last step, I wanted to enhance that beautiful orange colour in the sky. There are a few ways to do it and I think it is just the matter of preference. The easiest way is to apply a photo filter adjustment layer. Alternatively, you can also paint orange onto the sky with the brush tool, increase the vibrance or even saturation. I chose the simplest way, that is a photo filter adjustment layer. Instead of a filter, I picked a darker orange (#d58900) and set the density to 25%. I could have pushed the density higher, but I prefer a more subdued effect for this image. You can also experiment with the blending mode to achieve a different effect. For this image, I kept the blending mode to normal.
Lastly (finally!), I wanted to brighten up the highlights, especially the ones in the foreground that is most obvious to the viewer. None of the bright luminosity masks targeted those areas only, so I had to create a custom mask. Before I do that, I added a curves adjustment layer and click on its layer mask. To create a custom mask, go to Select > Color Range. Use the eyedropper tool to click on the highlights on the foreground and make sure you choose grayscale on the selection preview. I decreased the fuzziness to about 40 so that only the highlights are in white (picture below).
Now that we have our custom layer mask, I raised the curve to brighten up the highlights, making it stand out even more.
You can see that the post-processing is actually not very complex. A few contrast and colour adjustments improved this image significantly. I’m sure there are other ways (or even better ways) to post-process this image and someone else might do it differently. What I have showed you is how I did it and I hope you have enjoyed and learnt something. I think the post-processing for this image is straightforward because we already have a good image to start with after adjustment in Adobe Camera Raw (particularly the split toning that brought out the colour of the image).
Thank you so much and I really appreciate you stopping by and reading until the end. Do leave a comment if you would processed this differently. Critiques are welcome 🙂