High Key Black and White

Colorado, USA

I love converting to black and white – and I really love the high key look. This shot is from Marble, Colorado. I brightened the whole scene when I converted to black and white – except for the dark patterns on the bark. The result is a simple composition that showcases patterns and lines. If you want to see the original, color image, check out my tutorial on thinking before you shoot.

Here are a few tips for converting to Black and White:

1. Keep your composition simple. Complicated compositions can make confusing black and white photographs.

2. Think about how you can make sure that your point of interest will stand out from the rest of the image. You won’t be able to rely on the pop of color… so pay attention to tonal differences, lighting, and contrast of pattern and form.

3. Think outside the box. There are lots of ways to draw attention to the most important element in the frame. In this case, I made my foreground stand out by contrasting the sharply focused tree in the foreground with very soft focus behind.

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Aspen on Marble

Marble, Colorado (CO), USA

Can you see the fractal patterns on the leaves?

I often overlook little things like this. As landscape photographer, I prefer wide vistas and dramatic light – but tiny landscapes like these are just a fascinating. When I looked at this leaf, I didn’t notice its individual veins, but a 180mm Macro opened up another world entirely.

This is a focus stacked image. Working with a macro lens means my depth of field is very limited. I used my Live View focusing mechanism and took a few shots to ensure that every part of the photo was in focus. Later, I combined those photos in Photoshop. Do the dew drops appear 3-dimensional? I used my jacket and camera bag to produce shadows so those droplets stand out against the flat surface of the leaf.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rock Mountain National Park, Colorado (CO), USA

Map: Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is home to a variety of ecosystems. The wetlands areas includes some 150 lakes and 450 miles of streams. Above the wetlands, you’ll find fragile alpine tundra. The climate here is too harsh for most trees, but nestled close to the ground is a dense carpet of plants. Life persists even in this extreme environments. If you visit the park, be sure to drive the Trail Ridge Road. You’ll get a closer look at this alpine tundra – and some breathtaking views from the top of the world.

For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park check out the US National Park Website.

This location provided a stunning foreground for my photograph, and the distant cloud cover was perfectly lit by the setting sun. I created this single-exposure image with a soft GND filter. I used layers and masks in Photoshop to make targeted adjustments that helped bring out the details and textures in the image.

The Coming Storm

Rock Mountain National Park, Colorado (CO), USA

I love storm light. On our first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, we got our share of storms. As we hiked up to the falls, we could see this storm forming just a few miles away. By the time we got down to our car the storm was almost upon us.

This image required manual blending because of the extreme range of light. The clouds were lit by the sun, and the storm clouds and foreground were completely in shade. I used our iHDR manual Blending workflow to keep the image looking natural. I used the river as a leading line.



When I was a kid, I lived in Moscow, ID – my parents taught at the University of Idaho. From any window in our house, we could see the Rocky Mountains in the distance – and they became a symbol of home for me. When I was very small, I believed that the Rockies were so named because they rocked back and forth like my mother’s rocking chair. I had never seen them move – but it didn’t seem impossible. (I also believed that the Snake River was named for a giant snake that lived in the middle – I even saw it once… though it was really just a very strong current that twisted like a serpent at a bend in the river.) It wasn’t until I was seven or so that I realized that the Rockies were… well… rocky. Hence the signs along every mountain roadside that read – “Watch for Falling Rocks.”

And so, I am a lover of mountains – and also a lover of afternoon thunderstorms. So, this shot makes me happy. I took this shot in the Colorado Rockies near Aspen. A thunderstorm was rolling in, and I wanted to capture the drama of shadow and light on the clouds, and the juxtaposition of lofty mountain and heavy sky. I used Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 to convert the image the black and white.


Twin Lake Storm

Twin Lakes, Colorado (CO), USA

While driving to our destination in Aspen Colorado, we took the scenic route through the Twin Lakes region. As we stood there photographing this little spot, clouds started to move in – within 10 minutes, the blue skies were all but covered up by dark clouds.

This is a manually blended image created from 3 bracketed shots using out iHDR workflow. The dynamic range of this photo was extreme, and the horizon was not level – so a graduated neutral density filter was out of the question. I chose to place complementary colors close together to make those brilliant trees stand out. I used a 4-stop neutral density filter and a circular polarizer to slow down the shutter speed.

The Road Less Traveled

Marble, Colorado (CO), USA

We went wandering on roads less traveled on our last trip to Colorado – and found ourselves in this beautiful place. We saw only a couple of cars during the two or three hours we spent wandering. The fall colors were spectacular in this area.

This is a pretty simple exposure on a day with overcast skies. We had partly overcast skies, so I waited for the sun to go behind the clouds before I took the shot. I chose this composition to avoid the sky and other uninteresting elements. I used the road as a leading line to lead the viewers through the image.

Twin Lakes, Colorado (CO), USA

The Storm at Twin Lakes

I love going to Colorado in the Fall. This time, we ran head on into a nice, big storm. This system created alternating periods of rain and calm, and provided us with an opportunity to capture fall colors under some great weather conditions. The aspens in this shot glowed gold from the soft light coming from behind me as the dark heavy rain clouds gathered in the distance.

I filled the frame with complementary colors: blue and yellow. In order to do this, I tried to avoid distracting objects in my frame. Because the horizon was uneven, I could not effectively use a GND filter, so I bracketed the shots and combined them using manual blending (iHDR workflow) in Photoshop.

The Coming Storm

A Complicated Blend: The Coming Storm

Sometimes, I can finish post-production work in just a few minutes… and sometimes, it takes a lot longer. This shot from Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado was a real challenge. Let me see if I can give you an idea of what made it difficult, and how I handled the processing. First, taking this shot was an amazing experience. We watched this storm coming toward us for a short time, and then grabbed our cameras and headed out to get a few shots. The first thing that caught my eye were the colors. The brilliant golden leaves were a perfect compliment to the deep blue tones in the approaching storm. I wanted to capture that juxtaposition – and also capture the chaos in the sky. I chose a simple composition – ignoring the lake behind the trees and choosing a single peak to minimize distractions. I took several shots, waiting for a moment when the skies were full of textures.

Because the leaves were moving in the high winds, I knew I would need to capture the entire dynamic range with a single exposure. If I couldn’t do that, I would end up with a “ghosting” effect as I worked on a blend. If I could process a single image twice – once for the leaves in the foreground and once for the background – I would get a much cleaner blend. Because the skies were heavily overcast, I was able to get the shot I needed.

As the storm blew closer, I could hear the rain falling on the water of the lake – getting closer and closer. As the first drops fell on my camera, I packed up and headed back to the car – just in time. We both love storms, so we watched the rain for a while, and then continued on our way.

The first step in post, was to process the image for the leaves in the foreground and then again for the background. You can see those two images below.

I processed the image once for the leaves…

…and once again for the background.

Then, I created a mask using the color selection tool to isolate the yellow leaves on the lighter layer. The blend sounds simple enough… but moving leaves can be difficult to deal with – even when you are processing a single image twice for a blend. The problem is that some leaves are moving more than others. So, some are slightly blurred, some are completely blurred, and others are sharp. When I make a color selection, I feather it slightly for a smoother blend. The problem is that the selection needs more feathering in areas that are more blurred, and less feathering in sharper areas. That’s a tough problem when you are dealing with thousands of leaves.

I blended the images in Photoshop using our manual iHDR techniques.

Of course, there are lots of different ways I could have solved the problem in Photoshop – some easier than others. But there was no quick fix this time. I tried several different methods for refining my mask – from isolating and subtracting the blue channel to creating a soft light layer and using a targeted luminosity mask to capture those edges. I even converted the image to the ProPhoto color space so I could create a smoother luminosity mask for a cleaner transition in high contrast areas. The problem was worst where the branches reached above the horizon into the sky, so I used a mask to target that area on another layer.

Here are the layers I used for blending. Notice that I also used curves layers to bring out some contrast in the background layer, and to bring back the blue tones I remembered from being on location.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied. In the end, I decided to work on a pixel-by-pixel basis. I zoomed in close, and used the Precision Mode option on my Wacom Intuos 5 tablet to work on those tiny details. I made very slight adjustments to the mask for the foreground trees layer – painting on the mask itself. I went back and forth between my black and white brushes, changing the size of the brushes with the touch ring as I went.

Leaves at 100% – before mask refinement. Can you see the dark lines around some of the leaves?

Finished leaves at 100% – shadows on the leaves, and similar tones in the background made masking difficult. I used Precision Mode on my Wacom tablet to clean up my mask for a clean finish.

Of course, I didn’t make adjustments to every single leaf. I targeted those that seemed distracting and took a few extra minutes in those areas. Post-production for this shot took more than an hour – though some of that time was spent experimenting with techniques that didn’t work. You can see the finished image at the top of this post. What do you think?

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Maroon Bells, Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado (CO), USA

Outdoor Photography – Being Flexible

We plan our landscape photography outings so that we maximize our chances of getting the best weather patterns and the right seasons. But things don’t always go according to the plan. Experience has taught us to be flexible and open to new ideas.

I first visited Maroon Bells in 2007. I used an interesting root structure beneath the surface of the lake as a foreground object in the photo above. Five years later, in 2012, we returned to the lake again. This time, we discovered that the lake had shrunk dramatically because of a long summer drought. It no longer reached the grassy shores we remembered from our previous trip. Instead, the lake was surrounded by mud and rotting wood. The brilliantly colored moss that was growing under water in 2007  had died off. Here’s a shot of the same roots I photographed five years ago. The difference is stark.

Though the banks of the lake were uninspiring, I still felt that there was incredibly beauty to be captured in this place. I focused my attention on the creek and the mountains behind me. I waited until the clouds were lit up by the evening light and captured the photo below less than 50 yards from the roots in the first two shots.

I was able to come away with a photo that I like because I was willing to be flexible and look for alternative shots. So next time you are faced with unexpected conditions, don’t give up.

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