Night photography post-processing: A Warm Car on a Cool Night

RAW Conversion Comparison -- Photo by David Dasinger

RAW Conversion Comparison — Photo by David Dasinger

During the second afternoon of last week’s Pearsonville Night Photography and Light Painting Workshop, Troy Paiva and I critiqued 4 images from each participant — our goal was to help everyone make better photos the second night. Seeing all of the amazing work from the first night before shooting again was really inspiring. A lot of the photographers have uploaded images to the Pearsonville Workshop Flickr Group, and Troy and I have provided some further comments online.

During last Fall’s workshop, I offered to make a 16×20″ print of the image that Troy and I decided was our favorite from the first night. The winning shot was by Aaron Siladi, and the print is now hanging on his wall. Last week we upped the ante by providing a 16×20″ print and a Hostess Chocodile. I thought the Chocodile was extinct, but the Fastrip in Ridgecrest still has ‘em (although they no longer feature the Chauncey the Chocodile mascot I remember from my youth).

Anyhow, the image above by photographer David Dasinger was the Chocodile (and print) winner this time. David’s well placed addition of light to the underside of the hood was an extremely creative move that really brings out shape and texture of this mashed up beauty. Here’s a few words from David about how he lit the image:

Kept it super simple. 2 minute exposure, f/5.6, Stinger flashlight, just held it facing up under the hood crease and gave it about a 30 degree arc. The Stinger is so bright it was very quick. This one was about all that moonlight and the crinkly hood.

While working on the print over the last few days, I asked David if I could use his image as a split-conversion post-processing example and he agreed. Above are two different interpretations of the RAW file using the Virtual Copy feature in Lightroom. The warm version on the left is has a color balance of 4450K, and the cool version on the right is 3250K. I really like the orange against blue motif on the car in the warm version, but prefer the deep cyan sky of the cool version. Why not have the best of both worlds? Below is a step-by-step of how I combined the two versions of the file to make a print:

Quick Selection Tool Sky Masking -- Photo by David Dasinger

Quick Selection Tool Sky Masking — Photo by David Dasinger

  1. Bring both versions of the file into a Photoshop CS3 file, with the cool version as the top Layer.
  2. Use the Quick Selection Tool to select the sky (screenshot above), and use the Refine Edge tool to slightly feather the selection.
  3. Select the Channels palette, and click the “front loading washer” to make an Alpha Channel out of the selection.
  4. Go back to the Layers palette, select the top layer (cool version), and click the “front loading washer” to load the Alpha Channel as a Layer Mask.
  5. The opacity of the top layer to was reduced to 50% to have the sky look saturated but realistic (see version 1 below) . The reduced opacity and feathered mask selection are both useful ensuring a smooth transition from sky to ground.
Crumpled Blue -- by David Dasinger

Crumpled Blue — by David Dasinger

After dialing in the sky and foreground balance, I flattened the file, converted to the ICC profile of my printing service, and sharpened for output. The sky and the hood looked great in the first print, but the sand in the foreground was a little too orange, and the tonal value of the car’s front grill needed to be slightly brighter. I made a few quick adjustments to the master file as follows:

  1. Add a Curves Layer, increase the Green in the 3/4 tones — on the Layer Mask, paint in the effect in on the ground using a soft brush at a low opacity.
  2. Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, slightly reduce the Saturation of Red and Yellow — on the Layer Mask, paint in the effect in on the ground using a soft brush at a low opacity.
  3. Play with the opacity of both Adjustment Layers until the foreground looks right.
  4. Add a Curves Layer to increase the brightness of the grill and engine area — on the Layer Mask, paint in the effect using a soft brush at a low opacity.

If you are intimidated by Layer Masks, I highly recommend Katrin Eismann’s book Photoshop Masking & Compositing.

By neutralizing the ground just slightly, and bringing out the 3/4 tones on the front grill and engine compartment, more attention is focused on our main subject, the car. This effect is subtle on the web, but makes a big difference in a 16×20″ print. Going back and doing a second or third round of adjustments on a print until it looks right is a great learning experience, and an important part of finishing the work. Below is the final image.

Crumpled Blue (final version) -- by David Dasinger

Crumpled Blue (final version) — by David Dasinger

Many thanks to David Dasinger for allowing me to use his beautiful image for this post-processing demo. And thanks to all of the workshop participants for their spirit of adventure and creativity — Chocodiles for everyone, I am still dreaming of cars!

13 thoughts on “Night photography post-processing: A Warm Car on a Cool Night”

  1. Joe,

    Very good step-by-step of the layering and masking process. I hope this encourages more people to take the leap and learn how to use mask layers. I admit that I resisted it for years. But about one year ago someone came by my cubicle every morning nagging and nagging about all the neat things he could do with them. And he was right.

    (Thank, Dmitry)


  2. Joe – I hope lightning doesn’t strike me on the spot for saying this (because I am emphatically opposed to what-I-would-have-done “advice”) but …

    I would have “corrected” the part of the bumper with the reflection of the sky to make it match the color of the sky. To my eyes and sensibilities, it now seems radically out of whack with the rest of the picture.

    And, ImO, doing so would lend added emphasis to the warmth of the hood interior by framing it with the cool blue top and bottom.

    That’s it. You’ll have to excuse me now while I go find a place to ground myself.

  3. Andy – thanks! Layer masks are one of the most useful tools for me in the Photoshop arsenal.

    Mark – Appreciate the input – no grounding equipment required! I’m going to go back to the master file and try adjusting the color temperature of the bumper to be slightly cooler on the side that reflects the sky. The mix of cool moonlight (sky), with the sodium vapor streetlight and warm flashlight is definitely complex enough to allow for the car to read as warm on the left and cooler on the right. Worth a try!

  4. Great article and I appreciate all the TLC with the file. There are different ways to deal with the mixed color temperatures in these images and I thought this was a novel approach and I do like the results, as well as your previous example with the firetruck. This provides me with much food for thought as I review other images with even more extreme mixed lighting, especially those with a lot of sodium vapor.
    I’ve also been getting into layer masks lately instead of just stacking layers and erasing sections to get composites. The finer control over the layer blending yields much more harmonious results, IMHO.

  5. Thanks for the tips Joe! Simple, effective, and as a new convert to the digital night much appreciated info! Got the Katrin book and look forward to really processing the images from Pearsonville! Also, kudos to David for this killer shot and out of the box/under the hood lighting technique!

  6. David – glad the article was useful, and that you’re experimenting with mixed lighting conversions and masks. Taming the sodium vapor is a challenge. Worked out pretty well in this shot.

    Gabriel – Out of the box/under the hood indeed. Katrin’s book is excellent, too.

  7. Yep, very comprehensive, and similar to the way I do my own masking. I choose to ‘commit’ and actually clip away the areas I don’t want, rather than using the whole alpha channel thing, but conceptually, it’s the same thing.

    I will say, however, that I rarely mix varied color temps of the same RAW file into one final image because you can fall into traps like the aforementioned bumper reflection not matching the sky. Personally, I like the all 3200K version, because I like that monochrome blue quality.

  8. After Mark’s comment I went back to the master file and did some eye dropper sample points on the bumper. The area of the bumper that points down matches the sand well, and blends with the highlights on the right headlight and grill from the sodium vapor source. The part of the bumper that is pointing up is about 20 points more blue than red/green, which are even. So the part of the bumper that’s pointing up has a cool blue color balance. A deep cyan sky is typically 35-40 points more blue than red/green. The math checks out — the bumper works against the sky for me by the numbers and by feel. Of course I can’t account for monitor variances, or personal taste. If I wasn’t doing a split conversion I’d also go on the cool side, but more like 3500-3800K.

  9. Wow- another great in depth analysis. I have some work from the yard I’ll try this technique on. I agree with Troy about the coolness of the moonlight but the warmer image really brings out the hood and is very pleasing to look at. You don’t realize how blue the right one is until you compare to the left. I’d be perfectly happy with either one of these images.

  10. Great minds think alike Joe, I just did a similar thing for my Trona Vacant (Factory Row) image. I think I need that book though cause I have no idea about alpha channels … I guess I just did a stack like David mentioned. Great to see your techniques in detail.

    So sheeit that print was an award ? I recall no mention of an award … maybe that was when I was late to class? I thought it was just an act of kindness from of the bottom of your heart. Well, free Toronado night is still on even though I see I rightfully earned it now. . .

  11. Tim – glad you dig it. If I didn’t do a split conversion, I would’ve set this to 3500-3800K, and used the HSL sliders to play with the blue and cyans in the sky, and orange under the hood (similar to the fire engine example from a few days ago).

    Aaron – the award wasn’t formalized until the second workshop, so you can still chalk it up to kindness. Yeah, it’s time to hoist a few soon.

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