Achieving the Right Balance

Adjustment layers and cropping prove vital in saving an image

By Michael H. Reichmann Back to


Some photographers regard landscape photography as being more akin to fishing than to hunting. Not I. For me, landscape photography is often a chase; a chase of subject and light, for when they come together to create a special, and usually fleeting and unique, moment.

So it was when I captured the RAW file that became Rainbow Lake. Three other photographers and I had been driving in heavy rain for three days along the eastern coast of Iceland. Seeing no break in the weather we decided to head inland, toward the highlands, hoping to get above the clouds. It wasn’t long before we started to break into brighter light, and as we rounded a curve on a mountain road we saw a rainbow forming over a dark volcanic valley filled with a small lake.

I jammed on the brakes as soon as it was safe to stop. We all jumped out of the car and started shooting hand-held. There was no time for tripods, nor even to change lenses. I shot with what I had on the camera. Within seconds the rainbow faded, the clouds closed in again, and the moment was over.

That evening, looking at the image on my laptop’s screen, I was concerned that the image lacked the magic that my memory held. As so often is the case, the file looked not at all the way that I remembered the scene. The rainbow had appeared more intense, the foreground blacker, and the lake more sparkling. This obviously was the way I wanted it to appear in a print, and so now the task was to use whatever tools and skills I had to get it to look that way.

First, crop

The first steps were cropping the image to taste, in this case something close to a square. I felt that the large expanse of lake to the left third of the frame didn’t contribute anything to the core elements of the picture—the ribbons of river and the rainbow itself. The way I work is to always crop an image before doing almost anything else. I want to see if the framing holds up before spending time on it, and I don’t want to be distracted by what will be extraneous elements when I start working on contrast, tonality, and color.

Once cropped, it became clear to me that the photograph really had several different sections to it, each of which would require specific tonal and color adjustment. This would mean making selections. I used the Magic Wand tool in Photoshop to select the lake and tendrils of river. A tolerance setting of about 30 selected most of what I wanted; just a few clicks with the Shift key held down then picked up any missing pieces. I called up a Levels adjustment layer and moved the Highlight slider inwards to lighten up the water.

The sky and rainbow didn’t present much more of a challenge. Again, the Magic Wand provided a quick means of selecting the entire sky area, including the land and rainbow. There was a large enough contrast differential between these and the dark foreground that little effort was needed to accurately make the selection. A 3-pixel feather on the edge ensured that the blending of the selected and unselected areas would blend naturally.

A gentle hand was needed to get the saturation setting right. Too much and it would be unbelievable; too little and the beauty of the rainbow would be lost. If I’d had the time to add a polarizer when taking the shot, a change to saturation might not have been necessary, but since this was effectively a “drive-by-shooting,” I didn’t have time for a polarizer.

Proof and edit

I made a test print at this point and found that there was too much murky detail in the foreground. It either had to be opened up or darkened. Since there was little of visual interest in the valley other than indistinct volcanic rock I decided to remove it almost completely. Again the Magic Wand made quick work of the selection, and I created another Levels adjustment layer. I found that I had to keep a very slight amount of detail along the ridgeline so that the image didn’t become a total silhouette and thus more of an abstraction than I intended it to be. Beyond this, the image only needed the usual dust spotting and sharpening.

The first time I exhibited this image at a gallery show opening, it was fascinating to listen to the comments. Many viewers found it to be too abstract, and thus unbelievable. Knowing what the scene looked like, and how the camera recorded it, I knew, though, that my interpretation was in fact truer to how we had experienced the scene than the pale rendition that was the RAW file. It certainly turned out to be a controversial photograph, but to my mind one of the most visually exciting that I’ve ever done.

About the Author

Michael H. Reichmann
Michael Reichmann is a contributing editor to Photo Techniques as well as the publisher and primary author of the Luminous Landscape Web site. He has been a professional photographer and educator for some 30 years, and teaches seminars and conducts photographic workshops around the world.