Always Watch Your Back

By Dan Burkholder Back to


I’m not sure who said it first, but the advice, “When you think you’ve found the best shot, turn around and look behind you” was the wise counsel that left me with a keeper during an early morning shoot in the Catskills.

I’d stopped to photograph a waterfall from a stone bridge when a cloud blew in silently but with amazing swiftness. Suddenly, the friendly upstate New York mountains felt more like a spooky English moor. The mist was so thick that the waterfall below the bridge utterly disappeared in the haze. Thinking that the best shooting for this location was at an end, I meandered back to the car to pack up and travel to another scene. Approaching the car, I turned around to look back at the bridge. Leaping lizards! The scene was completely transformed by the cloud; the atmosphere was filled with depth and intrigue, whereas moments before it had been as routine as cornflakes and nonfat milk. The camera went back on the tripod with a 24–105mm lens providing perfect fine-tuning for the composition.

Back at the studio it was time to build the image step by step, taking whatever liberties were required to add soul and interest to the Raw capture. I never even bothered with the earlier images shot from the bridge.

Working smart

The experts tell us to make as many image adjustments as possible in Adobe CameraRaw (ACR) or Lightroom, and that’s just what I did, tweaking the shadows, highlights, and color as best I could with the controls in ACR. All my friends know I have a terrible fear of commitment (except in the all-important arena of marital bliss) and that fear is nowhere more apparent than in my digital workflow.

Fortunately for those of us working in CS3 or CS4 (or Lightroom 2), we can honor that trepidation by opening our images as Smart Objects, friendly items in our layers panel that let us change our minds—going back to ACR—with nary more than a double-click.

In Figure 2 you can see the bottom layer of my Layers panel (in CS4 the term “palette” has been banished by Adobe). That dog-eared icon in the lower right of the image thumbnail indicates that this layer is a Smart Object.

Creating a Smart Object is quite easy. Figure 3 shows the bottom section of the ACR window. If you want your images to open in Photoshop as Smart Objects (as opposed to old-fashioned pixel layers), click on the Workflow Options button that looks suspiciously like a link in a Web browser (the circled text in Figure 3). It opens the ACR Workflow Options dialog box. Check the Open in Photoshop as Smart Object option as shown in Figure 3.

The neat thing about Smart Objects is that they give you one more way to not commit to your image-editing decisions. Say it again: “a fear of commitment is a good thing.” Should you decide the

ACR processing is not satisfactory, all you do is double-click that Smart Object layer and the Raw image opens again in ACR, where you can make different edits or even crops.

(Note: if you use Lightroom 2 to Open in Photoshop as Smart Object, the behavior might be a little different than expected. The smart objects that originate in Lightroom 2 respond to double-clicks, not by opening the image back in Lightroom 2 but by opening the Raw file in ACR. This behavior will probably change in the future but, if nothing else, it demonstrates the parity between image processing in ACR and Lightroom 2.)

This process is actually easier to do than it is to describe. The important thing to remember about Smart Objects is that you are never more than a double-click away from non- destructively changing your mind.

I did not bracket this scene for high-dynamic-range processing. If anything, this foggy scene was a low- dynamic-range image that was lush in both highlight and shadow detail. Yet if you look closely, you’ll notice in Figure 2 that not only is the base layer a Smart Object, but there is a mask labeled “Smart Filter” and below that is a Smart Filter (that’s what we call filters that can be applied to Smart Objects).

Because I applied the Tone Mapping plug-in ( to this Smart Object, double-clicking the filter opens the Tone Mapping dialog, so it’s easy to choose different settings. Think of Smart Filters as filter-adjustment layers that can be changed easily and that are non- destructive. Double-clicking that Tone Mapping filter results in what you see in Figure 4.

One of the things the Tone Mapping filter can do is judiciously amplify subtle tonal differences. And where might you f ind a plethora of such subtle differences? In fog shots. Yes, I’ve used this trick more than once to accentuate the planes of subject matter as they recede into the misty distance. You really should give it a try (a free, trial version of the plug-in is fully operational though it places a watermark on your image until you register it).

The image was starting to come to life but there were a few intrusive things lurking in the fog that just had to be dealt with. An ugly No Trespassing sign on the foreground tree, a goiter-like electrical transformer on the telephone pole, and one too many power lines disrupted the flow of subject matter. They had to go.

I tackled each of these problems on different layers. Figure 5 shows the three retouching layers and what they contributed.

Adding warmth

I should have known better than to share a JPEG with a talented colleague. Just when I thought I was finished with the image, friend and fellow photographer David Jeffery saw the JPEG and asked, “How would it look if you warmed it up a bit?” Dammit, he was right! It was morning light after all.

Fortunately, the days of trial-and- error are over with digital helpers such as Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3.0 in our holsters. This fun filter pack provides terrific control over color effects for your images. Nik has included lots of pre-configured filters, but you are also free to explore to find your personal best color changes. And once you f ind a color combination you love, you can save it as a preset so it’s easy to reapply to other images. Of course I’d be remiss were I not to mention Nik’s neat U-point technology that lets you control where and how much the effect is applied. In Figure 6, I have limited the golden morning glow to just the foggy area over the bridge itself. Masking in Photoshop would have taken many more steps to get the same effect.

My one and only gripe with Color Efex Pro is that you can’t apply the filter to Smart Objects. Since you can’t bask in the have-no-fear world of modifiable filter effects, you must apply this filter to a layer of—shudder—pixels.

It was a good time to regroup, so I combined all of the “thus-far” visible layers into a new layer that could be filtered. In case you don’t remember from previous articles, the keyboard command (because there isn’t a direct menu item) is Command-Option- Shift-E (PC: Control-Alt-Shift-E).

For the actual print, I use papers from both Museo and Inkpress. Another fine filter from Nik, Sharpener Pro 3.0, has last-step duty for tightening detail with perfect control and precision. As one who loves Epson hardware but loathes their software, Imageprint removes much of the uncertainty from the printing steps, removing frustrating choices such as “Rendering Intent,” and “Black Point Compensation.”

Different workflows

In the world of commercial photography, you won’t pay your bills unless your expose-to-sell ratio is pretty close to 1:1. There just isn’t much money to be made by futzing around in Photoshop for hours (sure, there are exceptions). But in the fine-art world of image creation, the original capture is often only the first building block as the image is crafted to its final printable form. I like to think of it as sculpting with tonality, adding depth and dimension to the image that, let’s face it, is going to be displayed as a two-dimensional object on a wall.

A wise critic once observed that whereas painting is an additive process—starting with a blank canvas and adding compositional elements one by one—photography is subtractive. By choosing camera position, focal length, cropping, and retouching, our decisions try to tame the confusion around us, distilling the image into a message that moves from the print to the viewer.

Photographers have been called hunter-gatherers because of the way we stalk and capture images. But that passion of the hunt can mask awareness of our surroundings. On that chilly morning out in the field, in the midst of your pursuit, one of the most important decisions you can make is to turn around and look right behind you.

Other Changes to Consider for your ACR Workflow Options

Sadly, the default bit depth in ACR is 8-bits. In Figure 3 you’ll notice that I’ve changed my setting to 16-bit so my pixel images—or Smart Objects—open as wonderfully malleable 16-bit files rather than thin, fragile 8-bit images. Also notice that I’ve changed the color space from the default Adobe RGB (1998) to ProPhoto RGB. This last modif ication is of less importance than the change to 16-bit, though increasingly, professionals and serious amateurs are adopting ProPhoto RGB as their standard.

About the Author

Dan Burkholder
Dan Burkholder has been teaching digital imaging workshops for 15 years at venues including The School of the Art Institute, Chicago; The Royal Photographic Society, Madrid, Spain; The International Center of Photography, New York; Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops, Mesilla, NM and many others. Dan’s latest book, The Color of Loss (University of Texas Press, 2008), documents the flooded interiors of post-Katrina New Orleans and is the first coffee table book done entirely using HDR methods. His award-winning book, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing, has become a standard resource in the fineart photography community. Dan’s iPhone images can be seen at: