Show and Tell – Barn Burner Vertical

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As they say, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – as so was the 2018 Fall trip to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. And that enemy in our case was Hurricane Micheal. It’s path up the east coast put it squarely over where my shooting partner and I were planning to be. So a detour into Kentucky was quickly planned on the fly so we would be on the outer edges of it’s influence instead of sitting right under it in a downpour for 2 days. The reward for being flexible was an incredible sunset seen here. As we didn’t even have to take more than a dozen steps off the porch of the AirBnB cabin we were staying at to capture it. A win all around.

Date Oct 18, 2018, 05:33:51 PM
Location Elizabethtown, Kentucky
Camera Canon EOS 5DmkIV
Lens Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L IS USM
ISO 200
Exposure 5.0 sec
Aperture f/6.3
Focal Length 24mm
Exposure Program Aperture priority – 3 shot bracket
File Id _MG_4997

The Shot

This had planned to be our ‘down day’ – a mid trip slight pause in the constant go-go-go that is a photography trip. However with the possibility of good skies we also made plans to have an earlier dinner and be back towards the cabin by sunset – just in case. That ‘just in case’ was a good plan because even as Elizabeth and I were driving back the skies were already starting to light up. However, we had not brought the camera gear with us deciding it was safer to leave it back at the cabin. So I pushed the truck down the highway as quickly as the law would allow and made it back just as things were really kicking off. With little time to venture anywhere else, the old barn up the hill from the cabin would have to do as our foreground for this epic sky. Grabbing whatever lens was on the camera and the tripod we both quickly setup before the light was gone.

I took both these vertical compositions as well as a couple horizontal before the light faded away, but it is the taller shot that really shows the shape of the clouds best in my option. Due to the strong backlight conditions, a bracketed set of exposures were necessary to capture full detail from the brightest highlights into the deep shadows of the treeline. For this shot, only two of the three frames were needed to get the full dynamic range needed to create a realistic view of the scene as I remember it.

As far as Aperture and ISO, those two choices were more of a compromise due to the rapidly fading light and the slight breeze that was threatening to soften the treeline and even the grasses up front. Don’t forget, there was the remnants of a hurricane on the not too distance horizon that these clouds were associated with. The Canon 5DmkIV has really nice high-ISO noise abilities, but I still try not to push it up above 400 if I can help it, and would rather focus stack at a slightly lower aperture in case a very large print is needed to be produced. ISO 200, while not the ideal, was still plenty clean to really not even needed any additional noise correction in Lightroom to start.

Lightroom 'Mid' Frame Edit
Lightroom Edit of the 'Mid' exposure frame


The processing of this shot was spurred on by a challenge on my Facebook personal feed during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown of early 2020 (just in case anyone reads this years down the road – that really truly was awful). A local photography friend of mine asked for an ‘Old Barn’ shot so I dug up this previously archived set of images after editing another 3-shot bracket bracket 2018. I started with the ‘mid’ frame, adjusting the white balance and basic toning adjustments in Lightroom along with a bit of Dehze and the ‘Light’ slider in the Tone Curve panel to bring out the depth and detail in the sky that I wanted to start with. These along with the normal adjustments in Lens Corrections and Detail were synced over to the ‘Light’ frame before it was further tweaked with an eye to the foreground shadow recovery and white balance. I loved the deep purples and pinks in the sky, but in the foreground they were overtaking the weathered wood on the barn and the cool tones in the grass as well as treeline.

Moving to Photoshop, the first step was to blend the two exposures together. I usually like blending the brighter foreground into the darker sky shot in shots like this as I find I can usually do a more realistic blend bringing light into dark rather than the other way around. I started with a luminosity mask created with the TK Panel, making a clean selection of the treeline against the much brighter sky. I do this by starting with Lights-1 or Lights-2, then using the ‘Levels’ adjustment on the Panel to make it much more selective towards a pure black and white selection along the transition zone. With that loaded as a selection, I brush in along the treeline with a soft brush set at around 40% opacity and flow. The idea isn’t to get a perfect black-to-white mask here, because that’s often too harsh of a transition right where a very bright sky meets a darker foreground shot. Once I get the transition zone where I like it, I’ll use a gradient set to 100% to fill the rest of the foreground mask to white (on the brighter foreground shot which should be sitting on top).

The rest of the edit consists of contrast, color and eye-focusing adjustments. Starting with a mid-tones mask from the TK Actions panel, I added a levels-adjustment to add more contrast and pop into the midtones, followed by a trip into the Camera RAW filter for additional dehaze just for the sky for yet MORE pop. A cooling Photo Filter was applied to the foreground shadows to further correct for colors in the grass and barn. Finding the barn still a little too dark after the blend, a dodge/burn layer was added, on which I painted a soft cool bright tone to bring up the exposure right over the barn just a touch. Followed by a trip into Color Efex Pro, an add-on suite I’ve yet to fully break myself from all these years later – the Skylight filter especially is just too much magic to let go. So you guessed it, that’s what I used here to bring more warmth and color into the sky. In retrospect, stepping through the layers again today, I should have masked this layer out of the barn some because it turned it more purple/pink again, but I’ll correct that at the end – stay tuned. The following several layers were just more dodge/burn work to focus the eye towards the center and bring out details in the clouds where I wanted them. The TK panel’s masks work wonders for helping focus dodge/burn work to exactly the regions I want them to. Either through the creation of masks on the layers, or by loading selections and then painting through those selections.

Getting towards the finishing touches, I decided it would be a good place to do some spot-healing. I like doing spot healing towards the end for some reason. Logic might say to do it early on in the process, so it doesn’t have to be disposed of and re-done at much cost in time and effort if you need to go back and tweak layers in the middle of your editing later… but that’s just how I tend to roll. After the spot-healing layer I added what I like to call a ‘soft orton’ layer. There are several different styles of Orton effect, and lots of different ways to achieve the results. This is one that was shown to me by Mark Metternich some years back that I still use quite often, sometimes on it’s own, sometimes in conjunction with other techniques. You create a stamp-visible layer (Cntrl+Alt+Shift+E), blur at a fairly high radius – I usually go for around 120px – set the layer to soft light. Depending on your shot, this will probably create a lot more ‘soft’ contrast in the shot, usually too much. Fine tuning the effect I usually: use a levels or curves adjustment to bring up the exposure to create more ‘bright’ glow, use the all-powerful Blend-If layer blending options to remove the soft-light effect from the darks (split the top Blend-if slider using the Cntrl key and pull both sections up the slider to where it starts looking good. The gap between the two sections of the arrow is the ‘feather’ zone – the wider this feather the more gradual the effect comes and goes. Move these around to get the shadows from getting too dark but still enrich the overall contrast to your liking. Finally, if it’s overall too strong – either use the opacity of the layer or a mask to further refine its strength.

That’s where I had finished the first time I did this edit yesterday morning for the edit-request. However, this morning, after sitting down to write this article, I realized the foreground was still too magenta/red/warm toned. This was corrected with a Color Balance adjustment layer. Utilizing mostly the Mid-tones sliders I corrected the color toning I didn’t like in the foreground, ignoring what they were doing to the sky. I flipped the mask to black (black-hides, white-reveals) then painted in the effect back into the foreground where I wanted it to the strength I wanted it using a soft brush set to 50/50 opacity and fill. Just because I still couldn’t leave well enough alone, another levels and dodge/burn layer were applied to further refine the exposure balance to keep the eye going where I wanted it to.


Wrap up

I hope you enjoyed this walk through of ‘Barn Burner – Vertical’ the 2020 edition edit. If there is a style of photo that you’d like me to do as a Show and Tell article, or a specific shot from my portfolio you’d like to see dissected and explained in detail, please reach out to me and let me know. I’m attempting to get back to writing new articles while the whole world is on this lock-down. I’m also processing new work weekly so keep eye out for those new images.

If you want to learn more about specific techniques used in this image, I do offer online tutorials – and will be going back to also offering in-person tutorials and workshops in the future as well.

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