How I Got The Shot: Desert Road
Article from Digital Photography School
Some exposure situations become difficult to handle in-camera without a little post processing later on. A perfect example is this shot of a desert road in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, that I took a week or so ago. There was no moon, which made it a great night for capturing the stars, but an awful night for capturing the road surface in the foreground.
First, I needed an exposure for the stars. I started with my usual base exposure for that, 15 seconds, ISO 800, f/1.4. That gave me exactly what I wanted on the stars, but the foreground was too dark. I was prepared for this, having brought an LED flashlight with me to “paint” the foreground. So, during the next 15 second exposure, I held the flashlight on for five seconds, shining it indirectly down the road. I did not aim it straight at the road, I simply aimed it down the road, allowing the light to skim along the road. This avoided any hot spots. The 5 second exposure with the flashlight was the result of some experimentation with time. The entire 15 seconds created overexposure on the foreground, so I scaled it back to 5 seconds, and was pretty happy with that.
I always shoot RAW when shooting landscapes. There are several reasons for that, but one of the biggest for me is that I can adjust my white balance for creative purposes in post processing. As you can see, if I tried to adjust for the sky, correcting that yellow cast that came from the glow of a distant city, the road became a deep blue area. But if I corrected for the road, the sky became this garish orange.
There are two ways this could have been fixed. The first one could have been done in camera. By taking a color correction gel, commonly called a CTO gel (Color to Orange), I could have warmed up the light on the road and then as I adjusted the white balance for the sky, the road would have fallen into place. However, I did not have a CTO gel handy. So I made the adjustments in Photoshop ACR.
When I adjust the white balance like this, during RAW processing, I tend to avoid the presets such as “Daylight” or “Shadow” or “Tungsten”. I find I have much finer control by using the color temperature slider, which allows me very fine control over the color tone of the image. I opened the file in Adobe Camera Raw, and adjusted the white balance for the sky, as shown above on the left, to 3000K. Then I opened that image in Photoshop. I then reopened the image in ACR, and adjusted the white balance again, but this time for the road, as shown above on the right, to 5400K. I then duplicated the layer of the properly white balanced road, onto the layer with the properly white balanced sky. I created a layer mask on the top layer, of the road, and masked out the orange sky, allowing the blue sky to show through. The distant mountains silhouetted against the sky gave a perfect delineation for the layer mask, making it an easy blend. After I got the layers the way I wanted them, I simply flattened them, did a few saturation and contrast adjustments, and had my final image.