Salvaging a Shot, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photoshop

When I was in New Mexico, my Father-in-Law asked me to take a picture of his old Ford Pickup.  He's proud of that thing, and wanted something to display on his wall.

Now, I don't take those kinds of requests lightly.  I wanted to give him the best shot I could.  I'm not a very confident photographer at all, but I know I wanted to give the Truck a suitable setting, and I wanted some killer lighting.  A few miles down a rural road from their house, there's this old Catholic church.  I thought it was a good thing to park the truck in front of for the shot.

I suggested about 6:30 pm, hoping to catch the "Golden Hour", when the low sun produces an almost heavenly golden glow on everything.

When we got there, I realized I made a rookie mistake.  The front of the church faces the East, so at 6:30 pm the sun is basically behind the church.  I had to shoot toward the sun, more or less.  Not only that, but my Father-in-Law didn't exactly appreciate the "process" of making a good shot.  I was knealing, studying the composition, frantically dialing in different settings on my camera.

After about 2 minutes, he says "well, you think you have enough shots?"

"WHAT?"  I hadn't even really taken a shot.  Everything I took was blowing out the church too brightly and basically making the truck a silhouette.  So, I settled for a good composition (not exactly easy with the spot I chose), and took as many different exposures as I could, hoping to salvage it once I got back.

Going through my photos, I wasn't very happy with what I got.  I found the sharpest one with the best angle, and here is what it looks like, the RAW file without anything applied to it, just a slight crop and re-angle (click for a larger size):

This shot is passable.  The truck may be correctly exposed, but the church is overexposed.  The colors are a little washed out (this seems to be par for most RAW images without processing).  Not to mention the unfortunate powerlines and flagpole in the shot.  But, it's what I had.

The first thing (and usually the only thing) I do is take it into Adobe RAW and tweak with exposure, fill light, contrast, etc., until I get it to the correct level I want.  Then I bump up the clarity, vibrance and saturation to a level that is better.  Here is what I got (again, click for larger):

TThis single step is only possible because the image was taken in RAW.  So much image data is thrown away by the camera if you shoot in JPEG.  With Adobe RAW you can adjust dozens of different things, basically peeling back layers, bringing out the data that you want for your image.  At this point, nothing in this picture is anything that wasn't captured by the camera.

My next goal was to get rid of the powerlines and flagpole.  Since They were mostly overlapping the sky, it was pretty easy to get rid of them.  Just a lot of healing brush and clone tool.

At this point it's looking about where I want it, but I took a few more minutes, playing with levels, contrast, saturation, etc.  I wanted to desaturate the sky and church a tad and put a warm filter over everything to give it a little "old school" feel.  This is the final shot. 

I'm going to print it out and have it frame, as a present for my Father-in-Law.  I hope he likes it!

This just goes to show you how much of a great image relies on what you do after the camera has captured the data.  The RAW image from the camera is just that: raw.  It's up to you to figure out what story you want your image to tell.