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Finding the Photo in the Cruft

Gear Talk
Nikon D800

Nikon D800

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the power of software to bring out something interesting in images that might otherwise be a wash, but wouldn’t you know it, I’m still capable of being amazed.

I’m currently shooting with the Nikon D800 of late as part of an assignment (more to come on that later), and I was up in the hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay Area at night, hoping to get some shots of the brilliantly-lit vista that encompassed San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and parts of the Peninsula area.

Of course, I got up there, and everything was completely fogged in.

The original image, straight out of camera. 70-200mm VRII at 200mm, f/16, 30 seconds.

The original image, straight out of camera. 70-200mm VRII at 200mm, f/16, 30 seconds.

I was miffed. Even the slight glimpse of the city in the background behind the Bay Bridge was mostly obscured by fog.

I was ready to pass up on the image, finding not much of value, but then decided to play with it a bit.

Since I had megapixels to spare (the D800 has a 36MP sensor), I decided to crop the heck out of it.

Original image, cropped. No other adjustments made yet.

Original image, cropped. No other adjustments made yet.

Okay, That was kind of cool, and it was still a 22MP image. But it was still just a fog-blurred image. I decided to see what Lightroom 4 could do with it.

Image with Lightroom adjustments.

Image with Lightroom adjustments.

Well, okay, that’s not half-bad. Exposure bump by +0.30, highlights lowered by -16, +48 on Clarity and +51 on Vibrance. Not half-bad at all.

I didn’t want to stop there. If Lightroom could bring that much life back into this image, what could I do with one of my favorite software packages, Color Efex Pro 4 from Nik Software.

I added a little bit of the Detail Extractor filter in Color Efex Pro 4 over the buildings and the bridge, then applied a film effect (Kodak Portra 160, I believe) to the entire image. Once it was back in Lightroom, I used a custom brush over the buildings and bridge with the following settings:

  • Contrast: 60
  • Highlights: -27
  • Clarity: 100
  • Sharpness: 25

Which led to the image below:

The final image, with Lightroom and Nik Color Efex Pro 4 adjustments.

The final image, with Lightroom and Nik Color Efex Pro 4 adjustments.

I like this image. The film grain layer laid down over the image in Color Efex Pro 4 will, I think, render beautifully when I print this baby (I’m planning to make a 36″-wide print with it), and the detail will come out nicely.

Original vs finished.

Original vs finished.

Looking at the comparison between the original, out of camera image, and what I ended up with is a pretty decent reminder of just how powerful the tools we have at our disposal are. I didn’t need to warp, clone, or do anything that required advanced Photoshop skills, to get an image I really dig out of what I had, at least initially, dismissed as a reject.

So pull up an old image that you never bothered to work on and play around with it it in Aperture or Lightroom or your image editor of choice. You may be surprised at what you come up with!

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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  • […] Note: This already happened. Sohail’s “Finding the Photo in the Cruft” article which was written after he wrote this piece but posted before this one, used an […]

  • Stephanie R. says:

    amazing pic. I’ve been drooling over the 800 for a bit now, and this is just making me want it more!

  • Charles Hunter says:

    The original image is great as it is.

  • Christine says:

    I agree – the original image is pretty cool too. Funny … what’s a reject to one photographer is a huge hit with another one. I love the fog. It makes it eerie, ethereal and just neat. Growing up in Colorado I didn’t get to see fog. One thing I LOVE about the bay area, and the coast in general.

    Good job on the edits. Really does show how powerful digital photography is.

  • christine says:

    where’s your favorite place to get a good nightscape of the SF skyline? Or the bay bridge? Also … did you get a shot of the new bay bridge yet?

  • Hi Christine,

    My favorite place to get a photo of the skyline is on Treasure Island. It’s the perfect spot, IMHO. Haven’t gotten a shot of the new Bay Bridge yet, but our own Joe Ercoli has, here:

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