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Stormscape Photography Post-processing Techniques (part 1)
by Mike Umscheid
. . . Introduction . . .
In this article (actually a series of articles), I will share some of the techniques that I have learned and even modified to fit my style in regards to turning RAW images into beautiful photographs. This is geared towards the DSLR shooter and not for point & shoot cameras. There are a number of articles and tutorials on the web on a number of techniques to enhance tonal range and color of a RAW image. Since DSLR is still pretty young with technology really growing fast, there are not a whole lot of articles or tutorials/techniques for stormscape and other weather photography. Mike Hollingshead (www.extremeinstability.com) has excellent tutorials on his website, and it is probably the best, in my opinion, on DSLR post-processing techniques for stormscape photography. Stormscape photography is a very unique genre that is extremely rich in potential for incredible fine art images if done correctly. Stormscape photography requires a number of skills which exceed that of typical landscape photography. You are dealing with an extremely variable subject, whereas for typical landscape photographers, the landscape is pretty much static. So, in order to get repeated results in this genre, you have to "chase" the light. I guess the serious amateur and professional landscape photographer chase the light too, but the prediction of that light is usually a lot easier, so you can anticipate a shot much better.
There are really four categories that good storm images can fall in, in regards to the type of light the image was shot in (when the storm or chaotic sky is the main subject of the image): softlight conditions, frontlight, backlight, and sidelight conditions. All these conditions require a different type of processing in order to achieve desirable final results. Softlight conditions occur when light is diffused evenly throughout the scene, with no real prominent light source direction — and elements of the entire scene fall within a stop or two (or less) of luminosity. This, in my opinion, is the best lighting condition to shoot in. These conditions offer the best photographing situations for any outdoor photography, and the same is true for stormscapes. A majority of my best results are from the softlight. I think any landscape and nature photographer will tell you this. There are really two ways to achieve softlight. The "golden" hour centered around sunrise/sunset and cloudy days. Fortunately for stormscape photography, both conditions happen a lot. The best stormscape scenes tend to occur when the sky is about 80% or greater overcast, such that intense luminosity from the sun is non-existent or very limited. Secondly, the best and most photogenic storms in terms of overall structure tend to occur, climatologically in the Great Plains, in the evening hours around sunset, which is also when light becomes more diffused. In pure softlight conditions, post-processing is very easy, requiring no dynamic range enhancing techniques.
Frontlit conditions are when the main subject of the photograph is illuminated by the primary light source on the front side. The photographer in this case would be between the light source and the main subject. An example of this in storm photography would be a Cumulonimbus cloud looking in the east with the sun in the west. The dymamic range in this kind of light is usually higher, thanks in part to a lot of reflected luminosity from the light colored sky and white clouds. The sky and cloud or storm in this shot would be pretty bright as compared to the ground, and with the lack of high dynamic range in DSLR cameras (as compared to our eyes), these images can be more difficult to process. In strong front light, I will usually process the image in two steps.. one for the foreground and the other for the sky and blend in Paint Shop Pro (PSP).
The third condition, backlighting, is a little more difficult to shoot in. In this case, the main subject lies between the photographer and the primary light source. You can achieve some spectacular effects with backlight, and this includes stormscape and other sky/landscape images. The problem however, is that in backlit conditions, dynamic range is at its highest. Our eyes can adjust to the very high ranges in luminosity in these scenes, however the camera cannot. There are several ways to approach backlit scenes. I like silhouetting foreground elements a lot of times in my frontlit stormscapes, since a majority of the time, the foreground scenery is not all that attractive, or the only item in the foreground is a windmill or something with interesting shape. There are times, however, where an interesting foreground subject presents itself in the backlit scene that you don’t want silhouetted, in which case, dynamic range enhancing techniques must be applied to achieve the re-creation of what our eyes observed.
Finally, sidelighting conditions are those situations where your subject, the light source, and you the photographer are at right angles. These situations can also present the opportunity for beautiful images. Enhanced dynamic range techniques usually need to be applied to images shot in these situations since the stop range of light is pretty high.
In the next several parts of this series, I will go through a step-by-step workflow of how I go about processing for each type of lighting situation. The next part in this series will focus on the techniques and steps I use in processing storm images shot in softlight. These are the easiest and quickest images to post-process, which really requires a minimal effort once you know what you are doing.