It’s time for some real talk about things that may not be real.

Recently I’ve been out taking pictures of landscapes instead of birds, due to the inspirational photography vlogs of Mr. Thomas Heaton. I discovered Thomas Heaton in a round-about way. Our campervan trip in October 2018 was a great success, and we came back interested in getting a van of our own someday. When searching through the many YouTube videos about van conversions you will find one by Mr. Heaton. His van was quite interesting and he’s a very charming, smart, and entertaining person so I watched a few more of his videos and was quickly hooked. I’ve been a shutterbug for a long time, but have never really gotten deeper into it than snapshots. My birding camera is well suited to its purpose, but I’ve only used it in all-automatic mode. Until now. Through the Heaton videos I’ve started exploring manual settings, timed exposures, and post-processing using Lightroom and Photoshop.

A recent video from Thomas Heaton discusses the ways in which he modifies images in “post” – mainly removing distractions such as errant twigs that make their way into the edge of the picture, applying contrast and sharpening and so on. He goes on to show a more dramatic modification of one of his images, and poses questions regarding this distortion of reality. Is there a line that can be crossed where the image is no longer “truthful”. Great question.

I’ve been having a blast using Lightroom and Photoshop with my own images. My good old Lumix FZ-200 can get a reasonably sharp image, but with its small sensor some help is needed to get the most out of the picture. These are early days for me with LR & PS, and no doubt I’m going a bit overboard, but I can’t help it. Too much fun. Now I’m going to walk you through my editing decisions for a picture I took last week. You can let me know if I’ve gone off the beam.


1. Straight out of camera

Straight out of camera photo of Wawona Meadow

This is the image as it looked imported to Lightroom in RAW format.

It is a roadside view of Wawona Meadow in Yosemite National Park, with Wawona Point looming above.

We were in Yosemite just briefly (more on this later) and on our way home I noticed this red willow tree at the edge of the meadow. The contrast of its red/orange branches against the forest and snow covered mountains behind caught my eye, so we pulled over to get this picture.


2. The first edit in Lightroom

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I cropped the image to zoom in a bit on the scene, edging in from the tall trees on the left and right sides, and raising the lower edge to take out that object in the left corner and a few of the stems emerging from the snow. I also added some contrast by raising the whites and lowering the blacks.

I added some highlights as well to bring out the color in the willow tree and brighten up the snow.

The colors as depicted here are pretty close to how it appeared to me in real life.


3. Removing distractions in Photoshop

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I made a whole bunch of changes using the clone/stamp tool in Photoshop to remove elements that I found distracting. The trees on the left and right side are lowered, clearing the view of the mountains. The little patches of snow on the trees behind our main subject were removed. Some of the stems in the foreground that were interfering with willow branches were cleaned up. And some smaller distracting objects along the fence at edge of the meadow were removed while I was at it.

Too much? Possibly. But I had so much fun removing those branches in front of Wawona Point.


4. The Final Image

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I removed a few more distracting stems from the snowy foreground, then tuned the colors using the HSL panel in Lightroom to reduce the saturation of blues and greens and add luminosity to the orange and yellow tones in the willow tree. At this point there’s quite a bit that departs from reality with the removal of real-life tree branches and altering the colors. It wouldn’t have looked exactly like this if you had been there, but from my viewpoint this image gets closer to what struck me about the scene in that moment.

This was a spur-of-the-moment picture taking opportunity, and after the adventure we had that day I’m really happy to have this image as a keepsake. We had planned to stay at Wawona that weekend, but the little community of cabins where we like to stay was without power. They’d had a tough week with heavy snow, and a Winter Storm Warning was slated to take effect at 4pm on the day of our arrival, so our rental was canceled. It was hard to leave. We love Yosemite, and have a special feeling for Wawona having stayed there many times on our own or with our family over the years.

As I spent more time with this image a narrative started to emerge. We have this serene view of the snow-clad meadow, tall pines, and the majestic mountains above, and into the scene wanders this disheveled orange mess of a willow tree, like a punk rocker walking onstage during a performance of the New York Philharmonic. It’s now an important tree to me, and I’ll look for it on our next visit to Yosemite. It could be part of the native plant community waiting in the wings for the opportunity to take over and restore Wawona Meadow and change its appearance from what we have seen.

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