Photoshop Workflow - Tupelo Tree Swamp

This blog entry is about photo editing and post-processing workflow. Let's begin at the beginning. What was my vision when I took this photo? The reflections of the tupelo trees stood out to me. I loved the contrast between trees and sky, and I particularly liked the strong vertical shapes. That’s why I took the shot in a vertical orientation rather than horizontal. The other part of the scene that attracted me was the very small tree. It stood out in the sun light and to emphasize it more, I moved my position so the small tree would land squarely in front of the large tree trunk. I then composed the image by placing the small tree in the upper third corner, using the rule of thirds.

Once I examined the image on my computer screen, I began to strategize my workflow as I envisioned the final image. Before bringing the image into Photoshop, I performed a couple minor edits in Camera Raw - tweak the white balance to give the image a warmer tone and remove luminance noise (that which comes with a high ISO setting). Now I was ready to edit.

Step 1. Remove distractions. I cropped out a small portion of the top, left and right side of the frame. This gave the reflections greater real estate within the frame and removed some of the very bright areas. Below is the cropped version.

The remaining steps were performed non-destructively using layers, and selectively by applying masks to each layer. You can see all the layers that were applied to the image in the screen shot below. The workflow begins at the bottom with the original file titled 'background'.

To help me create the layer masks, I use Tony Kuypers TK7 panels as shown here.

The panel looks overwhelming, but the part I use most is circled in red. These are luminosity masks and are created from brights, darks and midtones of the image. Luminosity masks allow me to precisely and subtlety edit selected areas of the image while not interfering with the non-selected areas. These are very powerful tools and you can learn more about them here. Below is an example of a luminosity mask created from the bright areas of the image. The parts that appear white are the bright areas that can be edited, while the black or dark areas are masked and therefore, remain unaffected.

Step 2. Continue removing distractions. First, I duplicated the background layer, as seen in the screen shot below.

Next, I used “Content Aware” and the healing brush to remove several distracting spots in the water and some branches. Take a look at the two close ups below. The first one is before and the second is after.

Step 3. Emphasize the vertical shapes of the tree reflections. I thought the zig zagging of the reflections from the water motion made the scene look too busy and took away from the bold vertical design. To fix this, I added motion blur to the water. This is the same effect as a long exposure (shutter speed 1 sec or longer), which I was unable to do because I was in a boat. First, I created a duplicate layer and added a smart filter as shown in the screen shot below.

Next, I brought up the motion blur filter and oriented it vertically and adjusted the amount of blur (distance), as shown in the next screen shot. Because I was using a smart filter, I could go back and change the blur at any time.

Next, I added a gradient mask to the layer, as shown in the next screen shot below. The gradient mask allowed me to apply the motion blur only to the water reflections.

Step 4. Place more emphasis on the small tree. Here, I applied TK panel’s vignette and spotlight masks as seen in the screen shot below. The vignette mask darkens the outside areas, while the spotlight lightens a selected area. I selected the small tree for the spotlight. By adding both these masks, it highlights the tree, giving the image a stronger focal point.

Step 5. Add contrast in some areas, reduce contrast in others. This is probably the most subtle of the edits. I created several TK luminosity masks and applied each to a layer, as shown in the screenshot below. Within each layer, I used the brush to lighten (dodge) and darken (burn) certain areas. For example, I brightened the sky reflection in the water and darkened the trees and sky in the top portion of the image.

Step 6. Add a little pop to the image. See the screen shot below. Here, I created a saturation adjustment layer and applied saturation to blue and cyan. Next, I added a vibrance adjustment layer and applied another gradient mask so that vibrance would apply to the reflections only and not the top portion of the image.

Here is the final image.

If you are overwhelmed by all these editing techniques, here are some bottom line messages to help you process the information. Think of the following as raw materials from which you can build your editing knowledge and skills.

  1. To apply effective edits to your images, it is essential to shoot in RAW format. A RAW file can be edited effectively, a compressed JPEG file cannot.
  2. Layers are non-destructive edits. Remember, layers do not alter the original image which will always stay intact. You can change, hide, delete, mask, or duplicate layers as needed.
  3. Cropping is a destructive edit. Quite often, I do all my edits prior to cropping and I also save the edited and uncropped image. I crop before editing only if I am 100% certain about what I want cropped out.
  4. Masking allows selective editing. The more refined the mask, the more selective you will be and therefore, the more effective your edits will be. Global edits may work occasionally, but mostly they are not ideal.
  5. There is no limit to the number of layers you can apply to an image file. The only drawback is the increase in file size. This is a small price to pay for non-destructive editing. And of course, you want to save that file with all its layers and masks.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop layers and masks, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at