In this post I’ll show, step by step, how I prepared the “Grand Canyon Light Show” pic for print. Above is the final version.
1. Below the RAW file: the “Digital Negative” downloaded directly from the camera; it’s an uncropped 36 mpx file. I was very lucky that I’ve got a pic with a perfect exposure like that. By taking a night picture with lightning, the exposure is always a guess, because the strength and placement of the lightning cannot be forseen.
RAW files, unlike jpg’s, are not enhanced in the camera and cannot be used directly as an image. Because they carry a huge amount more data than a jpeg of the same dimension, they offer much greater editing capacity.
More about the RAW format at Wikipedia
White Balance defines the color tones on the file. Generally a cold white balance setting is used for night photographs; however, when a landscape is so much illuminated by lightning, a white balance setting in the camera is tricky. In the edit I chose a warmer color tone, which shows the day colors on those places.
White balance is easily adjusted using the Photoshop plugin Camera Raw. Because we don’t see colors at night, this is up to the photographer’s interpretation. It’s all about showing the whole atmosphere.
3. Noise Check
The Nikon D800 is terrific for shooting night photos, producing very little noise, even with a 25 second exposure. On this image I decided not to do any noise reduction as it would wash detail from the image.
There are a few more steps to take in “Camera Raw” before opening it in Photoshop:
6. Adjusting Contrast and the Blacks and Whites to give the image the greatest Dynamic Range
7. Eliminating Chromatic Aberration. Note the before and after versions.
11. And now it’s time for a local touchup: Eliminating a vertical lightning reflection, which the camera sensor projected onto the rock in the foreground.
This touchup is done (very carefully) using the Burn tool in Photoshop. With this tool I can keep the structure intact rather than copy structure from other areas, such as when using the Clone Stamp Tool.
Photographing lightning at night is tricky, but fortunately, this picture—right from the RAW—had an almost perfect exposure. Sometimes lightening is so bright a shot can be overexposed, and sometimes it is just the opposite, but this time I got it just right.
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: Nikon 24x85mm 2.8-4 D at 24mm, f/8, 25sec, ISO 400
Software: Photoshop CC with Camera Raw 8.2 and Nik Color Efex Pro 4