Story & photos by F. M. Kearney
A few years ago, I went to the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire to capture the fall colors. I booked the trip weeks in advance, scheduled for mid-September – figuring that should be around the peak period in that part of the country. It was my first time visiting the New England area, so I was really anxious to witness and photograph its legendary color display. As fate would have it, I arrived about a week too soon. The photo above, shot along the Saco River in Bartlett, NH, was representative of the amount of color (or lack thereof) I was greeted with. Although the scenery was quite beautiful, the colors were nowhere near as vivid as what I was expecting.
When I got back home, I turned to Photoshop to see how I might improve my images. In the past, I had gotten terrific results using a special blur filter, called the Gaussian Blur. This filter adds a beautiful glow to your image, while also increasing its color saturation. It can be applied locally to selected areas, or globally – affecting the entire image. For my purposes, I chose the latter. Below is the opening photo with the Gaussian Blur technique applied.
Unfortunately, this filter alone will not produce the effect you see here. In fact, simply applying it to your image will only result in a blurry image. It’s definitely not a one-click solution to a perfect photo. Hence, the reason why I use the word “technique” instead of “filter.” To achieve optimum results, a considerable amount of prep is necessary, but the end results are well worth the effort.
To start off, I create a “high-key” image in the Camera Raw software. I lighten the exposure, highlights and whites; while reducing the contrast, shadows and blacks. Once I bring it into Photoshop, I copy the image by duplicating the layer. I then open a Levels Adjustment Layer and lighten the image even more. (I’ll explain the reason for all of this lightening in a second.) Next, I click on the background copy and apply the filter: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Duplicating the layers is what prevents you from ending up with a blurry image. The blur is only applied to the background copy, while the original background remains sharp – creating an overall, soft glow. The amount of radius (blur) to apply is subjective, but I find that a single-digit setting for small files and a 20+ setting for larger files generally works well. My files are over 200mb, so I usually choose a setting between 34 and 36. I then make sure that the Opacity, located with the Layers panel, is set to 100% and select “Multiply” as the blending mode. This is why I lighten the image so much. The Multiple mode drastically increases the contrast and saturation. When I first started using the Gaussian Blur, I would only apply it to images taken on cloudy days. The high-contrast levels I got with this blending mode were consistently blocking up my shadow details. I could have chosen other modes, but they didn’t produce quite the same type of effect. The excessive over-lightening solved that problem. However, if you don’t experience these issues, you can probably skip the lightening step in Camera Raw. Finally, I return to the Levels layer and adjust the exposure to my liking. In most cases, the image will still need a bit of fine-tuning. After some selective burning and dodging and a desaturation of some of the more overly vivid colors, the image is finally complete. If you absolutely hate doing a lot of digital editing, a much easier workaround would be to simply increase the color saturation globally, or of specific colors. However, the overall tone won’t be as rich, and of course, you won’t get that nice, soft glow.
The Gaussian Blur technique doesn’t just come in handy during the off-peak periods. Last year, I photographed the fall colors at their peak in Wolfe’s Pond Park, in Staten Island, NY. The image above on the left is the finished, original photo. On the right, is the photo with the technique applied. Since the colors didn’t really need that much enhancing, I spent most of my time desaturating them afterwards. But the technique still produced a much richer-looking image overall.
While shooting in that same park, I came across a more wooded area where the colors were a bit past-peak. I could have used the Gaussian Blur technique here as well, but in this case, it wouldn’t have produced the effect I wanted. What initially attracted me to the scene was the abundance of tall trees receding into the background. Staten Island, the most rural of the five boroughs, is one of the few places within the confines of New York City where you can see scenes like this. I wanted to emphasize, not only the trees, but also the dwindling amount of foliage remaining. The photo below conveys what I saw, but not necessarily what I envisioned.
In order to emphasize the trees, I turned to another one of Photoshop’s blur filters, called the Motion Blur: Filter>Blur>Motion blur. Before applying it I, once again, duplicated the layer. The Motion Blur is defaulted to apply the blur at a 90-degree angle, which is exactly what I wanted for this image. If that doesn’t suit your needs, you can change the angle to whatever you want. I then selected the “Distance,” which determines the amount of blur. My image was now completely blurred with a vertical streak. This emphasized the trees, but did nothing for the foliage. But, because I duplicated the layer, I could now remove the effect from select portions of the image. I applied a layer mask to the background copy and selected the brush tool. With the foreground color set to black, I could now “paint” back in the foliage in selected locations. (If I go too far and remove too much blur, I can paint it back in by setting the foreground color to white.) All of this is completely customizable by adjusting the Opacity and Flow amounts. The photo below represents my vision of the scene.
Sometimes, you might be faced with a situation of great color in one area, but hardly any other significant color around it. You could, of course, just zoom in on it and call it a day. However, tight closeups can’t convey a “sense of place.” If the place is especially grand, you might want to show more of it than just a little snippet – which could have been shot anywhere.
The image above is another scene from the White Mountains National Forest. Unlike the opening photo, a significant amount of color is localized right in the center of the frame. Rather than trying to enhance what little color there was surrounding it, I decided to go in a totally different direction.
Rendering everything else as a greyscale really made the color stand out – sort of like when a bride deliberately chooses the most hideous bridesmaids dresses in creation in order to make herself look better by comparison. But, unlike an insecure bride’s intentions, this method produces an almost fine-art version of the scene. It also gives the illusion that the entire area was awash with color. That can just be your little secret!
This effect is very easy to do. I just made a selection of the patch of color (including the reflection in the river) and inversed the selection. This selects everything but the color patch. I then converted the image to greyscale: Image>Adjustments>Black & White. Lastly, I inversed the selection again to reselect the patch, then slightly increased the overall color saturation. Also, when making a selection like this, when the intended effect will be drastic, it’s important to feather the selection with the Refine Edge tool. This will prevent a visible transition edge.
So, if you’re faced with less than stellar color this autumn… don’t despair. Using techniques like these just might produce images preferable to the standard fare.
F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.