A useful post processing trick

Last week I was processing two photographs I had recently made, which both presented me with the same problem.

Although they both depicted very beautiful tree scenes, they both appeared very clattered due to the dense tree branches.

By trial and error, I discovered a useful post processing trick to simplify the photos without fundamentally changing them.

Nymphenburg park, Notis Stamos, Channel, Steps, Moss, Reflection

Green steps in the wood. Original version (OK, very slightly processed).

Here is the photo which started it all. I was drawn to this scene by the moss covered steps and their reflection in the water. The reflection of the trees was a bonus and a curse for the photo. On location, one has a much wider field of view and doesn’t get this feeling of over-cramped space one gets when seeing the photo.  So when I saw the photo I got tired just looking at it and decided I needed to do something to simplify it. The first thing I tried was the old, trusted, reliable motion blur. I applied vertical motion blur to the photo (apart from the steps area), the motion being parallel to the main tree trunks. The effect is that the trunks get accentuated and the branches blur with the background. Here is the result:

Reflection, Moss, Trees, Channel, Reflection, Notis STamos

In addition to the motion blur, this has also been processed towards more contrast.

This photo is definitely simpler and not so tiring. Whether one likes it more than the original is a matter of taste. The problem with this is that it departs from the original scene too much and that motion blur on trees is overused lately with the consequence that every second forest image we see on the internet is so processed.

A couple of days later I started processing the second photo, another scene with trees and water, also depicting dense tree branches and looking particularly clattered.

Island, Lake, Reflection, Trees, Winter, Nymphenburg, Notis Stamos

On purpose over saturated as I was planning to turn to B&W later.

I desperately didn’t want to do the same thing here so I tried to think of a different approach. Reducing clarity in Lightroom reduces branch clatter, but one looses all of the strong image features, not just the small branches. So working in Photoshop, I started by copying the background layer and overlaying it over the original. This has the effect of accentuating all branches big and small and is not what we want. The idea (which worked) was to create another copy of the background layer (just so that the original is not destroyed) and to blur this layer (Gaussian blur) while the first layer copy is overlayed on the layer I was now blurring. Applying the right  amount of blur results in the smaller branches almost disappearing from the picture, while the bigger ones don’t loose a lot of clarity (contrary to what happens with the clarity reduction) and the overall loss of sharpness is small. Too little or too much blurring both result in the smaller branches appearing again. So practically one just moves the blur slider to the right and stops when the small branches start appearing again (remember, the original not blurred layer must be overlayed on the layer you are blurring while you are moving the slider to see this effect).

Island, Lake, Reflection, Trees, Winter, Nymphenburg, Notis Stamos

The minor branches are all but gone. Obviously the overlayed layer has increased contrast.

So, in short you should end up with the original layer overlaying the blurred layer. The photo you see above had then more processing done to it, it was converted to B&W (partially) and there was also some brown and some silver toning applied for the final result:

Island, Lake, Reflection, Trees, Winter, Nymphenburg, Notis Stamos

One of my favorites of this lot.

I then decided to revisit the first photo and see if the trick works there as well. Indeed it does and here is the result:

Island, Lake, Reflection, Trees, Winter, Nymphenburg, Notis Stamos

This could use some further highlights suppression, etc….

I definitely like this version more than the previous ones, but this is a matter of taste. Regardless of taste, if one wants to get rid of small details in the photo, while keeping the main features sharp, this is a neat trick to know and I hope that those of you that spend time in post processing find it useful one day.


© 2014 Epameinondas Stamos