Scraping The Sky Revisited & Revealed

It's been a little while, but I've dipped into my collection of shots from New York City and came up with what you see above. Click the image to download a 2560x1600 resolution file that you can use as a desktop background if you so desire.

And once again I will pull back the curtain and reveal how poor much effort I put into creating something ex nihilo (or practically so).

I really wanted to go for a high contrast look that gave a feeling of depth, but as you see below, the shot as it came out of the camera left a little something to be desired.

The sky is too bright with the clouds being a bit overexposed all while the skyscrapers are a touch underexposed. I actually did take three exposures with the goal of creating a high dynamic range, but given Lightroom 4's new level adjustment abilities, I opted to create three exposures from a single image. These were then processed in Photomatix with the following result.

A crop down to 16:10 and a few more adjustments with Nik's Viveza 2 and I was largely where I wanted to be.

There were, however, some things I felt needed to be taken care of and what better place to show that than a 1:1 crop of my favorite Chrysler Building. The changes may be subtle, but I think that when seen side-by-side, it may be more obvious.


Curves Adjustment


Spot Sharpen

Here is where we are now.

To get that contrasty look I wanted with the deep dark sky, I applied a Black & White filter with the Red filter preset. I set the adjustment layer mode to Luminosity and the opacity to 50%.

The blue of the sky was a little to "electric" for me now. Especially where it bordered the cloud hightlights. It got a little desaturation, curves and exposure adjustment.

I then got rid of the clouds poking down from the top of the frame by painting over them with the new dark sky color.

Curve adjustments below the horizon and brightness/contrast tweaks above.

Another subtle adjustment that I like to make, especially when I'm going for contrast, is to duplicate the image, give it a small gaussian blur (10 pixels in this instance) and then set that new layer to Soft Light with a lowered opacity. Normally this is in the 30% range, but %52 was where I ended up. The more opaque (higher percentage) the more contrast.

You will remember that I said I wanted a feeling of depth. I wasn't really feeling it at this point and I thought that maybe I had messed up during the Photomatix/HDR processing phase because when overly done, you run the risk of "flattening" an image by trading too many highlights and shadows for detail.

Unfortunately, I did not make that particular mistake. The original image was pretty flat to start with. This meant that I needed to take some artistic license and create something that was not really there in real life.

I created an exposure adjustment layer and dropped the exposure enough to create an appropriate level for shadows. I then masked the layer so that the left side of every building was in the shade.

Here is what the mask ended up looking like.

We're now coming down to the home stretch. I did some targeted sharpening (1:1 before and after)...

Some targeted brightening (1:1 before and after)...

Then because overly sharpening things created halos, I cleaned those up by cloning adjacent pixels to fill in those 1-2 pixel "gaps". You can see this halo pretty well along vertical and horizontal borders such as the sides of the skyscraper and under the bridge (before and after at 2x).

Too much effort? Probably so. And I still see things I need to go back and fix even as I finish writing this. As I always say (but have a hard time putting into practice), a little care and patience up front will make for a lot less work and a better final product when all is said and done.