The other day, I posted before and after shots from a recent trip down to the Austin airport. Quadradeuce asked me to share my process, so here it is.

About the Photo

Since starting to use Lightroom (Lr) I have gone completely over to shooting in RAW. Lr makes shooting in RAW a snap, it gives me tons more pixels to deal with, makes for higher quality finished images. But most perhaps most importantly, it allows for much better handling of white balance. I am shooting with a Canon 50D (APS-C) and a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 (this particular photo was taken at 1/1000 sec, ISO 160, f/7.1 at 172mm). I usually try to go to the airport as early as possible. The observation area at Austin-Bergstrom Int’l (KAUS) is on the east side of the airport, so the sun is at my back and still very low. What is really neat about that is that the low sun can illuminate the pilots in the cockpit, and I think that adds a lot to the drama of the photo. I also take a step ladder along so I can get above the fence line. If you look back at my older shots, there is an annoying line of barbed wire in almost all of them. I may look silly standing on the top of a stool, but I don’t care. It makes a huge difference.

Here is an original image which I had rejected, mostly because it’s boring (the next one had smoke coming off the tires). Just off the bat, it’s crooked from panning while perched atop my step stool and the WB is a mess. So let’s get to work. As you might imagine, this is a very bare bones outline, and every photo is different. But the basic steps are the same.

Step 1: Straighten and Crop

One of the great things about Lr is that it makes it very easy to straighten a photo. You can also adjust tons of other lens issues like vignetting, etc. Since the angle of the runway doesn’t always mean that the runway will be flat with the bottom of the shot, I try to use a building or light pole in the background to get the photo straight. Since aircraft are long and skinny, I like a crop ratio of 1.6 or 1.7 to 1. This was cropped “as shot,” or whatever the camera does. I think it’s 3:2.

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Step 2: Adjust Color

Lr has a fantastic eyedropper feature that does a very fine job of getting the yellow out. Select it, find a white area on the photo, and click. Boom, yellow is gone and the brown sky turns blue (on this particular day, there were storm clouds behind the subject; other days it’s just haze). When working with RAW, you can adjust the Temperature (basically, the yellowness) into the thousands. Working with JPEG, you can only work in numbers from 1-10. So you have much finer control with RAW. I also like to bump the Contrast, Clarity and Vibrance (but not Saturation) a bit too. Highlights and Shadows I do later in Photoshop (Ps). Here is a great basic explanation of Vibrance vs. Saturation.

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3. Sharpening and Masking

Figuring out how Lr handles sharpening has been one of the great breakthroughs for me. I usually use the aircraft registration as a reference. Holding down the Command key (Mac) helps me to see just how sharp I am making the image (every one is different). I slide Detail to 0. Detail controls how many pixels Lr will use to sharpen an element. Basically, you don’t want it to sharpen the area outside of the numbers, just the numbers themselves. And Masking tells Lr just what you want to sharpen. I want to sharpen the airplane, not the sky behind it. Sharpening the sky makes can make it blotchy, with rough transitions from areas of darker to lighter blue. smooth. Again, holding down the CMD key while sliding will show you just what Lr is sharpening. It’s an amazing tool, and you really should read the article linked at the beginning of this section if you want to learn more. Here is an excellent primer on sharpening in Lr.

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4. Highlights and Shadows

Lr gives you the ability to work on a photo with Ps while remaining in Lr, but I prefer to export the photo and have it open separately in Ps. This is where I do my work with highlights and shadows, since Ps is more powerful in that regard. The first thing I do is throw some Auto Contrast on the photo. I’m not really sure what it does, but I like the results.

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Next, I adjust highlights and shadows. Clicking More Options in the Shadows/Highlights dialog box gives you—you guessed it—more options. As I understand it (and somebody please correct me if I’m wrong), the Amount of shadow lightening is just that. But the real power comes from the Tonal Width. By adjusting this, it only affects the darkest x% of the photograph. So, if I only want to lighten the area underneath the aircraft, I can jack up the Amount while reducing the Tonal Width. It’s the same for the Highlights. Adjusting the Tonal Width determines how much of the bright areas you want to adjust. Here, I’m only affecting the brightest areas of the photo. Honestly, I have learned a lot by fiddling with sliders and adjustments and seeing if I like the results. But it helps to know just how Lr or Ps is affecting the image.

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And here is the finished product. If I got anything wrong or mixed up terminology, please let me know. Everybody has their own workflow, and this is what works for me in this very specific setting. Let me know if you have any questions or comments. And you can see some of other photos from this shoot, as well as more of my aviation work at the link below. The photos always look better there than they do in Kinja.