Behind The Scenes: Sydney Cityscape

Every now and then, people ask how I edited a certain image. With that in mind, this is hopefully the first of a behind-the-scenes look at how I shot and processed one particular image. The picture that I’ll look at is Sydney Cityscape. It was about 8:40pm on Saturday, Dec. 27, when we’d just gotten out of dinner near the Sydney Olympic pool and the city lights looked so enchanting. I had my Canon 5D Mark II body and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens mounted on my tripod (Giotto’s).

The image in question

The first part was composition. I wanted to get both the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the frame. So I set my lens to 16mm and kept the Opera House towards the left edge (but not too close to the edge since those areas can be a bit “softer” than the centre). Since the sky was pretty empty, I wanted the Harbour Bridge to go “up” into the sky and act as a “stop” on the right edge. With those two ideas, the composition pretty much made itself. The only thing I had to navigate was positioning the camera such that the fence/railing at the water’s edge did not enter the frame.

I typically shoot cityscapes at f/16 to get the starburst effect off light points in the frame (and the 16-35/2.8 lens produces fantastic 16-sided starbursts). I wanted a very clean image, and so chose ISO100. Given the late hour, small aperture, low ISO, and availability of a tripod, I obviously needed to shoot a long exposure. I had taken some 2-min exposures of the skyline the previous evening, and so decided to go with that as a start. Unfortunately, my Vello remote shutter/bulb timer had stopped working the week before. Fortunately, I had Magic Lantern installed on my 5D2, allowing me to shoot 2-min exposures. With a 2-min exposure, the instant review on the back of the camera did show some (blinking) blown highlights. However, the review shown on the camera LCD is a JPEG version of the raw image — and the JPEG version can show blown highlights (due to the lower bit depth) even though the raw image maintains detail. From past experience, I had an idea of how much blown highlights on the camera LCD I could get away with and still retain proper data in the raw image. All in all, a 2-min exposure seemed right. Because the next ferry back to Circular Quay was leaving soon, I only had time to shoot two exposures.

Once I got home (to New Zealand that is; I don’t spend my holiday time editing images), I opened up the images in Lightroom (I’m using version 4.4 on a PC) and selected the one that I felt was the best of the two. The raw image actually looked half decent without any editing.

<Click on any image to get a larger view>

Raw image in LR with no editing

If you look at the larger version of the unedited raw image above, you’ll notice the numerous dust spots visible throughout the frame (the curse of changing lenses outside). My first task was to clean those up. Using LR’s Spot Removal tool, it was a quick job (well, relatively speaking — there were a LOT of spots to remove!). While I was at it, I also cropped the image — the bottom part of the image is pretty boring — no reflections, nothing interesting going on. So I cropped right at the level where the reflections from the skyscrapers stopped to remove all the dead space.

Removing the numerous spots — you’ll see how dirty my sensor is if you click for the larger view

Then came the main set of adjustments. The image is a bit dull, with not enough “pop” for my liking. I played around with the settings in LR’s Basic panel:

  • Slightly increased exposure to make the overall scene brighter
  • Increased contrast quite a bit
  • Pulled back highlights to recover any blown areas (due to high contrast)
  • Added a very slight shadow recovery and very small white adjustment
  • Added a touch of clarity to enhance the edges
  • Overall, the image now looked a lot brighter with more contrast.
Making the basic adjustments, with increased contrast being the main one

I like my cities to look a bit “cool”, with a bluish tinge, for a more futuristic feel. The overall yellowish colour cast was just not doing it for me. I cooled the white balance temperature to give it the look I wanted.

Cooling down the colour temperature for a futuristic look

It was looking a lot better, but the water still looked a bit too pale blue/greenish for my taste (especially in the shadows). I used the Graduated Filter tool to change the white balance tint away from green to more purple.

Changing white balance of the water

With the water looking more purple, the sky looked a bit off with the blue. So I added another graduated filter on the sky to turn it slightly purple.

Changing white balance of the sky

If you look at the settings of the two graduated filters, you’ll notice that they are almost the same. Instead of using graduated filters, I could have just changed the tint on the overall image and come pretty close to what I got using here. But sometimes you don’t know where you’ll end up when you start — so I finished with two graduated filters here, even though a single overall white balance adjustment would have achieved more or less the same result.

The middle of the sky was looking a bit too purple, almost grey — not very exciting. I therefore added a bit of split toning — a bit of blue on the highlights. That added a bit of colour to the sky/clouds in the middle and kept to the overall cool/blue cast of the scene.

Adding blue highlights using Split Toning

This could have been a good place to stop. But on a whim, I decided to see what a bit of Curves adjustment would do. As expected, it added more contrast. I liked this look.

Adding curves adjustment

So there you go…


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