reverse engineering – How was this picture of a model on a boat with a sunset in the background created?

There’s a definite “HDR feel” to the photos, but I’m not sure if any actual HDR / exposure blending tricks have actually been used — it might just be strong curves and saturation adjustment, combined with odd lighting.

  • The photo has been taken against the light, but with the sun low in the sky and behind a layer of clouds, which will tend to diffuse the light and somewhat reduce the contrast difference between the foreground and the sky. I suspect that’s really the most important “trick” here.

  • The photographer may have used a polarizing filter to darken the sky and the reflected sunlight off the water. There may also have been a fill flash involved.

  • It’s pretty likely that the luminance curve has been adjusted to add contrast to the shadows (possibly using something like the Photoshop “Shadow / Highlight” tool, rather than by directly editing the curve), and the color saturation has obviously been increased.

    It’s possible that some of the adjustment may have been masked to affect only the foreground, but it’s hard to tell for sure. The images could also be exposure fused composites, with the sky and the foreground taken from separate bracketed images (or the same RAW image with different exposure corrections), but I actually suspect that, in this case, they’re not (see below).

  • Looking at the sky, especially in the second picture, you can tell that the highlights are pretty badly clipped, and it appears to be a sharp “digital clip” rather than a smooth “film clip”.

    I would consider this a flaw (even if it does add somewhat to the “dramatic” contrast), but it also suggests to me that the photos have probably not been processed too much (beyond the obvious contrast and saturation boosts) — or, alternatively, that whoever post-processed them wasn’t skilled enough to handle the highlights properly.

Anyway, here’s a quick example of how to post-process such images to bring out the foreground. The original image is a quick snapshot I took from a boat against the sunlight, with no fill flash, using a Nikon D70s at ISO 200, f/6.0, 1/8000 s. It lacks the dramatic sunset colors, but does illustrate the general issues with shooting against the light over water:

Step 1: Original image with no exposure correction
Step 2: Exposure boosted by +2.6 in ufraw
Step 3: Color saturation boosted to 170%
Step 4: Luminance curve adjusted to balance foreground and background
Top down, left to right: (1) original image with no exposure correction, (2) exposure boosted by +2.6 in ufraw, (3) color saturation boosted to 170%, (4) luminance curve adjusted to balance foreground and background.

Note how, without exposure correction, the foreground is severely underexposed. That’s actually deliberate; it’s a lot easier to boost exposure in post than to fix blown highlights.

All of this was done with global adjustments only; of course, with careful masking, much more would be possible. The tricky part here was getting the curve adjustment to look good. Here’s a screenshot of the curve I ended up using:

Screenshot of color curves in ufraw

You can see that there’s a strong contrast boost at the bottom end (corresponding to the subject in the foreground), with a compensating flat range in the “midtones” (which, here, basically means the constrast gap between the foreground and background) and a slight S-curve in the upper range corresponding to the highlights on the water (to give them a bit more contrast).

As for dramatic lighting, I’d say it comes mostly down to picking the right time and location. Here’s the kind of background you can get with a polarizing filter and the sun low behind clouds:

Sun behind clouds, taken with a cellphone camera through sunglasses

This is, in fact, a completely unedited photo taken with an old 0.3 Mpx cellphone camera, filtered through polarizing sunglasses. You can just imagine how awesome it would’ve looked if I’d had a proper camera with me. 🙂