Photo Tricks for Free - 1: The Pro Sky Gradient

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 19 August 2013 |

The concept behind Photo Tricks for Free shouldn't take much explaining. These are fast and easy image-editing processes achieved using completely free software. The run-throughs are not specifically for photographers - they're for everyone.

To kick off the series I'm going to show you how to take a nice but fairly ordinary outdoor photo and give it an impactive look which pro landscape photographers have used as a trademark for decades. We're going from this (a snapshot straight from the xD capture card of a Fuji V10 pocket camera)...

Squibb Digger unprocessed

To this...

Squibb Digger processed

In two very simple steps.

The central component of this edit mimics the effect of a graduated filter, which, before the arrival of digital imaging, was a physical implement fitted over the camera lens to progressively deepen the upper portion of the frame. The filter gently but increasingly restricted the amount of light reaching the film towards the top of the frame, and that made the skies look darker and richer - for a better tonal balance against the rest of the landscape. This effect is now easy for software to mimic, but surprisingly few casual photographers realise what a powerful impact it can have on their images.

In order to add the effect to your own photos, you'll first need an image editor, and I've chosen the excellent freebie Photoscape for this task. Photoscape specialises in quick, one-click image processing, and is almost indispensable for anyone who doesn't want to blow big bucks on a commercial editing suite. It's a heck of a lot easier to use than Photoshop, so you don't need to be a mathematical genius or a graphic artist to get to grips with it.

To get started, choose a photo with a decent sky, and open it in Photoscape. Now from the Editor interface, select Graduated Tint from the Filter menu, as shown below...



Next, use the controls in the Graduated Tint dialogue box to correctly position and implement the gradient. The Feather control determines how abruptly the deepening effect kicks in. Lower values will make the deepening look unnatural, so I've chosen a value of 31% to create an even and steady gradient. The Shade control, meanwhile, dictates how heavily the deepening effect is applied. To really introduce some power and depth to the sky I selected a value of 46% here. And most importantly, in the centre of the small image preview you'll find a little target, which you can move around the frame with your mouse. The trick is to move this target so it sits just above the elements you don't want to darken, and just below the area you do. Most landscapers will set the target on or just above the horizon so the sky is affected but the land is not. There's not really a horizon in this photo as such, so I've set the target just above the line of the digger and factory building. See below...



The photo now looks a lot more impressive, but to make it eyecatching enough to potentially attract attention on Google Image Search, I'm going to boost the colour saturation a little, making the sky a richer shade of blue. For this I'm selecting Saturation Curve from the Bright,Color menu, to open the Curves dialogue box ready for a colour boost, as you can see below...



Broadly, the grey diagonal line boosts the colour when dragged to the left, and reduces it when dragged to the right. You can click and drag anywhere along the line - multiple times if you like, to produce some intricate and interesting colour effects. But here I only needed a straight, universal colour boost, so I clicked on the little blob/ring at the top of the line, dragged it slightly to the left of its default position, and clicked on OK. A couple of minutes' work is all it takes to turn a very straightforward digital photo from a budget camera into something with a distinct professional aura about it.

Squibb Digger processed

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