Re: Land of Pagodas: Dan's comments

Dan Margulis

This exercise offers many opportunities for creative blending. It's shocking how often two or more mediocre versions can be combined to make one outstanding one.

Before Monday morning, I don't look at submissions carefully. The ones that are obviously lacking get set aside, and I make a tentative par version so that when deadline comes if a particularly good one happens to come in I can drop it in quickly. Once posted I evaluate and make notes on them in the order of numbering, which is random. So if I see that a certain version can be improved by blending with or comparing to another, that other image has to be one with a lower number (other than the par). So the higher the number you drew, the less likely you're going to be involved in a demonstration.

Some of these blending exercises produced the four numbered versions that I posted Tuesday. To view them you need to go to the Photos folder, or take a second download.

The group discussions of this exercise have been the best of any case study this year. 


801 Off to an excellent start. This one should have been selected for the par version, as I now find it superior to some that were. It's also a great blending resource, as will be shown shortly. Reminder, though: don't delete any tangible objects. Here, some wiring and a couple of poles were deleted. They are small enough to probably not be noticeable, but for our purposes they make it harder to blend.

Doug Schafer:
I took an approach to get the best of cloudy misty foggy dawn yet be able to see the colorful foreground, against a contrasting background,  in sufficient but low light and sufficient contrast for 3D appearance of depth.
As usual this image, like many others, has a wide range of "to taste" for colors and luminance; so long as they are technically correct and/or meet the artistic desires. Artistic images or "color graded" images seem to be popular but I still like a lot of realism with a small artistic flair so an image is eye catching appealing, not bland and does not look "wrong" to me.

In not choosing it, I underestimated the value of the misty background in bringing out foreground contrast. I was influenced by a somewhat lackluster sky, and also by the unpleasant greenness of the background hills. That last is a valid criticism and I will show how to correct it in a demonstration after #813. Other mentions on this version are at #804, 808, and 809.

802 I suspect Gerald Bakker of having taken lessons from my wife. When something goes wrong, such as burning the salad, or submitting a version that is grossly lighter than anyone else's, it gets blamed on me.

- Some LAB channel moves (inspired by your comments on my Lion image!)
  - Apply A on L in Overlay, to lighten the reds/oranges and darken the greens
  - Apply A on B in Overlay, to warm the reds/oranges (blend-if to restrict lightest areas)
  - Apply A on L in Overlay, layer mode Darker Color, to darken the greens a bit more
  - A curves layer to lighten the full image

The second step above is useful, and results in better overall color than many have. The first and third, however, are wrong, because they move the tonalities of the greenery and the pagodas closer together, whereas we would like to drive them further apart so that the structure shapes can be better appreciated.

In penance for having handed Gerald the rope with which to hang himself, I will turn this version into something that gives the par a run for its money, right after #803.
See additional comment about this version at #806.

803 We follow the lightest version with one of the darkest, by Christophe Potworowski, who is not pleased with it. As neither #802 nor #803 is going to be a popular choice, and as they represent two extremes, the obvious maneuver is to blend them. And indeed, a 50-50 blend with #802 produces something better than either.

That, however, is what we call a "stupid" blend, where no account is taken of the individual peculiarities of the parent versions. The par itself is a "stupid" blend, because it's simply an average of five parents, 20% weight each. Let's try something better, taking advantage of the fact that the most tonal contrast between the red and green objects in this image is to be found in the green channel.

Ingredients: #802 and #803.
1) Start with #802 and add a duplicate layer.
2) To it, apply #803, Normal mode, 100% opacity.
3) Oops! Cancel that! #803 is so vastly the darker of the two that it's easy to assume that it's darker everywhere. It's not. The sky in #802 has more detail, and is therefore the darker of the two.
4) Re-apply #803, this time in Darken mode. It's true that I could have simply changed the layer mode to Darken, but that would have left an inferior version on its own layer where it has nothing to do but make trouble. Also, I am not yet persuaded that we need to use any of #803's color, and would like to be able to change the mode of this layer to Luminosity to find out.
5) Merging the two layers is awkward because the pagodas of #803 are so dark. Lowering opacity to 50% won't work as well as loading a layer mask based on the combined green channel, where the pagodas are quite dark.
6) Blur the layer mask with 30 pixel Radius or so. This step is always necessary when blending two layers of very different darknesses.
7) Change layer mode to Luminosity and decide whether it is now better. My opinion is that it is not and the step should be cancelled.
8) We still would like better tonal separation between grass and pagoda. So, add a curves adjustment layer. Open the green curve (where the difference between the two is the greatest); place one point to hold the grass, and darken a point that corresponds to the pagodas.
9) Change mode of the curves layer to Luminosity.

The result is #836, which two people have remarked is better than the par.

As my late mother used to say when I was rude to her, "Isn't it a miracle that two such stupid persons as your father and myself could have produced such a brilliant child?" Maybe if she had seen this demonstration she wouldn't have been so sarcastic.

804 One of the most subdued versions. The person says: 

This may have been the hardest one yet, not so much technically, but because I had no idea
what to do for this image.  I spent less time working on this image than any of the others,
pretty much sitting on my hands pondering what it should look like.

Well, there's nothing wrong with dull coloring, some people like it that way, although it seems to me that a more colorful sky would be helpful. The big problem is the lack of break between the pagodas and their surroundings. The easiest way to prove this is to blend #801 into this in Luminosity mode, which makes the pagodas jump to the foreground. A more complete demonstration, however, is shown at #807. Demonstration of how its subdued colors are useful in other blends are at #811 and #815.

805 A pretty, and somber version, from a student of Matthew Croxton.

806 The individual explains this tastefully understated version:

My approach to this image was to try to respect the colors of the website images
I also left the blue cast on the mountains to have the advantage of simultaneous contrast with the rest of the photo.

He did build up the sky, but not to the circus-like colors of some others. And the color answers the criticism of those who feel the par is too gaudy. To prove it, put this one as a layer on top of the par in Color mode. I don't know that we'd keep the opacity at 100%. But 50% is an improvement IMHO, and I think 25% would get a unanimous vote of approval. So, arguably this version has better color than the par.

The luminosity, OTOH, is another matter, because this person blended with the red channel, Darken mode. His reasoning was to darken the background hills, which I'm not sure is a good idea. What is a bad idea is that it also darkened the greenery. This was essentially the same mistake made in #602.

Ingredients: #806 and the par.
1) Start with #806 and add a layer.
2) To it, apply the par.
3) As we have seen, the color of the par may be no better, but the contrast surely is, so change layer mode to Luminosity.
4) Reduce opacity to taste. I chose 50%.
5) Time now to find out whether any of the par's color is useful. So, duplicate the par layer and set it to Color mode, 100% opacity.
6) Evaluate. I say that the par color is better in the sky, but not so much elsewhere and definitely overbearing in the pagodas. So, add a layer mask to the par Color layer, and load the RGB composite into it. No need to blur the mask, since there is no luminosity change as a result of the merge.

The result is alternate par version #839. #806, because of its agreeable color, is also used for further demonstrations in #825 and #828.

807 Chosen for the par version, rejected, and then rechosen. This was likely the one that Ken Harris was talking about:

Once again, my par and Dan's par differ by one image.  Dan's par is a lot better than mine, since I rejected an image with a lot going for it except for the greens all heading toward kelly, which is something I've been conditioned to dislike, largely following from this tendency in pre-portra kodak negative film, and the screaming greens put out by early espon printers.  Strangely, I prefer my own to either blend, a first.  The par doesn't give much of a sense of recession into space, ie, it's feeling a bit flattened out, which hurts the mood.

Ken and I don't share notes so I don't know for sure this is the one, but I can say it was in my initial group until a bunch of good entries came in on the last day. So I replaced it in the par stack, only to discover that although the replacement was a better version, it was also a darker one. The par became worse, lacking snap. So I reversed course and put it back in.

Here's Bill Theis's take on his version:

This is like a math problem.  When you know the answer, you can usually find a way to get it.  Having the par version in hand pointed out a couple of things that I now dislike in mine.  Too bright and contrasty for dawn, which I could fix by blending back about 20% of the original unretouched jpg.  I had a conservative version on top but it was not nearly conservative enough.  Maybe like the checking of autotone, I should make the habit of ALWAYS adding the original and checking if I have gone way too far.  

To summarize: the color here isn't wrong, but it's overstated. The luminosity part, however, is quite good. It's basically the opposite, then, of #806, which had nice subdued colors but not enough contrast.

However that's not the one I'd pick for the blend. Since the object is more subdued colors, I'd go for a blander one provided that its coloring was basically correct. We have such a candidate in #804.

The group discussions here have been the best of any case study this year. :
Ingredients: #804 and #807.
1) Start with #804 and add a new layer.
2) To it, apply #807.
3) Change mode to Luminosity and decide whether it is now better and if so, what opacity to use. I chose 70%. The reason I do not keep this layer in Normal mode is that I am sure we want some of #807's color, but not as much as of its luminosity.
4) Duplicate the layer, change its mode to Color, and again decide on the opacity, if any. I think it that #804's color is so dull that we should use some of #807, but I chose only 35% opacity.
5) We still would like better tonal separation between grass and pagoda. So, add a curves adjustment layer. Open the green curve (where the difference between the two is the greatest); place one point to hold the grass, and darken a point that corresponds to the pagodas.
6) Change mode of the curves layer to Luminosity.

The result is alternate par version #838.

808 This person made a mistake similar to others in that he blended into the green channel using the red channel as a source. This unfortunately darkened the grass with respect to the pagodas. The result is similar to (although more colorful than) #804 in that #801 in Luminosity mode will improve it.

809 By my count, this makes four out of the first nine versions that would benefit substantially by blending with #801/Luminosity.

810 The #801 blend might not help here because the presentation is so moody. John Castronovo: 

I hated my version 810 when I sent it to Dan and told him so and suggested that I wanted to start over, so today I went back to the drawing board using the raw file this time and in less than five minutes I had a result that was vastly superior to the one I had submitted. Sometimes we just need a fresh look to see where we want to go. Let me add that I'm not a huge fan of the par version. I like lots of things about it, particularly the sky and the detail in the mountain range through the mist, but I think it's too bright and colorful given the dawn light, the vegetation is too yellow and the pagodas too colorfully magenta/red as well. I subtracted a lot of yellow/orange saturation from it before I found it pleasing, then I darkened it a lot before I loved it. Morning light can play tricks on the eye, particularly through mist and smog, but I think this came out overstated while trying to look as if it was taken in the middle of the morning rather than sunrise.

811 Edward Bateman: 
I get like this was fairly easy to make an OK image… but to go beyond that was a bigger challenge than I would have expected.

I felt that it contained two crucial balances that were hard to parse. One was luminosity… balancing the contrast differences between the sky and pagodas.

But by far, color and in particular saturation was the hardest balance for me to settle on.  I think in large measure because the reds of the pagodas and greens of the foliage were mutually reinforcing… especially the wide spectrum of greens!  I noticed that my eyes quickly adapted to high saturation - and only taking a break let me see how vivid my image had become.

The sky and the pagodas are fine. I have no objection to them being so dark. Granted that they are dull, the saturation of the grass seems out of place. The blue-green background hills are very distracting. So I'd wheel out the dependable #804 again to desaturate them as follows.

Ingredients: #804 and #811.
1) Start with #811. Add a duplicate layer.
2) To it, apply #811. The character is so different that there is no point in thinking about a luminosity blend. Just change the mode to Color.
3) Move the extremely dull result into LAB, without flattening.
4) Go to Blend If, and exclude anything that's A-positive on the Underlying Layer. That brings back the pagodas, fhe flowers, and the sky. The only things being dulled down are the greenery and the hills.
5) Reduce opacity to taste. I chose 65%.

The greens are only slightly duller now, but one can really see how much the blue-green hills were distracting from the pagodas.

812 I referred to this one in a message to Doug Schafer in another thread. I originally had this as a par contender, largely because it has IMHO the best-looking sky of any entrant. The foreground, OTOH, is good but not great. The pagodas themselves are fine, but everything else is too blue, especially the background hills.

Fortunately in this image it's easy to make use of this sky in other contexts. I show examples in #825 and #828.

813 Not one of the better versions overall because of the lack of tonal contrast between grass and pagodas, but it has its uses. The foreground is somewhat biased toward yellow, which pushed the background hills away from blue and toward green. The person did not like that, so he nudged them toward magenta with Hue/Saturation.

This was a good move and should probably have been done in #801. You remember that one: excellent foreground contrast, slightly downgraded for the greenness of the background. It can now get the minor tweak that it needs.

Ingredients: #801 and #813
1) Start with #801 and add a new layer.
2) Apply #813 to it. The contrast is obviously much worse, so we'd ordinarily immediately shift to Color mode. Here, however, we have to figure out how to merge the two layers, and it's easier to visualize that by seeing the detail.
3) Add a layer mask. To it, apply the blue channel from the base layer. That's chosen because of all available channels, it has the biggest gap between the hills and the pagodas. No need to blur this mask since there isn't going to be any luminosity change.
4) Now, finally, change mode to Color, and decide whether to reduce opacity. I saw no need to and left it at 100%.

The background is now warmer, the hills are on the magenta rather than the green side of blue, and #801 is presented more effectively.

814 Could not be considered for par version or blending due to changed aspect/lens profile. Otherwise it would be nice to compare it to #804.

815 Chosen for the par version. David Remington:

I was thinking of this as sunset and sought to balance the warm light and the cool shade. I tried to preserve and enhance the sense of distance and scale. I reduced but kept the blue cast in the distant hills and shifted it to a more purple hue that better fits with the color of the sky and provides some aerial perspective.
I like my image. I can see that having more detail in the tops of the foreground temples would be an improvement, but I would not go as light as some. I find the top half of the par too light and the sky washed out. I had a lighter version and a much darker version. I liked the richness of the dark one and ended up blending it at about 20% into my final lighter version.

I like it too, it has the richest color of any of the versions with dark pagodas. I'd say that granted the darkness they're a little too fiery, but that's not a big deal. What is a big deal is that the background hills are dark enough to distract from the pagodas. Worse, the heavy cloud in the upper right is completely counterproductive. It takes away from our appreciation of the pagoda towering against the sky. This is not a matter of taste, IMHO, it is an outright error. To correct, we need something bland, and we know what that one is.

Ingredients: #804 (again) and #815.
1) Start with #815 and add a duplicate layer.
2) To it, apply #804 in Lighter Color mode. Since the foreground of #816 is already lighter, not much changes except the dark cloud and the mountains.
3) Change layer mode to Luminosity so that the sky color doesn't fade.
4) The heavy lifting is already done, but just for the sport of it duplicate the #804 layer and change mode to Color.
5) This desaturates everything, whereas we'd like to confine the effect to the pagodas and possibly the grass. So, add a layer mask and apply the red channel from the background layer, inverted. That will permit some desaturation of the pagodas, a slight amount to the greenery, and very little to the sky.

The result is alternate par #835. I'd suggest toggling the middle layer off and on to see the huge difference it makes. 

816 John Furnes:

I assumed that this being morning, I could not go on with too much luminosity, and hence not so much colour (saturation). I am rather happy with my take on the picture, and think I got OK lighting, contrast and colour. There was of course the difficulties with the halos against the morning mist. The sky might be a bit too light, but, as said, this is morning light.

The par is too ‘lively’ for my eyes, and I think there would not be so much colour in ‘real life’. However, I have come to understand that the spectator does not know anything about the picture, and is more ready to accept my personal taste if it shows what he thinks is important, or if I lead him to see what I find important.

To me the main focus is the closest pagodas, with their colours, the grass and bushes as well, but also the light of the sky and the mist below the mountains.

It came out reasonably well. To me, the desaturation of the sky and background hills is somewhat jarring, but the pagoda shapes are still well defined.

817 This interesting treatment could not be considered for par or for blending due to a change in aspect. John Gillespie:

Like some others I went for a darker, somber look based on how the lighting appears. But it is a very difficult image to make attractive. To paraphrase, what is interesting is not believable and what is believable is not interesting. Taken from a different angle the pagodas could be rendered as a silhouette against a dramatic sky, but they take up too much of the foreground for this to work.

I don't know about that part. I agree that they shouldn't be fully black, but I have no objection to making them so dark that a certain amount of definition is lost. Several versions, including my own, do that. It's effective because the pagodas are recognizable by their shape.

818 Chosen for the par version, mostly for its beautiful texture and interesting orange sky. Robin Mark D'Rozario notes that his version is warmer than average. It also has lighter pagodas and darker greenery than the par does, making it less contrasty than it should be. Since #817 doesn't have that particular problem, IMHO blending 20% of it into #818 improves things.

This version is featured in another blend at #829.

819 Too heavy-handed in the shadows. Greenery is black when the pagodas are lit.

820 Full of foreboding, this person wrote in his procedure summary,

I think all my greens and sky points are within your color recommendations. Some of the greens, and a few other places, looked a bit too green. Burma gets more rain than Vietnam, and I saw in Da Nang (which was beautiful) near garish greens. But, again trying to keep my head down, I did a saturation map, and used H/S to slightly tamp back the greens and yellows.
Nevertheless, my left side grey pagoda is 70L 0a 7b so maybe I have an overall yellow cast and again I do not “see” it.
My problem (the biggest) seems to be me not seeing casts when they are “wrong” (not “liking” them). I would ask if you have any numerical guidelines for avoiding those since I obviously do not see them as wrong.

When an image has a cast, as this one does, we normally don't see it unless we have something else to compare it to, like 38 other versions that aren't as green as this one. But look at it by itself for a while and the cast vanishes because the eye adjusts to it. See Edward Bateman's comment at #811.

The solution is to check known colors. The sky was obviously treated separately and is irrelevant. The vegetation is garish but not wrong by the numbers. But the pagodas? They should be a dull red, nominally A=B. To find A=0 and B positive is clearly wrong no matter where in the pagoda it's taken. Worse, the background hills are typically (10)a(5)b--more green than they are blue. That can't possibly be right.

See #821 for an instant solution to these issues, and #822 for another comment on this version.

821 A purple cast, detected by measuring the pagodas, which are sharply magenta. Also, this person made the same mistake as in #806 of using the red channel as the source for a luminosity blend. As there, this brought the distant mountains closer to us, and also darkened the vegetation to the point that it interferes with our perception of the pagodas.

Back to the cast, though. I just said in #820 that the sort of brick red found in these pagodas can normally be expected to be approximately A=B. In this version, a point in the light area at bottom right of the main pagoda, just above the flowers, measures 43L19a10b. The same point in #820 measures 39L20a35b. One therefore has a magenta cast and the other a green one. Since magenta and green are complementaries, just blend the two together at 50-50 or to taste, and the result is much better than either. Although this is not a politically correct way to proceed, these two casts have just encountered cancel culture.

822 Similar to #820 in that the background hills measure a disagreeable green, with the added complication that the sky is less pronounced than most people like.

823 Kent Sutorius before:

Attached is the Land of Pagodas submission. For me this was by far the most difficult image to work on. Almost didn't submit anything. I tried different things in the RAW, flat and default images with poor results. I think I am in the danger zone now that I know how to do a number of things but not the experience/knowledge to know when to apply in the workflow. I would get portions of the image great but other portions wrong. Had problems with the mountain range. It kept getting washed out when the rest of the picture in the foreground looked good. I ended up doing simple adjustments: Levels, Select Color, Curves, and high pass sharpening.

and after:

I found this to be the most difficult image to work on. I was stymied by how the mountain range should look and became frustrated with the process. Working with channels I kept getting the mountain range washed out (lighter) but even the par has some of that. I thought the range should remain dark and more defined. That error in judgment led to an unsuccessful look. Even though I sharpened the picture, it looks very muddy compared to others.

Also the overly blue hills are a defect. I hope the other examples make clear how the foreground contrast could be corrected.

824 Jorge Parra:

Following Dan's approach to the choir ( I could not participate in that challenge) the double-lighting situation appeared to me to be happening in Burma in the same fashion here, forcing some decision-making process: I visualized a background getting the yellowish morning light  (as a standard back-lit situation), while the foreground is still lit mostly by  bluish skylight, again, this as a consequence of the sun being behind the pagodas. 

Add to this that the haze in distant mountains is always bluish no matter the position of the sun. I tried ( but went overboard with #824) to retain the "blueish-ness",  while allowing some neutral tone in the background( which could have been more yellowish, I guess), so the end result is still too blue compared to the Par, which, IMHO, and as others have said, is all too yellow, the overall hue too unified all across the image and pointing to suggest tons of sunlight hitting everywhere. I had a version approaching this yellowish overall tone and left it behind as it looked unrealistic.

One of the PPW tools ( can't remember which) did a great job at reducing de haze in the background. Gotta take notes to use it in the future.

Well, I wouldn't reduce this haze because it makes it easier to perceive the smaller pagodas in front of it. With respect to this picture, I'd go through a procedure similar to what was demonstrated at #815.

825 Steve Jenkins:

While working on this image I quickly concluded that it was so blah as to be like a wet cat on a rainy day. Any amount of standard techniques for bright and colorful just weren’t going to cut it. So, as I think you’ll all agree, I went much farther than normal and ended up with with 825. And no, I don’t think anything about this looks “real”, but I do think it might peek your interest more than a lot of the other interpretations. 

I don't agree that nothing about this looks real; the foreground is too yellow but no more unreasonable than a dozen others. The real problem is that the sky is ridiculous, and there is an ugly transition line where it meets the hills. Apply 50% of the color of #806, pop in the excellent sky from #812, and all is well.

826 Edward Bateman's students did well with the Choir image but apparently tried to hard to knock the blueness out of the background hills and made them yellow instead.

827 From previous comments, I imagine you have surmised that I prefer a very dark version. When I prepared this one, I fully expected it to be the darkest of any reasonable entrant. I have no objection to it being a semi-silhouette of the pagodas. I for some reason decided that such a dark foreground demanded a brilliant sky and then produced one that was technically just about as clever as the idea itself. If I drop in the sky from #812 there's a huge improvement. 

Like some other people I painted color into the smaller pagodas in the background, trying to make them more prominent.

Whether you like this one or not it's a useful auxiliary file. If you feel that your own file is somewhat light, blending this thing in at 25% should

828 Here is another lesson about why not to be too quick to reject something that doesn't appeal on first glance. The photograph has at least three items that can be treated separately: the sky, the overall color, and the overall contrast. This version fails in the first two categories, but is reasonably good in the third. So, let’s put together some familiar blend sources.

Ingredients: #806, #812, #827, #828
1) Start with #828.
2) Add three new layers.
3) To the first new layer (the one right above the background), apply #806.
4) Change the layer mode to Color, and make a judgment as to what improvement, if any, it makes. Having decided that, change the mode to Luminosity and make the same judgment. When this process is over, you'll know how to proceed.

I say it's pretty easy in this case. I see #806 as absolutely and unconditionally better than #828 with respect to color, and absolutely worse with respect to luminosity. So, I set the layer to Color mode, 100% opacity.

5) To the second new layer, apply #812, with its excellent sky.
6) Unless you've decided you want to make some use of its foreground, and I don't, go to Blend If, Gray, Underlying Layer. As the sky is lighter than any other part of the image, the shadow slider can be moved to the right until the entire foreground is restored, but the new sky is retained. When satisfied with the positioning of the slider, Option-click it to break it in two, and move the two halves slightly apart. This prevents a harsh transition where the two layers meet.
7) Decide whether to retain this layer at 100% opacity. I liked the effect at 67%.
8) Since what we now have is good, but it doesn't happen to be one of the darker entries, follow what I recommended in #827: apply it to the top layer, and set opacity to 25%.

IMHO this is now a serious competitor to any of the par versions, although it wasn't finished in time to be posted with the other alternate pars. 

829 Bill Iverson:

Unlike the Beach at Sunset, where there was room for debate on several fronts how light the foreground pebble beach and photographer should be, in this case it seemed to me that without attractive foreground temples, this image is a nothing burger.  The beach at sunset had a more interesting sky, and more importantly the sweep of land and the bay of water offered interesting potential.  Here, in addition to a relatively unimposing sky, there was really no way to make the background mountain ridge and distant temples more than a supporting framework for the foreground temples.
          Focusing on the foreground temples and surrounding green areas, it seemed to me that the most important thing was to present attractive, realistic greens.  Bad greens are, IMHO, much worse than reddish browns that might be somewhat off. 
          But the temple colors are also important.  The brick temples at Bagan are a reddish brown at midday.  They can be much warmer in later afternoon light, but this is a morning picture.

The problem is that they aren't reddish brown, they're magenta, with the A value considerably higher than the B. The other issue, which is more debatable, is that the background is quite a bit lighter than what most of us prefer. The contrast in the foreground is nice, however. Limiting myself to versions already seen, I would pick up #818. Applying it at 60% Darken gives a better sky and also to some extent corrects the color.

830 Hector Davila did not fall into the trap of blending the red into the green and thus bringing the grass closer to the pagodas. Instead, he did the blend in reverse, resulting in the lightest greenery of anyone and a huge contrast to the pagodas. The color is kind of lemon-yellow, not so good by itself but certainly usable in a blend. Because this is an excellent auxiliary file, a companion to #827. One or the other almost has to improve most versions. Therefore, one final

Ingredients: #827, #830, and your file.
1) Start with your file and add two layers.
2) Apply #827 to one and #830 to the other.
3) Change opacity of each layer to 25%
4) Toggle the layers off so you see your own version again.
5) Toggle one layer back on and make a judgment.
6) Then the same with the other layer.

Now, whatever you may think of #827 and #830 individually, you'll have to admit that they showcase the pagodas. So my prediction is that one of these layers is going to improve your file and the other will hurt it, but which one will help it depends on the character of your version.

831 Kent Southers:

This was the hardest one so far.  I had to walk away from it after multiple attempts, then come back a few days later.

Obviously an HDR situation with the sky vs. foreground, so masking was a key component.  Unlike "normal" masking, the conical structures penetrating the skyline made for some additional challenges.  Neutral point ... well, closest I thought might be neutral was the black-ish staining on the front of the structure, but that's not a guaranteed neutral.  So, I just kept an eye to it, but not a true reference point.  That said, this is most a "to my eye" kind of thing.  Plenty of areas I didn't get how I wanted them, but they are more in the minor background areas, so I accepted some degree of not quite where I think it should be.

Approach, way too many trial and error layers in PS to begin to describe, all with their own sets of painting, graduated, feathered, density and opacity mask adjustments to try and find the tonal / luminosity balances to my eye.  Basically two (or more) separate layers for a variety of controls (curves, brightness, saturation, etc.) with tugging and pulling on each till I got a yin-yang that I could move through the image getting to / fro through the elements.  This one made me feel like a rookie trying to fumble my way through it.

Main points being two different lighting ... sky illuminated by warm lighting of the specular, direct sun lighting up the clouds.  Foreground illuminated by diffuse, cool skylight.  Total opposite light sources (color / quantity / quality) for the diff areas, thus handled independently vs. globally ... and the ensuing adjustments to try and make them look cohesive / natural transition.  A tricky one for sure.

I don't understand why there should be an issue where the structure meets the sky, Blend If can solve that problem even in RGB. The bigger issue in the sky is a repeat of the mistake made in #815 of having the cloud in upper right so dark that it diverts attention from where it belongs. Furthermore, the background mountains are dark enough to disguise the shape of the pagodas. The following simple procedure should demonstrate how important these things are. As with #825, we need to locate a version with a lighter sky but darker pagodas. In that one I used #824, but a better candidate has since reared its ugly head.

Ingredients: #827 and #831.
1) Starting with #831, add a duplicate layer.
2) Apply #827 to it, Lighten mode. As the foreground of #827 is darker, it's unchanged. The sky and the background get lighter, however.
3) Reduce layer opacity to taste. I say 70%. Now toggle the layer on and off to see the impact. According to me it's  effective, but we aren't quite done.
4) Change layer mode to Luminosity. I don't think there's much of a way to know in advance whether Luminosity or Normal gets a better result, so trial and error is called for. Here it’s a close call. I have a slight preference for leaving the layer in Normal mode.

832 Chosen for the par version, as predicted by James Gray. Ken Harris's summary:

I got this 95% to where I wanted to be in capture 1 in five minutes (layer RT), then, because I should be doing three sets of taxes, I spent an hour wandering around in photoshop revisiting old methods despite knowing the likely answer, given that I had an opinion about how the light should feel.  Although it’s not an especially good shot of things, I thought it could be made into a shot with a special feeling about the disappearing light.  I’m excited to see how other people treat this one.

They didn't seem to find any way to improve on it, except possibly the next entrant.

833 Chosen for the par version. The best has been saved for last. This is my personal favorite. Excellent, deep brown pagoda color, sky interesting without being overwhelming. Great illusion of an endless valley of pagodas. In all of these respects it's approximately equivalent to #832. The attractive dull color of the pagodas may have been the result of H-K; however to me the best touch is some dodging and burning to the sides of the foreground pagodas to create the illusion of reflections.

834 The much-maligned par version.

835 The blend described at #815.

836 The blend described at #803.

837 Prepared by John Castronovo by altering the par version only.

838 The blend described at #807.

839 The blend described at #806

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