Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Workflow Techniques #105

Fun in the Digital Darkroom with LightZone

by A. R. Dias


The Canon EOS 10D Arches National Park shot by Bettina and Uwe Steinmueller never ceases to inspire – a truly stunning shot of a Western landscape under stormy skies. I first became familiar with this photograph when it was the topic of an image processing challenge and a contest on this website.

Low-contrast original RAW processed image


My objective in processing this image is to change it from its low-contrast original into a dramatic, high-contrast interpretation. I did that before in the aforementioned contest, using curves in Photoshop. “Curves” is a fine tool, but it is hard to use and, if one is not careful, it can produce image artifacts and tonality discontinuities. In this article I use LightZone® V1.6 and with mostly one-click tools achieve the same effect and perhaps surpass it.

The first operation is to increase the global contrast of the image. I set up a ZoneMapper tool to push the highlights and the shadows to their respective extremes. The image highlights started on the 4th zone divider from the top. To avoid highlight clipping, I dragged the 3rd zone divider to the top. On the shadows end, the zone divider just below the lowest detected shadow information was dragged to the bottom.

ZoneMapper global contrast increase


I selected the RGB checkbox in the ZoneMapper tool, as I preferred the overall color saturation using this setting.

The image gained contrast. Next the default settings of a ToneMapper tool were used, which tamed the image dynamic range globally and increased local contrast.

Intermediate image after applying the ToneMapper layer


The image is close to my visualization of the scene and I could finish it by layering additional ZoneMappers to extract further local contrast. However, for a quicker dramatic result, I took another route. Opening a Channel Mixer tool, I created a region/mask to isolate the land from the sky and applied it inverted (to affect the sky only) to the Channel Mixer with its Blend mode switched from Normal to Overlay (to preserve color). I note that the region is a rough outline of the terrain with a large feathering area to eliminate halos, akin to the dodge/burn technique of the classic wet darkroom.

Channel Mixer (Overlay) applied to an inverted mask


The image was finished with the following layer adjustments:

  • Hue/Saturation layer (Sat +24) applied to the masked land region
  • ZoneMapper layer (also masked) to darken the shadows in the rocky wall
  • Color Cast layer to neutralize the masked sky (inverted region)
  • Clone layer to remove a bush on the lower right corner
  • Sharpen layer (100,1) to the masked land region only.

Note: the same Region/mask created for the Channel Mixer layer was copied and link-pasted to all subsequent layers except the Clone layer.

The final result is the dramatic rendering I was after, and was effortlessly achieved in a minimal amount of time. In addition, LightZone’s image processing preserves image integrity and 3-dimensionality.

Final result: High-contrast, dramatic final image


Note: The author thanks Bettina and Uwe Steinmueller for the use of their original Arches photograph and Uwe Steinmueller for insightful image processing comments.

Note by Uwe Steinmueller

Because we did not want to give the RAW file away but still wanted our readers to experience the full editing process themselves in LightZone (download a demo or buy at discount from this site) we created an unprocessed full resolution JPEG and added Antonio's LZN file (download from here).


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