This shot of an Icelandic church looked nice enough in color but I thought it had a bit more potential as a black and white image – though there were a few issues I wanted to sort out first.
For this project I used Exposure X. The same tools exist in other programs, but I find the presets, tools and adjustments in Exposure X are in some mysterious way very much attuned to my own visual eye and the way I work – especially for black and white. If I want a strong look quickly, Exposure X is ideal.
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I carried out a whole series of processes on this picture, including perspective correction (to fix the converging verticals in the church), applying a black and white LUT (from Lutify.me), adding a vignette and lightening the foreground with a gradient mask modified with a the brush tool.
All the main adjustments were carried out simultaneously, so you won’t see the image changing step-by-step – I’ve simply highlighted each adjustment in turn to explain it in detail.
1. Perspective correction
I thought this picture would have a cleaner, more minimal look (to suit the bleak landscape) if I corrected the verticals first. This is done with the Exposure X Transform panel. There are no automatic adjustments like those on Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw, but it only takes a few moments to move the sliders manually.
Make sure you check the Constrain Crop box – this keeps the image frame filled and saves you having to crop it manually later.
Adjusting the Vertical slider left the image looking slightly foreshortened so I used the Aspect slider to correct that. The adjustment also pushed the church up towards the top of the frame, so I used the Y Offset slider to move it back down again.
2. Choosing a LUT
LUT stands for Lookup Table. It’s a kind of pre-processing file that shifts the tone and color values in a picture. You can achieve a similar effect using regular adjustments, but using a LUT gives you a head-start, doesn’t pre-adjust any of the sliders and the best LUTs are designed by professional photographers and cinematographers that have a special creative ‘eye’.
This one is a black and white LUT called ‘Bunda’ that’s part of a whole collection from Lutify.me – I bought a subscription a couple of years back and I swear by these LUTs now.
Bunda gives a dense, rich black and white conversion that I like a lot – it also gives a very strong look to the sky and those ominous crescent-shaped clouds moving in from the left.
3. Adding a vignette
I often add a vignette to focus attention on the center of the frame and add a little overall contrast. I’m still in two minds about it for this image, though. It does add a little extra drama, but I think it looks a little cleaner and more minimal without it. Hmm.
4. Masking the foreground
I needed to lighten up the foreground so I started out with a gradient mask drawn upwards diagonally from lower left to upper right. To create a mask you click the small brush tool at the top of the tools panel. This opens up all the masking options, which include gradient masks, radial mask and manual brush tools. You can see the mask I created overlaid in red on the image in this screenshot.
5. Composite masks
The gradient mask I created did not extend over the church tower, so this was left looking a little dark – my foreground adjustments didn’t reach it. I got round that by adding some manual brushing to my gradient mask – Exposure X lets you combine mask tools within the same mask, which is very handy. There’s no auto-masking option for the brush tool, so I had to be careful to stop the mask spilling too far out into the surrounding sky.
6. Foreground adjustments
To brighten the foreground I had to push the Exposure slider quite a long way upwards. This left the shadows looking pretty weak, so I compensated by reducing the Black value to restore a full, dense black to the darkest parts of the foreground.
JPEG vs RAW in Exposure X
You don’t HAVE to start all your editing with a RAW file. This was shot on the new Nikon D780, and Exposure X did not support its RAW files at the time this was written, so I had to work with the JPEG instead – and it was easily good enough.
The fact is, JPEGs get a pretty bad press, and they don’t really deserve it. This one had a good range of tones with no blown highlights and the results look great.
Besides, Exposure X, for all its many excellent qualities, is not the program I’d choose for RAW processing. With RAW files I’d rather launch it as a plug-in/external editor from Lightroom or Capture One – but it can generate very nice results from JPEGs, so I don’t fixate on using RAW files in Exposure X unless I need to recover highlight detail or fix white balance issues.