Create colour depth
Sunsets and sunrises are amongst the most beautiful subjects on which a photographer can turn their camera
Sunsets and sunrises are amongst the most beautiful subjects on which a photographer can turn their camera. It’s no wonder they are amongst the most popular subjects, for amateurs, professionals and non-photographers alike. However, many images shot at these times of day can seem flat and whilst still attractive, can lack the depth the photographer saw when they were making the image in-the-field. It can be frustrating when this happens, as we can see vibrant colour in the image, but something seems to be missing.
In this case, the likelihood is that there is a restricted colour depth – that is, there are plenty of warm hues but cooler tones are missing from your photo. When you look at a sunset or sunrise scene, you’ll often observe that the warm colours only extend so far from the horizon, close to where the ball of the sun sits. Further up the sky and in the shadow areas, there are many cooler tones. By adding these back into the image, you can create a contrast of warm and cool that will produce an image with added balance.
Open in Camera Raw/Lightroom
Both ACR and Lightroom feature the Gradient Tool, so either of these applications will be adequate for this procedure.
Zero all settings
Press G to call up the Gradient Tool. Make sure all of the sliders are centred to begin with so you can ensure you don’t add any unwanted adjustments. Double click on a slider to automatically zero the setting.
Draw a gradient
Pull the Temperature slider to the left to add some cool colours. Then draw in a gradient from the top of the frame down at an angle to cool the areas of the image furthest from the sun. You can tweak the strength of the effect by adjusting the Temperature slider again. Also try adding some Magenta, to add another colour into the mix and boost Saturation very slightly. These steps are optional depending on your image.
Add back some warmth
The gradient may have overlapped some areas of the foreground, such these trees, where we don’t want a cooling effect. Hit K to bring up the Adjustment Brush and paint over the area we want to remove the cooling effect with a large, soft brush and with a positive value on the Temperature Slider. Be subtle with this procedure as we want to avoid seeing ‘blobs’ of inconsistent colour.
Cool the horizon
Immediately after sunrise or just before sunset, this step will likely be unnecessary as the sun will be right at the horizon, but here it is further above the horizon line, so we can add some extra cooling around the middle ground. Use the Adjustment Brush and paint with a low Flow value and large brush size with a negative Temperature. Check ‘Show Mask’ to keep an eye on where you’ve applied the effect and erase areas that have spilled too far into the warm areas. Don’t worry if this happens slightly though, as a natural blend of colour is desirable.
Finish in Photoshop
Again another optional step – open your image in Photoshop and use the Reflected Gradient Tool (the fourth Gradient along in the row) to further cool the horizon.
Set a cool blue colour as your Foreground Colour, drag a gradient over the horizon area (working on a blank layer) and change the blend mode of the layer to Soft Light. You can then add a layer mask and paint with Black on the White mask to remove cooling from areas you don’t want the cooling applied too.