Finding Treasures in the Sand with Post Processing

It has been over a year since my wife and I did our photography tour to some western states in the USA. I recently had a chance to revisit some of the photographs that we captured during that trip. I decided to play around in post a little bit, finding treasures in the sand.

All of the images in this article were captured hand-held at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. The objective of the article is to briefly discuss some post processing options that readers may find of interest when working with desert-type images.

Each of the comparisons begins with an out-of-camera jpeg, followed by an image produced from the corresponding RAW file. By clicking on the images you can enlarge them, then toggle back and forth to compare them.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-160

I shot this image hand-held using the 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 fully extended to 300mm (efov 810mm). What caught my eye were the alternating angles of the ridge of sand dune. What is not readily apparent in the out-of-camera jpeg are the footsteps in the sand and many of the other details in the image. It just looks flat and lifeless.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-160

Here is the same photograph, but this version of the image was produced using the RAW file. I did some very simple adjustments to the RAW file to bring out more of the subtle colour shading and details.  I have no way of knowing what software that each of you may use so it likely isn’t all that helpful to mention specific functions in particular software programs. Instead, my comments will be more directional in nature so you can apply them to the software you use.

My basic approach with these types of images is to adjust highlight and shadow sliders to uncover as much of the differences in shading as I can. I may also add a bit of definition with some judicious use of the black slider.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-160

Then, I will use a micro-contrast setting to add some definition and crispness to the image. I typically do not add any sharpness to my Nikon 1 J5 files, but you may choose to use the sharpness settings in your software if it does not have a micro-contrast adjustment.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-160

While sand may look monochromatic, it actually can have a lot of subtle shading in it. To coax some of the subtle colours out of an image I often will increase saturation very modestly. In the first two sample pairs of images above, you will see that these simple adjustments have added a lot more detail and brought out more of the colour differentiation in the sand.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 258mm, efov 697mm, f/9, 1/200, ISO-160

Often times you will be shooting under very bright, harsh sunlight when photographing sand dunes. Depending on your camera, its sensor may be very challenged in terms of its ability to reproduce the dynamic range and colour depth of the scene. The result can be a very flat looking colour pallet, that just doesn’t do the scene justice. The out-of-camera jpeg above is a good example.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 258mm, efov 697mm, f/9, 1/200, ISO-160

Some software programs will have a ‘curve’ adjustment. Sometimes this function can be tricky to use, especially if it does not have any available presets. There are some presets in the curve function in CS6 (and I assume Lightroom) that allow you to very simply adjust the curve. In CS6 these options are: enhance monochromatic contrast, enhance per channel contrast, find dark and light colours, and enhance brightness and contrast.

I almost never use the last option, but I have found that the other three can often bring an image quickly back to where my mind remembers the scene. For desert scenes, I find that the enhance per channel contrast or the find dark & light colours presets are often all an image needs.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/9, 1/200, ISO-160

Depending on the angle of the light and its strength you may find photographs can look very flat and have large blobs of darkness that make it look almost black & white. The photograph above is a good example of what can happen.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/9, 1/200, ISO-160

By making simple adjustments as discussed in this article:

  • adjusting highlight, shadow and black sliders
  • increasing saturation modestly
  • working with micro-contrast and/or sharpening
  • adjusting the curve with a preset

you can improve the overall quality of your image significantly. As a result, you may be finding some treasures in the sand as well!

I should also point out that these same types of adjustments can sometimes be helpful with beach scenes shot under very strong sunlight.

If you enjoyed these images from Colorado you may enjoy our Desert & Mountain Memories eBook. It is available for purchase and download for $9.99 Canadian.

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