An Insight Into My Workflow

Here's the latest addition to my portfolio. This is the Hong Kong skyline shot from one of the Central Ferry Piers. That gleaming tower in the middle is Central Plaza, once the tallest building in Asia. I love Hong Kong. It has some amazing structures which give an almost Blade Runner-esque feel to some parts of the city. This one reminds me of the king of skyscrapers - the Empire State Building in New York.

Hong Kong Skyline

Quite proud of this image really. Took me a heck of a long time to produce! I originally shot this over 2 years ago (May 2013). What really caught my eye at the time was the shape of the skyline. I thought it looked very interesting from this angle. It was also a really cloudy day so I thought I might get some interesting cloud motion with a long exposure. The actual image did not set my heart alight though.

It looked very bland on first impressions and I couldn’t really figure out how to get the most out of it. As a result, it sat in the deep dark corners of my harddisk until I rediscovered it last week while rummaging around looking for a new image to work on. I figured it might be useful for me to write a little about the process I followed, if only so I can formulate and articulate my thoughts for the next image.

So here’s a picture of the scene in realtime:

The original scene, shot from Central Ferry Piers.

And this is the 2:1 cropped image as it came out of the camera after the long exposure:

The long exposure image, as it came out of the camera, cropped to 2:1.

As you can see, quite different to the final picture! This was a 4-minute exposure in the middle of an overcast day (1.18pm to be precise), conditions which are generally not conducive for good photos. What works in this case, however, is exactly the fact that the light is completely flat. No deep shadows, no strong highlights. This makes for a great starting point with which to introduce contrast the way I like it.

Usually, I like to start by playing around with some Lightroom presets to see what's possible. Essentially what I'm doing is quickly previewing some prototype versions to see what works and what doesn’t. Lightroom is so fast and powerful for this sort of stuff and there are some great presets available on the web.

Once I’ve got a good sense of the direction to take, I’ll then bring the image into Photoshop to do the heavy lifting. Usually, my first step in Photoshop is to choose my selections. This is the most tedious part of the whole process (and the part I hate the most!). The complexity of the selections will depend on the image. For this one, I knew that any processing I did would have to emphasize the Central Plaza building as the main focal point. I also knew that I’d have to introduce some “punch” into the buildings that surrounded it. So, my selections would have to allow me control over that cluster of buildings in the middle. Below is a sample of the selections I ended up making. Took me about 2-3 hours getting all the selections done. I'm very slow!

Selections in Photoshop

Curves adjustment layers to adjust contrast of each part of the image.

Once I’m done with the selections though, the fun begins. This is where I let my creativity loose! I start this part of the process by converting the image to black and white. I usually use Silver Efex Pro 2 to do this but I've also used Photoshop gradient maps for this as well. Most of the time, I'll have one conversion for the sky and another for the rest of the image and blend them together using some of the selections made earlier.

The next step is to “light” each part of the image. For this, I tend to work with curves adjustment layers, only because I’m very comfortable with them. You can actually do this in a variety of ways though. All you need here is a tool which can adjust shadows, midtones and highlights. I ended up with 41 curves layers on this one. The idea is to make each component “pop” and therefore introduce depth to the image. The best way to achieve this is to make sure each component has some separation from the components around it.

Finally, it all comes together with some global adjustments. This involves setting the overall white and black points and adding some vignetting to make sure the eyes really stay within the image. I also love me some film grain so I usually add some in the final stages.

And that’s how this image went from a rather flat-looking after-thought of a picture, to what is now, one of my favourite images. It took about 20 hours of work to process this image from start to finish! Very long for some (myself included), but compared to some other photographers I know, this is nothing! 

Anyway, this is the first time I’m doing a behind-the-scenes write up like this so if you have any feedback or suggestions, do let me know. In the meantime, hope you found this useful and interesting. If you like what I've done here and would like to see more, consider subscribing to my blog. Thanks for dropping by!