Restoring a Binned RAW Image

Nearly but not quite. First attempt at restoring an image of the Mourne Mountains at dawn. Canon EOS 5D, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 30.0mm, ISO 100, 1/200 @ f4.5.
The original image.

While looking through old images I decided I’d have a go at restoring one that seemed a total lost cause. It was an interesting first attempt that took me half the day and proved to be a steep learning curve! But practice makes perfect, and all that. I had no idea the image had so much potential. The shot was taken handheld in the wonderful glow of early morning light. Truth be told, it was a daft idea trying to grab an image in these conditions.

Many of my landscape shots are handheld, but that’s no excuse. I should have set up my tripod, used f8 or f11and taken two exposures, one for the sky and the other for the foreground. I sometimes wonder if many dedicated landscape shooters occasionally have their cameras on a tripod when they don’t need to. In my modest literature collection I have a book of quality images by accomplished professional photographer Brian Bower who rarely used a tripod with his Leicas (excuse me!), preferring to shoot handheld outdoor shots in a wide variety of situations. Great results, and on film too.

Yes, 30+ MP sensors may sometimes be a different proposition, especially with longer focal lengths. But shooting handheld in good light at lower ISO settings with appropriate shutter speeds can deliver sharp results, especially with stabilisation technology built into lenses and cameras. I don’t need more than 20 MP, and you probably don’t either. We should aim to enjoy the portability and spontaneity offered by small format cameras.

Certainly, we will need a tripod in dim light, for long exposures and bracketed shots, and it can be an advantage when shooting low to the ground using live view on a tilting screen. A tripod is also necessary for software processing techniques that combine several files into one high quality image.

Does a tripod always help us compose the frame by slowing us down, encouraging us to think things through more carefully? Or does it cramp our creativity by impeding convenient movement and easy compositional experimentation? Does it matter? I’d say it probably does. Maybe it’s sometimes worthwhile trying both approaches and studying your results. Anyway… moving on.

Although I can understand their popularity and usefulness, since I switched to digital in 2003 I’ve never been a big fan of graduated filters. I would rather preserve the range of tones in the scene than tone them down before capture, which is essentially what a neutral density graduated filter does. I’ve listened to the arguments back and forth from those who favour controlling skies in the field and won’t countenance anything else.

But I prefer shooting two images if possible, or even processing just one twice, which is what I did with the above shot. Movement in two separate images of a landscape scene isn’t a deal breaker. Maybe it’s just the difference between the pro purists and the less industrious amateurs? But I don’t think so. Yes, I’ve heard of using a graduated filter side-on when shooting a waterfall that’s much brighter at one side, but I bet two images could be successfully blended.

Software like ON1 is remarkably flexible when holding images in layers. The sky layer can be selectively graduated over the image that was exposed or processed for everything else. It’s possible to paint in and paint out areas and details in the graduated image. This can be very helpful. Tonal enhancements can be made to regions in shadow around horizons, lessening the impact of the graduated layer without compromising the effect on the sky. In fact, both layers can be tonally and selectively adjusted before being combined. This is significant when the horizon is very uneven. It’s even possible to target trees in software. Tricky though, but I’m determined!

So, in this case having just one image to use, I copied it, renamed one and processed them separately – once for the sky, then again for everything else. After further editing I combined the two and targeted specific areas and details throughout the single image. Unfortunately while working on a new layer of the central section of the frame I overworked tonal structure which caused detail to break down quite badly here and there. Oddly it seemed much worse after exporting to a TIFF, as did the dividing line at the horizon.

I missed something somewhere. But in my second attempt with this image, and with others in the future, I now know to avoid these issues and get an even better result. (I might try getting rid of that jet trail too.) Using two separately and correctly exposed images would be a significant advantage, but this processing practice has been very instructive.

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