When I started off with photography, I quickly realised that I need to understand two things: how to capture compositions in the field and to be able to mediate that story and feeling I felt in a final image. At first, I struggled because all my pictures turned out flat and boring. I just wasn't able to show what I actually had experienced. I realised that capturing the world as I see it in real life is impossible. Simply because a camera is not a set of eyes and a brain. Instead, I turned to my inner feeling and edited my photos according to the scene's mood and how I felt. Often I aim for to capture images with a nice atmosphere. It makes them soft and calm, almost painterly. Here are my top tips for achieving this look.
This photo was taken on a summer morning. There wasn't a lot of light, but the fog was so thick that it was only possible to see a few meters ahead. It was rather early so nature still hadn't really woken up - there was no wind at all and the lake was calm except from a few ripples. It gives a nice and calm minimalistic feeling.
Get a good start - the raw image requires certain features
I always aim to photograph when the light is soft. This occurs in the morning or afternoon when the sun rises or sets and definitely softens any image. I think of it as the closer to noon the clock is, the sharper the contrast. Preferably, I like going out in the morning before everyone else because then I experience nature waking up. Photographing when there is fog or mist also brings a certain mysterious and ethereal mood.
In this photo I was too late to get the low and soft morning light. It was extremely foggy so I'm not sure the light would have broken through anyway and it was also during mid Swedish summer where the sun hardly sets and rises anyway. The fog really brings an ethereal mood and helps add separation and depth to the image.
Reducing clarity brings out softness
Usually, I bring down the clarity just a little bit in my images. The clarity slider in Lightroom affects the mid-tones, and reducing it makes the highlights glow and spread. At times I also pull down the clarity in certain areas in the image using a radial filter or brush tool. The radial filter works incredibly well to soften blown-out skies. If I have a foggy picture, I can brush over the fog to emphasise it and make it glow a bit.
Here I decreased the clarity slightly in the whole image and added a large radial filter were i reduced the clarity in the top right corner to wash out the highlights even more. The top left photo is without the radial filter, the top right photo is with the radial filter added and the bottom image reveals the size and where the radial filter is placed.
Dehaze to make the image misty
If I know there was a bit of mist on location, but the camera didn't really pick it up, there is a possibility to add it during post-processing. Pulling down the dehaze slider does the job, but it is super powerful, so please be careful. If I don't want to add mist to the entire image, I could paint it locally with the brush tool. To get an even better result, I would make a virtual copy, pull down the dehaze slider and open both images as layers in Photoshop (dehazed image on top). Then I can put an inverted (black) mask on the dehazed layer and paint where I wish to have a bit of mist.
One of my favourite places in Berlin. It was a summer morning with a bit of mist. The top photo is my final edit and the way I remembered it. The lower left photo was how it turned out: not really that misty. The lower right photo is where I pulled down the dehaze slider and used that layer to paint in some mist in Photoshop and end up with the top image.
The icing on the cake to get the ultimate result
If I find that the beams of soft light aren't enough or something is missing, I sometimes add a lens flare in Photoshop. I search for light direction by looking at where the highlights and shadows are and place the burst of light accordingly to emphasise the sunlight. I usually only keep the burst of light and remove the rainbow flares scattered over the image. Reducing the flare layer's opacity and blurring it is most often required to achieve a soft and natural look. The lens flares in Photoshop are found in the menu Filters>Render>Lens flares.
The left photo is the the final Lightroom edit and the right is further edited in Photoshop. I removed the twig in the background for a more minimal look and added a lens flare (low opacity) at the top if the photo above the bird. It enhances the highlights in the background and bleeds into the highlights of the tree and bird.
To make my images glow, I often add a layer of the Orton effect in Photoshop. This effect enhances the highlights and makes them bleed and spread. I find that this effect is powerful and does not suit all types of images. It works exceptionally well for woodland and landscape photography, but I've also had some excellent results with a few of my macros. It's straightforward to make: copy your image into a new layer in photoshop (shift+opt+command+e), add a gaussian blur, layer blending option "lighten," and then pull down the opacity of that layer to around 10%. Done. This is the last step in my editing process.
The left image is the final Lightroom edit and the right has the Orton effect applied to it in Photoshop. I find it gives the image a brighter, softer and more painterly look to it.
Editing my photos according to a specific mood rather than replicating the reality has helped me enhance my photos' look. My aim is to make them look real, just according to my point of view, mood and esthetics. I use these tricks to achieve my desired look, more or less in all photos. I usually won't use all of these techniques in the same image, but it happens. Using the clarity and dehaze sliders in Lightroom is a straightforward approach and gives impressive results. It's just a matter of trying it out, being creative, and having fun with it.
Photoshop techniques probably require basic knowledge in using the program but are powerful and can take images to the next level. Even though I was reluctant to learn Photoshop, it has helped me improve my desired photography aesthetics. So, for me, it's definitely been worth the time and struggles, even though I'm not a very technical person.
Nevertheless, instead of sitting in front of my computer, I'd rather spend my time out in the field. That is why I try to capture optimal frames when conditions allow me to be lucky. I search for soft light, and when opportunities arise with mist or fog, I may fulfill my ethereal dream.
Thanks for reading, and the best of luck!