Autumn Rush: An In-depth Before and After Processing Example


This is a photo of Ponytail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge from the autumn of 2016. I’ve hiked past and photographed Ponytail Falls more times that I can count, but had never captured an image of it that I enjoyed until this one. The most interesting (to me) part is that this was merely a test shot for composition to show as an example to my workshop students. After having been on the road teaching for 6 days and traveling from Crater Lake, through central Oregon, and then spending a couple of days in the gorge, I wasn’t in a creative mood. Yet I kept coming back to this image when I would scroll past it and noticed that it really called to me.

So I processed it.

Be forewarned, I spend a lot of time on my images dialing them in. More time than I care to admit. But it’s important to me that I process images over the course of several days, letting my eyes rest and dialing things in to exactly where I want them. That results in many small changes that add up to my final image. I take a lot of care in my processing to ensure that it’s clean and precise. What follows is an in-depth glimpse into my workflow. I feel like I explain these concepts and this approach much more concisely in my tutorial videos, with the added benefit of seeing HOW and WHY I do things… not just WHAT I do.

Final Image

As Shot Image

Technical Information

ISO 100


I really enjoy this composition. It has a fairly central focal point in the waterfall and splash pool, with many lines and gesturing elements drawing the eye to that location. The rocks in the lower left corner provide a nice anchor for the image and they do a great job of offsetting the visual weight of the upper right corner.:


  • The primary direction that I wanted to take this image was dark and moody, as was my way of processing things back then.
  • It was my goal to have the eye flow through the image following the stream to the base of the falls, and then to bounce around the image taking in the other supporting elements such as the leaves on the rock, the splashes of color in the scene, and the textures in the water. To make this happen I had to ensure that none of those supporting elements overpowered the initial flow that I was aiming for.
  • I wanted a subtle balance of warm and cool.
  • I wanted the image to have a dreamy feel, which I tried to accomplish by having the image be fairly saturated, but not overly so overall, adding a soft touch of light, some exaggerated mist at the base of the falls, and a very small dose of Orton.

Processing Approach - ** Click on the gif’s to get them to play in the full screen view **

  • Adobe Camera Raw

    • I leveled out the tones in the file by bringing up the shadows and the lights in the tone curve panel. I then used the exposure slider to bring the overall exposure back to where it was. This gave me brighter shadows and also helped pop the lights a little to which I would build upon with color dodging. I had to pay mind to the hot areas of the waterfall and in the stream and bring those highlights back down with an adjustment brush. I also used an adjustment brush to further open up the deepest shadows under the cliff face and in the stream above the rocks/below the fallen log on the left side.
    • I burned down the cascade on the edge of the frame below the rocks as it was distracting and drawing the eye.
    • I cooled the file down a little to introduce the blue to which I would add warm light using color dodging to get that subtle warm/cool contrast.
    • I went into the Camera Calibration panel and upped the saturation of the blue channel. I find this really helps those colors pop in these forest scenes. If you use this approach, be careful to not overdo it as it can introduce artifacts if used too heavily.
    • Remove Chromatic Aberration in lens corrections.
    • Deconvolution sharpening (Radius all the way to the left, detail all the way to the right, adjust to taste with the amount slider) in the detail panel with masking to mask out of the shadows and smooth areas. If you hold alt/option down while using the mask slider you can see where it will apply and omit the sharpening in a simple black and white mask.
    • I opened the file as a smart object (SO) in Photoshop to allow access to the raw data for fine tuning after the fact.

Here’s a gif showing the changes after the raw adjustments (click to play):

  • Photoshop - Laying the Foundation

    • I made two copies of the SO that behave independently. To do this you have to right click on the smart object layer and then select “New Smart Object Via Copy”. Just a normal copy of the layer will create a new layer but every change you make to one smart object will also change the other as they are not independent.
    • In one of the new SO’s I used the HSL Panel to shift the hue of the yellow trees towards yellow/away from green, add saturation, and add luminance. I then brushed this in selectively to the foliage.
    • In the other new SO I used the HSL panel to shift the greens away from yellow and more towards green for the moss on the rock wall and any of the foliage (ferns and such) that felt more brown than green. I then brushed this in selectively to the cliff face and any foliage that I wanted to shift in that direction. Here’s a gif showing those changes (click to play):

  • Photoshop Continued - The Heavy Lifting

    • From here I started to bring in the warm light using a slightly saturated yellow (100 brightness, 35% saturation, 45˚ hue) and a lights luminosity mask. To make this easiest to dial in the color, I fill my whole soft light layer with that color and masked with the luminosity mask. That mask limits the tones to which the color is being applied. I then put that in a group by itself and put a black mask on the group. I then use a white brush to add it locally to where I want. The good thing about doing it this way is that if you want to change the color you applied all you need to do is change the color on the layer. All of the painting will remain. That way you can dial it in to exactly where you want.
      * I also added a touch of that light into the top of the frame to brighten that area and help sell the color dodging that I did on the rest of the image.
    • I used a standard soft light burn and dodge layer to give some dimensionality to the scene. I paid mind to the triangular area on the right side of the frame that felt a little messy. I burned that down to help sell the diagonal lines above and below that lead to the falls as well as to hide the mess in darker/shadow area.
    • I further opened some of the deeper shadows with localized adjustment layers using darks luminosity masks.
    • I added more blue to the shadows using a variety of darks luminosity masks in conjunction with a curves adjustment set in color blend mode and with the blue channel pulled up. I masked this out of the water.
    • I fine tuned the saturation by bringing it in a little more with a saturation adjustment while masking out the leaves on the front rocks. I further desaturated and the leaves on a separate layer because they still felt a little ‘hot’.
    • I dodged the highlights in the water with a curves layer isolated through a lights mask. I then put this in a group with a black mask and applied it where I wanted it, giving the water some dimension.
    • On a normal blank layer I added some waterfall mist, being sure to mask out the rock that is obstructing the bottom of the waterfall. To do this I just used a soft brush and sampled the color of the waterfall to use for the mist.
    • I did a significant amount of very careful cloning to clean the scene up and get rid of distractions. I cloned out all of the pine needles on the foreground rocks and any stray yellow leaves that cluttered the scene.I feel that this made a huge difference in the feel of the image which you can see in the below gif, which has all of the adjustments mentioned above (click to play):

  • Photoshop Continued - Fine Tuning and Finishing

    • With the heavy lifting done, I spent some time on fine tuning the color work. A lot of this is slight shifts in hue and saturation that probably only I would notice, but I feel it’s worth mentioning:
      • Shifting the yellows a little more towards green with a hue/saturation layer.
      • Correcting the blue and cyan in the waterfall and bringing it more towards neutral to match the foreground water.
      • Desturating the dead foliage on the bank which was feeling a little too red for my taste.
      • Shifting the greens a little more towards green.
      • Further work on the Foreground leaves by desaturating and darkening them.
      • Upon seeing a little room on the right side of the histogram, I brightened the highlights using a levels adjustment to give them a little more life.
      • A final round of cloning.
      • A very light touch of Orton.
      • A hand painted vignette that consists of a darken edges layer as well as a brighten middle layer. I do these with a large soft brush on separate soft light burn/dodge layers at 100% flow on the brush and then dial to taste with opacity.

Here’s the difference the fine tuning and finishing made (click to play):

And finally… the finished image compared to where I started because, hey, I already have a million gif’s. What’s one more? You can see that in the gif below (click to play). Please let me know if you have any questions about my process and if you made it this far… I thank you for reading and applaud your attention and your tenacity in reading through my rambling. :slight_smile:


Well done! That was a massive amount of work to create this article. Long-form technical writing can easily get messy, but you did a great job.

I know every image will be different, and you wouldn’t make these types of adjustments every time you process a photograph, but I really enjoyed reading how you think about the image. Definitely encourages me to slow down, and look at my images more critically…look for ways to improve the story I’m trying to tell.

Lots to take-in, practice, and try to apply to my own workflow.

Thank you @Ryan_Stikeleather. I do a lot of the things that I did in this photo on a lot other photos as well, such as blue in the shadows, the approach to the raw file, smart object blending, color dodging, and such. That kind of processing had gotten old and stagnant to me and lately I feel like I’ve been going brighter and higher key in a lot of my recent stuff. So as I’ve moved on from this kind of imagery I’ve also moved on from this style of processing, though the approach has remained the same, the techniques have changed a little if that makes sense.

1 Like

Thank you so much, TJ, for going to all this trouble to detail your processing. I learned a lot, and now just need to apply it. It’s a beautiful image. I do have one question about the little water flowing down at the bottom left edge. I wondered why you decided to lighten it, as I probably would have kept it darkened in order not to pull the eye away from the falls and river. In general I like these dark images of fall that suggest shorter days, and the white water makes a lively contrast. I just noticed that the image you posted at the top as “final image” does not have as bright a stream in the LL corner as the last one in this post.

I appreciate you taking the time to read @Kathy_Barnhart! Thanks for the kind words.

I actually did darken the water at the bottom for precisely that reason. I think maybe what you’re seeing in the last photo is the before photo. All of the images in this image (aside from the top three) are animated gifs that show the difference in the adjustments I was making. Just click on them to open them in the viewing window to see them play.

Let me know if you mean something different. :slight_smile:

Very well done TJ !!!

I wish more of the advanced photographers here at NPN would provide in-depth mini-tutorials on composition and processing such as this. This is an outstanding example of a “start to finish”, and I really like how you discussed both the “How” and the 'Why" for your processing choices. So many processing tutorials I see these days get all geeky with mostly Photoshop steps. There are plenty of other places to learn PS techniques, I appreciate that you instead gave us significant insight into your thinking and approach in the processing of this image, and didn’t get all bogged down in PS “keystrokes”.

This was an excellent read. To address your concern, it’s not too long, if anything it’s relatively concise given the number of topics you covered.

I think this is an excellent tutorial that that should help many NPN members open their eyes to the creative possibilities available in the their processing. Well done :+1::+1:


Thanks for taking the time to put together this excellent tutorial, TJ!

It’s always great to see another photographers creative vision come to life, and to get a glimpse of the recipe. I really think you nailed the mood you were trying to achieve.

IMHO I think the longer format start to finish work through is a great read, and didn’t feel long-winded at all!

Congrats on a stunning image!

TJ, thanks so much for the detailed insight into your work flow…including the how and why. There is lot to unpack and learn from this but it is very helpful and appreciated.

Thank you, I now see how I am supposed to view this with the gifs. What a wonderful teaching tool that is!

This is incredible, thank you so much for taking your time to complete this. Especially as a new photographer and learning post processing, it’s so valuable to understand how some images come to be and what some better photographers work looks like straight out of the camera.

This post and the other two in this category are the biggest reasons i signed up for this site, and i really hope to see more!

Hey @Ed_McGuirk! Thank you for that and for reading it! I do think that more of these will be popping up. It was fun to put together so I’ll personally be doing more in the future.

Thanks for the kind words @ChrisNoronhaPhoto! Welcome to the site! I hope you find reasons to stay. It’s a great community!

Thank you @Alan_Kreyger! Let me know if you have any questions about any of it!

Glad they worked out for you @Kathy_Barnhart!

Thanks @Casperson_CJ! I wish I had something like this when I was at the beginning of my learning. I had a few photographer friends who showed me their raw files and I was blown away knowing that I would also, some day, be able to bring my photos to life like that. All these years later I’m still trying.

TJ - thank you for taking the time to write this! I recently learned how to process with Smart Objects and they are awesome! It was definitely helpful to see your process and I appreciate the GIFs! I have been taking some time very week to explore NPN and I’m glad I read this. Thanks again! Would love to know if you do your Orton with a typical Gaussian blur or with a camera raw filter.

Thanks for this TJ must have been a lot of work putting it together i appreciate the deatails and the GIFs

I love the way you do the color dodging with a solid color fill masked then masking the mask…i will give that a go

Looking forward to more of these :smiley: