Indigo Sunset | Before/After Processing Example

Disclaimer: I edited this image using artistic license. If that’s not your thing, I get it; it’s not for everyone.

Indigo Sunset

After Image:

Before Images (3)


For Wave Streaks

Background & Vision

I shot this image on a recent trip to the Washington Coast. The visible satellite showed a clear horizon and high clouds above, indicating the potential for a blazing sunset. Well, maybe if I was up on Mt Olympus. But down at sea level, not a chance. As is routine in June, low-level stratus clouds in the marine layer socked in the views. Not deterred, I decided to take advantage of the even lighting and ended up getting small breaks in the cloud deck, which added texture and interest in the sky.

When I’m in the field, I try to capture any pieces I may need for the final image. If that means combining several frames for the right waves, then that is what I do. I generally avoid moving any permanent objects, but it is art, and each of us must define our limits.

For the final image, I emphasized the following:

  • a directional light source
  • pleasing wave streaks
  • a cool, monochromatic mood that captures the feelings of my time spent on the coast

I spent 15 minutes in Lightroom, mostly culling, and selecting the base images. And then I spent about 3 hours in Photoshop.

Technical Stats:
14mm, ISO 160, f/13, 1/6 sec, polarizer.

Edit Process

Lightroom - Raw

  • Expand dynamic range - used Highlights and Shadows to expand the dynamic range so that the image looked right to how I remembered the scene.
  • Split Tone - added a touch of warmth to the highlights to separate the tones more by color. and added blues to everything using a cooler white balance
  • Adjust colors - in Calibration panel, add Blue Saturation (+70) and shift Red hue (+15)
  • Reduce unwanted color - used HSL to reduce green color in algae on the rocks and trees on the edge of the frame.
  • Remove water spots using Spot Removal Tool
  • Remove Chromatic Aberration (Lens Corrections)
  • Sharpen image by holding ALT while dragging the Amount, Radius and Detail sliders. Getting the image to the correct sharpness added too much noise to the sky and using the Mask slider created halos. Since I knew I needed to do further work on the sky, it was important to get a clean file. Therefore, I created a virtual copy in which I removed the sharpening and applied Luminance Noise Reduction until the noise disappeared.
  • Opened all four images in Photoshop as layers (Base, Base with no sharpening and noise reduction, and the two wave streak images.)


  • Blend sharp ground with the noiseless sky - selected sky using Quick Selection Tool and refined in Select & Mask.
  • Blend streaks - adjust the transparency of streak layers to 50% and use the Move Tool to move them into position as needed for the composition. Once in place, bring transparency back up and use a black mask with white paint and a soft-edged brush at 100% opacity to paint in.
  • Straighten horizon
  • Flatten image.

Now, I focused on drawing the eye from near to far. To do this, I:

  • Emphasized the light source - on a blank layer, I used the Dodge and Blur tools on the distant highlights. I then added a touch more warmth to them in Color Balance.
  • Dark to light (create depth) - added more dark contrast to near objects using Levels and a mask.
  • Create separation between background layers (i.e., sea stack and trees behind it) - stamp visible and add large Gaussian Blur (200-400pixels). Hide it with a black mask and paint using a white brush at low opacity (~10%). Most distant objects get maybe 20%; closest get around 5%.
  • Spot healing brush to clean up some distracting elements
  • Creative sharpening using High Pass Filter (2-3 pixel radius) with the layer set to Overlay and paint on with white brush on a black mask.
  • Crop to remove white space.

At this point, 90% of the heavy lifting is done, and I spent the next hour or so making small adjustments to the contrast and color using Selective Color and Levels in combination with @Sean_Bagshaw’s TK Action Panel to select the tones I wanted to modify.

Other adjustments:

  • Vignette to draw the eye
  • Orton - using the TK Action Panel, add blur (~50 pixels) and luminosity over the entire image (including foreground). Set layer to ~10% opacity. Yes, I like sharp, blurry images :stuck_out_tongue: )
  • Web Sharpen and add signature

Please share any feedback, and let me know if you have questions. Cheers!


The low viewpoint and the water rushing towards me gives me a strong “being there” feeling. I also like the cool, muted colour.

Thanks @James_Lorentson for this wonderful look at your workflow for this image. It is very helpful. Also, this is a beautiful shot of one of my favorite beaches!

Hey James, very nicely done. Thanks for setting the scene in-the-field and then sharing your detailed workflow. Although I find these very helpful and fun to study, I always have an odd reaction. I absolutely love the After Image at the top of the post, but my joy for the image fades slightly once I know the pieces. This isn’t because of the artistic license and layering, you created an awesome image and you told me that before seeing the After Image up top, and I’ve no problem with that and do it myself (not very well). But I like the top image better than the bottom image (which I assume are the same image, maybe cropped slightly different?). Maybe this tells me I shouldn’t read the “behind the scenes” posts and just enjoy the cool images. Though, to your true purpose, these help us learn and try to new things. I am curious if others have the same reaction? Obviously normal, eh?

I’ve yet to be on the Washington Coast with camera in hand (or on tripod). Thanks for the inspiration to get there once again.

Very very nice scene and superb processing. I like a lot that you shared your workflow and thought process.

Excellent vision and workflow James! Thanks for giving us a look into your process. The final result is dynamic and super clean!

Thanks, Alison. I’m glad the image had the effect of feeling like you were there. A great compliment.

Cheers, Brent, I’m happy to hear you found it helpful. Maybe I’ll see you around out there.

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Hey DCraig, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder why that happens to you. The top and bottom images are the same. So maybe as you see the other “raw” images, your creative vision takes those in a different direction than my result? So then when you see the result, it feels off from what you have in your mind. Just a guess.

You should make time to come visit with a camera. When you do, reach out and I can pass on some tips.

Appreciate the kind words, Stefan, glad you enjoyed the post. Cheers.

Appreciate your warm feedback, Sean. I’m lucky to have had some great mentors. :wink:

I like the feel of the finished image. The low viewpoint adds to the power of the water and the grandeur of the stacks.

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Thank you very much for this informative post. This kind of posting is so useful for those of us working on our post-processing skills. Your final image is just gorgeous, a reflection of the careful work and many steps you took to get it there. It isn’t a magic trick! It takes lots of hard work and knowledge to make an image sing, as you have done so well here.

You’re welcome, Kathy. I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you have questions about processing or want to work on one of your images together, let me know.

And thank you so much for your kind praise—you are right that some images take a lot of work to fulfill the vision in our heads. That’s a big part of the fun and where we really get to stretch our creative muscles. Happy shooting!

I love this image @James_Lorentson in fact I’ve been binge viewing all your images and blog posts. Awesome body of work.

How did you change the overall colour of the image?

Thanks a lot, Chris. I appreciate it, and glad you enjoyed the images and blog posts. Look out for another post at the end of this month on some of the finer points of composition.

In the above image, I attained the bluer tones through a white balance adjustment to the shadows and mid-tones. I used Split Toning to hold the highlights warm while pulling everything else a little cooler.

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