Distance zone processing – RAW processing in Lightroom

Skiddaw Sunrise

My style of photography is often wide-angle shots of big landscapes. I’ve found myself commonly using certain particular lightroom processing techniques with this type of scene based on zones of distance within the scene.

The frame usually splits into either two or three distance zones. First, the close foreground, anywhere from about one to a hundred metres away. There might then be a middle ground (e.g. a dip or valley just beyond leading to some further hills) which will be from a few hundred metres to some kilometres away. Finally the background, usually the sky and possibly a distant range of hills, which will be some kilometres up to effective infinity. On a beach scene you might have the sandy beach as foreground, the sea in the middle, and then sky.

Each of these three zones often have particular characteristics that need separate processing. The light (shadows and highlights), the white balance, the size of the features and hence sharpening approach, the effect of haze, all affect the best use of contrast, clarity, white balance, and shadow/highlight controls.

Let me stress, this isn’t universal but it’s something that is common in my own shots. Each shot needs to be approached individually but it’s useful to realise the truth that each distance zone has it’s own processing requirements.

Take the shot shown above. I’m standing on a middle-sized hill top called Bessyboot (middle sized by Lake District standards – the summit is about 500 metres). There are interesting rocks in the foreground quite near to me. Then the ground drops steeply to the valley and some low hills and the great mass of Skiddaw in the background. The final zone is a sky lit up by dawn sunshine. Here’s how the raw file looks straight out of camera, according to Lightroom, before any processing:


The sky is fully lit up and easily the brightest part of the picture. The valley and the middle hills are in full shadow. The foreground is a little brighter, being higher up and getting some of the light reflected from the sky. There’s some haze in the air and this has increasing effect with distance.

I want to balance the brightness and contrast across the scene in a way that looks natural but so you can see the colours and textures of each area. This means being respectful of the natural lighting conditions but also adding contrast and clarity to make the most of the beautiful dawn colours. I’ve used graduated and radial filters in Lightroom to separate the scene into the three distance zones and apply different treatments to each area.

Before this, I do something I do in probably 90% of shots of this kind. I adjust highlights to -100 and shadows to +100. I may then adjust exposure to centre the histogram, though that’s not needed in this case. The aim is to get a roughly centred histogram that is well away from the edges which will then allow me full control over the tones by adjusting the contrast without blocking shadows or blowing highlights. Here’s the result of that first step:


Now I have something I consider “normalised”, with workable tones and colours. I want to greatly increase the contrast and clarity of the middle areas. There is good dramatic light catching the hill tops and I want to make the most of that. The haze has taken away some of the details.

I add a radial filter which I stretch right across the central band. I don’t worry overmuch about the placement of the filter. In a scene like this, and most others of mine, there are naturally differences in brightness and contrast across the scene so it doesn’t matter too much exactly where I place my filter. Lightroom defaults for feathering are usually pretty good so that you can’t see the join.

Once the filter is in place, stretching, expanding and rotating until I’m happy, I shift contrast, clarity and exposure to taste. In a shot like this, and many of my shots, I like to place most tones nearer to the middle. I find that I’ve got the exposure just right when an increase in contrast gives both brighter and darker areas equally. If the exposure is wrong then a big contrast adjustment will make the whole scene either brighter or darker. You can see on the histogram that if the exposure is correct, adjusting contrast stretches the histogram equally both left and right. Too dark an exposure and the histogram will shift bodily leftwards when you increase the contrast. Similar if it’s too bright.

For this shot, with the middle ground so dark, I found an exposure boost of +0.40, and contrast and clarity of +68 and +100 respectively. You need to be sure to keep the scene looking natural. You need to pay particular attention to transitions from ground to sky, i.e., the skyline of the distant mountains, as too much clarity can create obvious halo effects. Here’s a screen shot showing where I placed the filter and the filter settings:


With the middle ground being in such deep shadow it might have been appropriate to shift the colour temperature in the radial filter. However, the blue of the shadow areas seems appropriate contrasted with the pink/orange where the sun has hit.

For the foreground, I don’t want too much detail. If I applied a big clarity increase (like I did for the mid ground) the foreground will become unnatural. There is already plenty of detail there, there’s no effect from the haze for such close details. I also don’t want to make it too bright, as it will unbalance the composition. I added a gradient filter to select the foreground and then set exposure/contrast/clarity to +0.10/+19/+25, just to get the brightness about right to balance the shot and to add a little meat so it didn’t look washed out. Here’s the placement and settings of the foreground graduated filter:


For the sky, there is already plenty of contrast. Too much clarity will make it look unreal. So perhaps just a little contrast boost and clarity. I used a gradient filter to select the sky and then contrast/clarity of +35/+29. Clouds are usually soft-edged in real life so too much clarity can look unreal. Here’s the sky filter in place:


I’d made sure at time of taking that I had a basically good exposure, using ETTR technique as far as possible, getting as much exposure in the shadows as I could without blowing any highlights. I’d used a three stop graduated neutral density filter across the sky to keep the exposure under control. Because of all this the processing was fairly simple and didn’t need much in the way of Exposure slider changes. I think the result shows the drama of the dawn light, the subtlety and beauty of the colours, while still looking natural. White balance is left at 4900k, which is the camera’s idea of normal sunlight. The colour of the light in the scene is a long way from this but that’s what you want. You don’t want neutral colours, you want the pinky-orange of dawn sun, and the blue of deep shadows.

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