When you take photographs on a hazy day, moisture particles in the air diffuse the light, causing distant objects to display a more subtle range of tones. This is a great way of evoking a sense of depth, due to the gradual change in contrast between objects in the foreground and those in the background.
The downside of shooting in such hazy conditions is that those more distant objects can be somewhat lacking in detail and definition. The haze can bleach distant colour, too, especially when shooting into the sun.
As you can see, our original high-contrast scene has a range of tonal and colour problems to fix. Much of our landscape is backlit, so the foreground shadows are under-exposed and lack texture and detail.
As the haze has robbed the distant mountains of detail and colour too, there’s lots of selective tones to tweak before you can recover hidden detail.
Here, we’ll show you how to combine the tools of the Camera Raw editor with the standard Photoshop editor’s powerful Adjustment Layers to restore the textures in the under-exposed foreground, while recovering detail and colour from the washed-out, hazy background.
01 Open your source file
Open your start image. If the file is a digital negative it will open in Photoshop Elements’ Adobe Camera Raw editor. By starting your image editing in the uncompressed RAW format you will have much more tonal information to work with, enabling you to keep artefacts such as picture noise to a minimum.
02 Fake fill-in flash
The rocky foreground shadows are under-exposed. If you boosted the strength of the Exposure slider you’d blow out the hazy background highlights. However, by dragging the Fill Light slider to 42 you can lighten the backlit shadows without adjusting the highlights. This has the same effect as using a large blast of fill-flash on location.
03 Improve the Clarity
The washed-out tones in the hazy background vary in subtle ways, making the distant hills blend together. By increasing the Clarity slider to 54 you can gently enhance the contrast in these delicate areas, at the same time bringing out some of the landscape’s features that were initially hidden by the haze.
04 Boost the Vibrance
By boosting the strength of colour in the scene you can bring out more texture and detail. Drag Vibrance up to +23. This slider boosts typical landscape colours, such as blues and greens. When enhancing weaker colours it leaves strongly saturated colours untouched to avoid over-saturating parts of the picture.
05 Crop and straighten
The shot’s horizon is a little wonky. To fix this, grab the Straighten tool and draw a line that follows the tilted horizon. The Camera Raw editor will automatically rotate and crop the shot to make the horizon horizontal. To see the cropped and rotated shot, click on Open Image. The edited photo will now appear in Photoshop’s standard interface.
06 Spot removal
Use the Zoom tool to take a closer look at the nasty sensor spot on the horizon. To remove it, grab the Spot Healing Brush from the Tools palette. In the Options bar, set a Size of 40 pixels, and then carefully spray over the spot. Photoshop will replace it with a clear patch of adjacent sky.
07 Getting warmer
The shot’s colours are a little cold. To quickly warm up the whole image, go to Window>Layers to open the Layers palette. Click the Create New Adjustment Layer icon and choose Levels from the drop-down menu. Grab the Set Grey Point eyedropper, then click on a patch of hazy light blue sky.
08 Shades of grey
The shot now looks too warm. For a less dramatic adjustment, click on the Levels 1 Adjustment Layer’s white mask to target it. Next, choose Edit>FillLayer. In the Fill Layer window, set Contents to 50% Grey and click OK. This reduces the strength of the Levels adjustment by 50%.
09 Select the sky
Click on the Background layer in the Layers palette to target it. To add more colour and texture to the hazy washed-out sky, grab the Quick Selection tool from the Tools palette. Spray the tool over the sky to create a selection marquee. Next, create a new Levels Adjustment Layer. This layer will feature a black-and-white mask.
10 Adjust shadow levels
Click on the Levels 2 Adjustment Layer. In the Adjustments palette, drag the black Shadow input level slider to the right, to a value of around 136. This adjustment will darken the sky and reveal more colour and texture. The black section of the mask protects the foreground’s tones from being altered.
11 Remove unwanted artefacts
You’ll see that there’s now a sharp line where the sea meets the sky. There’s also a dark fringe around the edge of the distant hills. To remove these lines, grab the Brush tool from the Tools palette. Choose a soft round brush with a diameter of 300 pixels, then set the foreground colour to black. Set Opacity to 50%.
12 Blend the sky and sea
Click on the Levels 2 mask in the Layer’s palette, then spray the brush over the horizon to lighten it and blend the sky with the sea. The semi-transparent brush adds grey strokes to the mask, causing the Levels adjustment to be weaker in the painted areas. Lighten the lower sky to remove the fringe around the hills.
13 Protect the sky
To increase the foreground contrast without altering the sky, Ctrl-click on the Levels 2 mask to create an instant selection. Choose Select>Inverse, then create a new Levels Adjustment Layer. The black-and-white mask will be the opposite of the Levels 2 mask, so this time only the foreground will be adjusted.
14 Adjust foreground contrast
Set the Levels 3 Adjustment Layer’s white Highlight input level slider to 221 to brighten the highlights. Set the Shadow slider to 20 to darken them. Lighten the midtones by dragging the grey input slider to 1.27. Spray a black brush on the mask to prevent the background hills being lightened.
15 Make the grass greener
The grass in the foreground is too yellow. To make it a more natural green colour, create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. Set the Colour drop-down menu to Yellows, then drag the Hue slider right to +13 to turn the yellows into a more vibrant green and bring out the texture of the grass.
16 Restore some detail
To recover more tonal variation in the distant hazy hills, grab the Brush tool from the Tools palette. Reduce the Opacity to 7%, then click on the Levels 2 Adjustment Layer’s mask. This is currently set to darken the sky. Set the foreground colour to white, then spray the brush to gently darken (burn) detail in the washed-out hills.
Once you darken the sky in step 10 you’ll reveal hidden textures and colours and hidden artefacts, such as sensor spots. When you’ve finished editing the image, choose Layer>FlattenImage. You can then use the Spot Healing Brush to polish off any remaining dust.
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