The Making of Moon Over Totem Pole

Moon Over Totem Pole | PhaseOne DF with Schneider 55mm, f/4.5 at 1/25th, ISO 35

One of the skills I’m not great at is Photoshop. Over the years I’ve mastered a passable skill level, perhaps better than many but certainly far from being a “guru”.  Since Lightroom 2 came out, my use of Photoshop has declined considerably.  With all the tools of Lightroom, especially local adjustments, many of the things I used to do in Photoshop are done better in Lightroom now.

One challenge a photographer often faces is trying to get their vision of a scene into the final image.  The camera doesn’t see like a human, and every single image needs to be refined. A straight linear conversion from the original camera data looks horrible, so every digital image taken is manipulated before it is shown – even camera phones.  Getting a good interpretation of a scene taken early in the morning or late in the evening, especially before sunrise or after sunset, is extremely challenging if you include the sky because the camera can’t handle the extreme difference in dynamic range.  The resulting images will either preserve foreground detail at the expense of the sky or vice versa.  The only way to present an image that appears anything at all like it was when there is to use Photoshop and two files, one with a correct sky and one with a correct foreground.

There are many other issues which result from the differences in how we see and how the camera records a scene.  We have the ability to interpret the data our eyes send to our brain and “correct” it.  With a digital capture Photoshop allows us to do the same thing, and indeed present the image in a way that we interpreted it when there.  This includes eliminating small distracting things which no one would notice when taking the photograph but are glaring problems in the image, fixing distortion, and of course correcting dynamic range issues.

As we were nearing Totem Pole in Monument Valley and the pre-dawn light began to bring things into view,  I could tell we had a bald sky … no clouds to be seen.  However, a brilliant crescent moon hovered in the sky in a perfect position for a nice composition.  In choosing a location I looked at several possibilities, but I noticed how the dune in front of me created a nice strong base, and the ripples in the sand a beautiful pattern with linear directions perfect for the beautiful rock formation above.

I setup everything carefully but when I looked at the files I was a little disappointed.  None of them were anything like what I “saw” when photographing the scene.  A little work in Lightroom and I could tell I had the information I needed … in 3 different exposures.  There was several things “wrong” with the image that needed corrected to provide the viewer any chance of seeing it how I was seeing it, and feeling the thrill I did as I realized the bald sky actually gave me an opportunity for a unique image of this often photographed landmark. Time for Photoshop.

There are 3 different captures needed to get a “correct” image.  One of the foreground, one of the sky and one of the moon. Including the moon in a landscape is actually one of the most difficult things to do, unless you are doing it when the sun is quite bright.  The landscape in front of you is often in somewhat subdued light (or even quite dark), yet the moon is always getting the full light of the sun.  An exposure based on the foreground will leave a white blob for a moon since it will overexpose and usually move during the exposure.  If you want to include the moon, it’s important to take a shot exposing it correctly, normally about 1/60th at f/8 or so.  Then you can remove the blob and use a correctly exposed moon, which will look natural and correct in the final composition.

Moon detail. The moon based on the foreground exposure is on the left, one thet exposes the moon correctly on the right

Because these files are intended as work files, I processed them slightly different, intentionally lightening the foreground image to insure all shadow detail was preserved and darkening the sky slightly to insure I had plenty of head room for saturation and not lose the detail in the clouds on left.  Once I had created the two work tiffs I stacked them in Photoshop, where I began to tackle all the problems.

My intention was to mask out the foreground in the first image and let the sky show through.  After working through that process I discovered I needed to correct the distortion resulting from having to tilt the camera up.  The rocks don’t lean, and when you see them in person you don’t see them this way.  So after stacking the two and working them up, I corrected the distortion using Photoshop’s perspective tool. I also worked with highlights and shadows, added some saturation, and several other steps, and ended up with this.

Not bad, but as I looked at the result I realized I had several problems.  First, the rocks still appeared to be leaning. Additionally, when correcting the distortion, it distorted the position of the moon in relationship to the Totem Pole.  When photographing the scene the moon was further left and slightly lower.  Finally, correcting the distortion completely eliminated the cloud I was trying to preserve.

Back to the drawing board.  This time I masked out the sky of the foreground image and corrected the distortion first.  I then brought in the layer for the sky and placed it underneath.  Of course this meant the rock formations were no longer aligned in the final image … very strange looking indeed.

To remedy that I tried content aware fill and tried to fill the area of rocks in the sky image with sky. This proved too much for the tool, as it constantly placed dark blobs of rock color.  I finally masked the sky out of the sky image, and removed all the foreground. Now using content aware fill it no longer polluted the color with the foreground colors. It involved repeating the steps over and over but eventually the blank areas showing were filled in, and I had the original sky of the scene combined with a usable version of the foreground.

Now I was ready for fine tuning.  I added a neutral grey layer that was clipped to the foreground image in soft light mode. This is basically a dodge/burn layer, painting on it with anything darker than mid grey will lighten the image, lighter will darken what is underneath it.  Since it is clipped to the foreground layer it will only affect that layer and not layers under it such as the sky. To use this layer you use the brush tool set to either black or white, adjust your density and flow and paint on the grey layer.  I normally use a medium density and very low flow, then I can very slowly build the densities … I’ve heard Jeff Schewe at Photoshop world describe this as “sneaking up on it”.  Much easier than trying to do it too fast, going too far, and basically having to go back and try it again.  Using this I could sculpt the highlights of the rocks to bring out the glow of the rising sun which was very apparent when shooting the scene but didn’t come across in the captured image.  I also sculpted the sand a little just to make sure the shape appeared like it should.

Finally I had to tackle the moon.  Because the sky wasn’t stretched for perspective the moon position was now wrong. Using content aware fill I removed the moon from the sky layer. I found another image where the moon was correctly exposed, extracted just the moon and pasted it into a layer.  I converted it to black and white to eliminate any color issues and using another image as a reference placed it where it should have been.

A lot of work … far more than I usually have to do, but well worth it to me.  I’ve printed a 24×30 of this so far and I think I’ve got it where I like it.  I’ll run some tests to see how well it holds together and the largest size I can make available for sale through my online gallery.


Wayne Fox, M. Photog. Cr. is a retired professional photographer with over 35 years  of experience in photography and photo printing industries, and is co-owner of Pixels Foto & Frame.  For the past several years he has been passionately pursuing high end landscape photography, using everything from 80mp medium format systems to small point and shoots.  His in depth knowledge and experience in digital capture, post processing (especially using a raw workflow), and output using fully color managed workflows is frequently shared in various Pixel workshops and events.  For more information about him, including viewing his gallery of landscape images, you can check out his website at, or follow him on Facebook.

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