Start to Finish Edits: Swept Away

Start to Finish – “Swept Away” 
Max Foster


“Swept Away” was taken in the Narrows of Zion National Park during a very high water flow period. One of the most compelling aspects to Narrows photography is the amazing glow that you can see on the canyon walls at certain times of day. With “Swept Away,” I wanted to find a composition that had strong leading lines straight to the glowing wall. This spot had everything I was looking for; the converging water pointing deep into the image, great glow on the walls and lots of neat details throughout the scene.

This tutorial will show you how to edit an image without direct sunlight but plenty of color and light contrast. As you can see from the RAW file much of the color and contrast is muted, so we have some work to do. Many of these adjustments will seem very minor, and that is deliberate. I find that making small adjustments yields much more refined results, it just takes more time.

The goals for this image are:

  • Fix the distortion and sharpen the image
  • Brighten and add contrast to add life to the image
  • Separate and enhance colors
  • Focus the eye through the image from the converging water to the canyon glow

Let’s get started!

Image settings: Nikon D610, 16-35MM F/4 Lens – 16MM, ISO 50, F/11, 1/3 SEC

In Lightroom, I start by removing chromatic aberration and enabling the automatic lens profile corrections. I want to make the walls appear as tall as possible, so this lengthens them slightly, as well as removes some pretty heavy vignetting.

The photo needs presharpening to bring out those fine details in the rock walls and boulders. I find that an amount of 41 is suitable, with radius at 0.5 and detail at 100. This really makes the inherent softness of the RAW file disappear. This file was shot at ISO 50, so there is no need for noise reduction.

The next step is to bring some life to the colors in the image. The best way to initially do this is to utilize the camera calibration module. The saturation sliders here are very powerful, and can boost color without the overly saturated look of using the basic module’s saturation slider. With this image, I set red at 36, green at 5 and blue at 93. This adds a lot of pop to the image. You can really see the difference in the green foliage, glow on the rock wall and in the water.

I am happy with the white balance and tint in the file, so I will leave it at its original setting. The next step is to make some global contrast adjustments. I think the image needs a small amount of added brightness, so I will move exposure up about a quarter stop (+.24). Some of the highlights up at the top of the image are getting close to clipping, so I want to bring the highlights down by -24. Next, the shadows and black point need to be increased a bit to lighten things up even more, so I set shadows to +7 and the black point to +12. Finally, the image can benefit from a small increase in midtone contrast and depth so I will set clarity to +10. Be careful not to push clarity too high or you will see some really nasty image degradation.

Next, I want to do a few local adjustments before we bring this file into Photoshop. I want to bring out some of the blue/green of the water in the Virgin River. The best way to do this will be with the adjustment brush. I want the adjustment to blend in nicely, so I set the brush to a feather of 100 and flow of 50. To bring out the blue, I set the white balance temp to -31 and the tint to 5. With the red brush mask below you can see the areas that I brushed in the effect.

Next, I want to really bring out the glow in the canyon so that the eye is immediately drawn to that spot. Again, the brush will be the tool of choice. I want to increase brightness so I bump the exposure to +.19, yet I don’t want the brightest areas to clip so I reduce the highlights slider by -5. Next, I slide the temp way up to +50. This area can be enhanced significantly, so I will do two passes with the same settings. Again, the red mask overlay shows where the adjustment is applied.

Below you can see the adjustments to this point. I think it is looking great and we are now ready to bring it into Photoshop.

When bringing files into Photoshop, the first thing I do is make a new group called “Edits.” I put all my layers into this group (and sub groups if needed) so I can easily see the before / after effects of what I am doing.

The first adjustment is to rebalance the composition slightly. I want the walls to appear slightly taller, and I want the rocks in the foreground to be centered a bit more. I make a copy of the base layer (Ctl+J) and then enter the transform screen (Ctl+T). Right click to get to the warp tool. At the center of the image, I drag down and to the left to lengthen the walls. At the very bottom, I drag to the left just slightly. These small adjustments help to balance things out perfectly.

Next, I want to give the image a little more dreamy look and glow by adding a small amount of Orton effect. There are many ways to add Orton, but this is one of the easiest. Start by merging the visible layers into a new layer (Ctl+shift+alt+e). Then with this new layer selected, open the Gaussian blur dialog box. The blur amount will depend on the image size. I am working with a 24mp file, and I find that 30 is a great level. If you have higher resolution files, you will likely need a higher amount.

Next, I go to Image/Adjustments/Brightness & Contrast. In the dialog box, I enter 90 for contrast and 35 for brightness. These values again will depend on the image you are working with. Typically, I have the contrast setting at least double the brightness setting. After clicking OK, I then adjust the layer opacity to 10%. This allows the softness and dreamy feel to come through, yet it doesn’t muddy up the details.

It is now time to add a little contrast to the image. I like to start by adding some pop to the midtones by making a MT-2 luminosity selection with the TKAction Panel.

Then I create a curves adjustment layer with the luminosity selection. You can see the selection below. The lighter areas in the mask allow the adjustment to affect these areas more than the dark areas. For more detail on luminosity masks, check out Sean Bagshaw’s informative tutorial series.

With the new curves layer selected, I open the properties. Using the on-image selection tool in the curves properties, I can then click and drag on the image itself to adjust the curve. I find a spot on the image that rests just on the light/right edge of the histogram, and drag up. Then I find a spot on the dark/left edge of the histogram and drag down making a slight S-curve. This adds a nice amount of contrast to the midtones, without impacting the dark and light areas of the image.

Now I want to utilize the powerful tools in the NIK Efex suite. First I make a merge visible layer (NIK needs a pixel layer on the top of the layer stack to work properly). Then I open up Color Efex from the filter menu. The first adjustment I make will be under the landscape menu on the left panel, called Pro Contrast. This is a great tool to add contrast without any weird artifacts or harshness. I move the Dynamic Contrast slider to 12%, and then I move the highlights slider to 30% to avoid impacting the highlights too much.

Then I want to enhance the midtones and highlights with the Tonal Contrast filter. I change the defaults all to 0, then add in as needed. In this case, I think 10 on both the highlights and midtones works perfectly. Notice how these areas have a nice amount of punch now.

Finally, I want to add a bit more warmth to the image, and the Skylight Filter is just what is needed. This is an intelligent filter that simulates a warm glass filter. Once again, 10% is the right amount. After that, I click OK and it creates a new layer in Photoshop.

The image is looking great, and is really coming to life. With a few more adjustments, we will be set! I want to add a bit more color contrast to the image by enhancing the cyan in the water. I add a selective color layer and choose cyans from the colors menu. I want to add more cyan, so I bump this slider to +8, and reduce the others as shown. This adds just a touch more cyan to the water, without making it look unnatural.

The image seems to have a slight green tint, so I want to add a little bit more blue and reduce the green using a curves layer. This is one of my favorite ways to quickly edit the overall colors in an image. In this image, I used the gray point picker tool on the curves layer and then clicked on a spot in the upper right of the image that was fairly monochrome. This did the trick perfectly, and adjusted the colors nicely. You can see the curves layer now has a blue line raised above and a green line below. This can also be done manually by selecting the specific color you want to edit from the dropdown menu, and then using the on-image adjustment tool to increase/decrease the color.

I now want to enhance the glow up in the top of the image, and add a little structure to the details. Nik’s Viveza is a great option for this. I first make a merge visible layer, and then open Viveza from the filter menu. I start by making global adjustments. I increase brightness by 3% and structure by 15%, and then add a control point right where the glow is strongest at the top of the image. This is where Viveza really shines. I can add brightness (+15%), Red (13%) and warmth (+44%) without impacting the rest of the image. It blends it in seamlessly with a soft feather. I click OK to bring this back into Photoshop.

Everything looks great, so now I want to start shaping the light in order to lead the eye through the image more effectively. This is best achieved using dodging and burning with several layers. This will allow us to separate out each area and quickly undo anything as needed. I start by creating a 50% gray layer, which will be used for the dodging and burning, along with the paintbrush. To do this, I create a new empty layer and then click Edit/Fill. I select 50% gray from the menu and change the blend mode to soft light.

I click OK and then the image turns gray. In the layer menu, I change the blending mode on this new layer to soft light as well. Now the image looks as if nothing was done to it, which is what we want. I duplicate this layer 4 times to create several layers to work on. Below you can see the areas I want to edit. To focus the eye, I will add a dark vignette to the bottom and upper corners. I do this by selecting the brush tool and a very large 2,500px brush with hardness set to 0. With my brush opacity set to 7 and the color set to black, I take light brush strokes in the areas described. The gradient tool also works well for vignettes.

After that, I want to highlight the glow a bit more in the central box above, and also bring out some lightness in the rocks and canyon walls (middle boxes). I leave my brush settings, except make the brush smaller. I then use the eyedropper tool to sample the color of the glow (roughly orange). I then select the brightest value for the specific hue (the top of the color palette is brightest). This will allow me to add brightness, but not wash the color out. I then paint in the areas mentioned.

That brings a lot more focus to the light in the image, as seen below.

The darks could use a little brightness, but I don’t want to impact the mids or lights in the image. Using the TK Actions panel I select the Darks-2 luminosity selection and apply it to a curves adjustment layer. Using the on-image adjustment tool, I find an area on the image just at the right edge of the curves histogram and bring it up slightly. Then toward the left edge I bring it down just a bit. I also want to cool off the darks a little, so I go into the blue channel and drag the blue down a bit.

The contrast and colors are looking spot on, but I want to give one final pass to the glow in the canyon, some boulders, and the reddish rock just above the water line. I open up Viveza and adjust the warmth to +17 and red to +16.

Back in Photoshop, I only want to apply this to the areas mentioned, so I apply a mask to the layer and invert to so it masks out the entire layer. Using a soft brush at 75% opacity, I apply white on the mask in the areas mentioned so they show through.

Now I want to further darken the upper corners and the foreground rocks to add some rich depth. Using a dodge / burn layer like those above, I paint black on at 7% opacity.

The water needs a little more blue, so I then add a curves adjustment layer and in the blue channel I bring it up ever so slightly. I then reduce the green as well. Once again, I only want this to show through on the water, so I need a layer mask. I add a mask and invert it to black, then with a 75% opacity white brush I paint on the water to make the adjustment visible.

Finally, I want to darken some of the water to make the highlights in the river stand out more. Using a dodge / burn layer, I use a black 7% opacity brush and apply paint at the edges of the water line.

That’s it! This image ended up with just under 20 layers, which is on the low side for most of my images. As mentioned, I like to make minor adjustments so I can fine tune things as I go. This method also allows you to go back and undo things without having to redo the entire image.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, and find these tools to be helpful in your own workflow. You can find more tutorials on the RRS blog each month!

Max Foster is a travel and landscape photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information visit


  1. Chris Ward says:

    Well done Max! A very deliberate approach to shooting and processing the image. I find that having a plan to shoot and edit the image beforehand definitely makes it easier than shotgunning a bunch of scenes and then trying to make those “snapshots” beautiful. I look forward to checking out more of your work.

  2. Matt says:

    Awesome article Max…didn’t know about the gray color picker in the curves adjustment options, will have to try that. Nice work though, I’m sure it took some time and it turned out great.

  3. Marc Baillargeon says:

    Wow. Humbling in its sophistication and of course results.
    Great work Max!

  4. Max says:

    Thank you Chris! I certainly agree; when you pre-visualize, the results can be much better. Glad you enjoyed this one, thanks for the feedback!

  5. Max says:

    Hey Matt! Thanks for dropping by, I appreciate it!

  6. Max says:

    Hey Marc, thank you for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it!

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