Behind The Shot: Santa Monica Nights

Santa Monica Pier just after sunset.

When you truly have an amazing sunset or scene, you don’t really need a lot of post processing. I’ve had shots that have taken me days, and I’ve shots that have only taken me a few minutes. This shot I was able to process very quickly and I’ll want to show you the tools I used to achieve these results.


I use several different techniques to process my image. Deciding which one usually is determined by how good the shot is to begin with or what kind of mood I’m in.

For this shot I use Color Efex Pro 4 with Lightroom and I want to walk you through how I like to use these program together to process my landscapes. This technique I’ve found is very good at producing some really great  landscapes which doesn’t require a lot of time or work.


Behind The Shot: Santa Monica Nights

If you’re a Fuji X shooter there are two ways you can go about doing this. The RAW way, or the JPEG way. I’ll start with the RAW way since it’s what I do if I’m using my Canon or Sony to shoot landscapes. I really only use JPEGs off my Fuji because it’s the only camera where the JPEGs actually look better.


Getting The Shot – The RAW File

Behind The Shot Raw File

Here is what the RAW file looked like in Adobe Photoshop with the color profile set to the default Adobe Standard. It’s pretty disgusting and definitely didn’t look like that when I was there.

It was shot with the camera on a tripod at ISO 200, f11 with a 1 second shutter.

When I shoot landscapes I always shoot RAW or RAW+JPEG so I have as much color and detail to work with.

The shot here is maybe a little underexposed but it should be ok. The pier is a little dark but we’ll want that on the final anyway.

I almost always bracket my shots +-2 stops in at least one direction. I did bracket this shot +-1 but I found I really only needed a single exposure. I chose the dark one because I liked what the water was doing and my highlights were not blown out. If I wanted to I could always pull a lighter shot into Photoshop and bring back the pier a little but that takes more work and more time and it’s not really necessary for this scene.

If I were shooting a Canon 5Dmkii I definitely would not overexpose or underexpose and would have to bracket both directions. Sony A7r I always bracket just in case, but usually I only need to go one direction. Meaning I would expose the image as accurately as I can, then expose another shot to get the highlights or shadows. But I imagine I would only need a single exposure with the Sony as well since it has good dynamic range as well. 


First Adjustments In Lightroom

I like Lightroom because it’s great at organizing my life, but something else I recommend to at least trying, process your fuji RAW files with Iridient Developer. You can download the demo here.

It’s designed to work specifically with the Fuji X-Trans CMOS II sensor which features an offset color pixel pattern to more accurately capture color. Because of this the images produced through Iridient are slightly sharper. The only draw back is that you don’t have access to Adobe’s Camera Profiles so you can’t set your camera profile to say Velvia/Vivid. It also shouldn’t really matter if you’re using JPEG.


Adjusting Tones

With Lightroom I start by just doing a few simple adjustments. This includes some basic tonal and curve adjustments and changing the camera profile to Velvia/Vivid.

Behind The Shot Tonal Adjustments

The image now looks like this.

My goal is to just get the image looking tonally stable and correct. I’ll be styling it later. It’s still a little dark but that’s fine.

Behind The Shot Raw Tonal Adjustments


Run It Through Color Efex Pro 4

Next I exported to Color Efex Pro 4 and load a Recipe.

My basic recipe includes, Polarization, Remove Color Cast, Pro Contrast and Detail Extractor.

Occasionally I’ll use Sunlight.

Here are the settings I used on each.



Polarization is a nice tool to use on your skies. It will shift around the colors and contrasts slightly like a polarizer would. It seems to focus mostly on the highlights. It’s not a huge difference but can sometimes help to make your clouds pop out a little from the blue skies. 

Color Efex Pro 4 Polarization


Remove Color Cast

I didn’t need much on this shot and often times don’t use this since I liked where the colors are already. But if you get a strange cast in your shot, this is a great tool to neutralize it. 

Color Efex Pro 4 Remove Color Cast


Pro Contrast

This is my bread and butter. This is the best photo editing tool out there. It has a correct color cast that can really help to fix those shots where your colors aren’t right or where there is a strange multi-colored cast going on.

The you have Correct Contrast which works a little like your typical contrast tool but it seems to add contrast without crushing the image too much or adding too much saturation. 

Then there is this Dynamic Contrast I can’t really explain it. It adds an all around punch to the image. 

Color Efex Pro 4 Pro Contrast


Detail Extractor

I’m not sure exactly how this one works either. I feel like it’s a combination of tone mapping and the high pass sharpening filter.

What it does is add punch and clarity to your detail. I don’t use it often and you have to be careful with it because it will enhance any noise you have. 

Color Efex Pro 4 Detail Extractor


Color Efex Pro 4 actually has enough tools and filters that you can finish your entire shot without leaving the software. I just find the Lightroom sliders and gradient filters to be so much faster and easier than even Photoshop. Because of this, I almost always use Lightroom to finish my shots. 

The image now looks like this.

Behind The Shot Raw Color Efex Pro 4


Final Adjustments In Lightroom

This is where I style the photo. I again adjust the image with basic adjustments and the tonal curves. However, this time I also use the Gradient Filter and Adjustment Brush to really control the mood of the scene.


Gradient Filter

I first like to use my Gradient Filter to add contrast to the foreground as well as darken it or add some tint. Almost always I add a little contrast to the foreground, it helps with depth. In this case I also added a little purple.

Then I’ll take out some contrast and clarity in the sky as well as add a little color. Color I used here was a little more light blue. 

Next I’ll use a few more gradients to create a sort of vignette to darken my edges which will draw the eye slightly more towards the center sunset. 

Lightroom Gradient Filter


Adjustment Brush

I use the adjustment brush for a few things. Mainly adding clarity to the areas of focus. I usually set it to about +30 clarity then paint the areas of interest. In this case it was the pier. 

I also brushed in a little extra color into the sunset. Sometimes you can use the brush to locally add contrast to certain areas as well as doing some dodge and burn by setting the exposure or shadows. It’s often good to also desaturate the shadows slightly since that’s how color works in the natural world. But I didn’t do that here.

I brush up just about every photo I post. Usually with just clarity, contrast, or burn and dodge.

Lightroom Adjustment Brush


Split Toning

I also added a little bit of split toning. A little orange in the highlights and purples in the shadows. One great way to fix a blown out highlight in the sky is with the split tones. Set your highlight tone to orange or yellow then set the balance all the way to the left. This will essentially tint just that highlighted area making it not look not pure white but instead will give it a colored glow making it look somewhat intentional.

Lightroom Split Toning


The Final Shot looks something like this.


Method #2 Using The JPEG

As I mentioned above if you’re a Fuji shooter the JPEGs the camera produces are exceptional. I’ve found that if I don’t need the dynamic range of the RAW then using the JPEG makes post processing a lot easier. The colors and contrast seem more accurate and I can usually get a great looking image with just Lightroom.

For Landscapes I’ve shot with Fuji X100T I always set the camera to RAW+JPEG with a camera profile of Velvia/Vivid. The settings I use for this are Highlights +2 Soft, Shadows 0, and Saturation -2. 

From there you can skip steps one and two and go straight into doing the final Lightroom styling.

Here is what the JPEG shot looks like using just Lightroom adjustments.

Santa Monica Pier just after sunset.

I actually prefer the JPEG and it was a lot less work to get it looking great.


A Little About Color Efex Pro 4

Words can’t really describe how much I love this program. If you’re an advanced Photoshop user then it may not be for you, but if you’re an avid armature that doesn’t have the time to invest in learning all the ins and outs of Photoshop, then I highly recommend trying it out with Lightroom 4. I’m an advanced Photoshop user and I still use this software all the time and have been for years.

I wrote a Color Efex Pro 4 review awhile ago you can look at if you want to learn more.