West Coast Wildfires Brings out the Indiana Sun

So yesterday morning I was struck by how spectacular the sunrise was; it was a big red ball that I could look right at.  I was truly amazed; I don’t recall ever seeing that before.  Later that day learned that it due to the smoke that had traveled all the way from the West Coast wildfires!  WOW!  More specifically, the smoke filters out shorter wavelengths of light (like blue), leaving mostly red and orange wavelengths to shine through.  During the day when the sun is higher, it is not as bright and the sky lacks color. 

So last evening as the sun was setting, I headed out to a location that I have been wanting to shoot at a nice September evening ever since I saw it a few years ago, Benton County Indiana where wind turbines fill the cornfields and air above.  The sight that I saw a few years earlier that I have been after is the sky just after the sun has set, leaving the sky an upward gradient of red, orange, purple and then deepening shades of blue.  But why this location?  Because the wind turbines stand as tall dark silhouette statues in the foreground.  So with this sun yesterday, I rushed out there with my camera and tripod, hoping to capture something spectacular.  The sun was amazing, but unfortunately, the sky wasn’t.  It was pale and lacked color.  My photos all ended up with a gray background.  I discovered that the same thing that causes the sun to be such a vibrant red and orange, also makes the sky colorless and boring (at least in Indiana, 2 thousand miles away from the fires).

So my plan for this shoot was to take mostly bracketed shots of three for a powerful HDR image.  I could see from the small LCD screen on the camera that shots showed the beautiful sun, but the sky was all gray.  That was disappointing but I held out hope that I could bring out some color in post-processing.  I took all kinds of shots, varying shutter speeds and aperture settings, tight and wide bracket settings, and so on.  Nothing changed the gray sky.  The higher exposed shots had a bright gray sky with a light orange/red sun while the underexposed shots had a dark gray sky with a deeper and more vibrant red sun.  The HDR composites didn’t look right.  They looked really weird.  So I ended up selecting the one I liked the most and worked with that in Lightroom. 

Using the baseline photo, not over exposed or underexposed, I started by using a graduated filter on the sky and changed the temperature, the hue, and increased the blue saturation.  I used another graduated filter on the lower half of the sky to bring out some purple.  I used a third graduated filter on the field of wildflowers and corn in the background to bring the exposure and color in that but I was not satisfied with the end result.  It was too flat to begin with.  I tried not to alter the sun too much because I was trying to capture what was really there, but I did have to make some adjustments to correct what was done with the gradient filter for the rest of the sky.  Most of what I did was to bring it back to its original form as much as I could. 

Overall, I am pleased with how the final photo turned out.  I am attaching the original photo that I shot before I started working on it so you can see how the sky turned out. 

Photo as shot. 1/4 second, f32, ISO 100
Before and after post-processing

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