Magical Phra Nang Beach

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The image I would like to share with you was taken on the magical Phra Nang Beach on Railay peninsula in Krabi province in southern Thailand. Surrounded by very high cliffs, full of caves and caverns and oriented towards west Phra Nang Beach is a perfect spot to photograph magical sunsets for which Thailand is famous. The picture I envisioned was quite simple. I wanted to use cave as a sort of natural frame. I also used beach for the same reason. Inside my frame I decided to put sea with some nice lime rock formations similar to the famous Vietnamese ones. I also wanted to have sun between two huge lime rocks to attract attention. It sounded easy but I needed several attempts to get things right as on the first few I couldn’t get the light and sky I wanted. Also I had to wait for low tide as otherwise the cave was inaccessible.

Taking the photo

One of the first things I realized was that I have to use HDR for that scene – dynamic range was really huge! Dark rocks at the top and in the bottom left, very bright sky and sun in the frame – no camera would be able to handle such difficult lighting conditions. So I ended up taking 7 bracketed photos 1.5 EV apart to get proper DR. And frankly speaking 2 more frames would be even better to lighten up darkest parts of the cave. Also another thing to consider was strong flaring caused by positioning the sun directly in the frame. So what I did was to capture another set of 7 images with the same settings as previous one (same ISO, exposure and aperture) in which I put my palm in front of the sun to hide it. I then processed 2 sets separately (one with the sun and one with my hand in front of it) in Photomatix and blended them in Photoshop later to remove the flare.

Developing RAWs

As I shot my images in RAW I first had to develop them. I used Capture One 9 for this picture and applied only some basic edits like distortion correction, white balance correction and a bit of noise and chromatic aberration reduction.

Creating HDR image & tone-mapping

After taking my images, I first loaded them into Photomatix Pro 5.1. While loading my images I used option to remove ghosts and also to align the images – even though I used a tripod sometimes there are 1 – 2 pixels shifts which really irritate me and I prefer to fix them in Photomatix.

Once my images were loaded I used Contrast Optimizer tone mapper to get the look I wanted. Exact settings are below:

  • Strength: 50
  • Tone Compression: 0
  • Lighting Effect: 6
  • White Clip: 4
  • Black Clip: 0
  • Midtone: 1.1
  • Color Saturation: 0
  • Color Temperature: 0

Such settings helped me in restoring details in highlights and also to lighten up rocks at the top to restore some nice details and colors in them. Please note that I treated both sets (with sun and with my hand) using exactly same settings to make blending in Photoshop easier.

Here’s how the image looked directly out of Photomatix:

Please note ugly flares all around the image. That’s what I had in mind when mentioning flaring earlier in this tutorial. After using Photomatix Pro my image usually looks flat and boring (and this image is no different) and this is the key to my post-processing. If you make the image look more less the way you want directly in Photomatix, or other HDR software, you will have much less options to fine tune it later. By such approach, I give myself a lot of space for further editing. The main thing I use Photomatix for isn’t to get colors right – I use it mainly to make sure no highlights are overblown and no shadows are clipped to black (i.e. dynamic range and exposure of the scene is correct). Also I enhance details a little bit.

Finishing the image

Anyway after working on my image in Photomatix I went directly to Photoshop. I opened both my images (one with the sun and one with the hand in front of it) and blended them to make sure no flares are visible. Then I made some obvious fixes like removing tourists from the frame, removing some dirt lying on the beach etc. I also fixed distortion using Puppet Warp tool. Finally, I opened ON1 Effects 10 plug-in, chose Magic Ocean preset from Landscape category, fine-tuned it to my liking and applied it to my image.

Very last step was to add some contrast using curves adjustments layer and do some sharpening.

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