After work I saw this imposing summer storm rolling in over Sydney and so I made my way up to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to witness this majestic light show illuminate the city. This processing tutorial covers how I combined multiple exposures to capture this panorama of the Sydney skyline on sunset.
Step 1: Taking The Photos
As I was leaving work I saw the storm rolling in from the west, unfortunately I had neither my tripod, nor my wide-angle lens with me - which meant that I had to make do with the only gear I had on me: my camera (Sony A7R II) with its standard lens (f/3.5, 28-70mm). I was shooting handheld as I was lacking a tripod, and so I knew I had to shoot at a reasonable shutter speed in these dark, overcast conditions. In Manual mode I selected 1/80sec, with an aperture of f7/.1 and a high ISO of 1000 (I knew the Sony could handle this just fine).
Without a wide-angle lens, I decided to take a multiple-shot panorama to capture the complete grandeur of the scene unfolding before me. To do this, every shot needed to be exposed and focused exactly the same for the panorama stitching in post-processing to work its magic. As I was already shooting in Manual mode, I switched to Manual focus, ensuring that the Sydney Opera House as focal point of the scene was crisp.
With panoramas, ideally you'd like as much overlap between images as possible to achieve the best result during the stacking process later. I could have captured the scene using only 4 shots, however I took 6 images sequentially after one another, panning the camera across the scene in a 3 wide by 2 high grid.
Step 2: Creating The Panorama
After staying slightly too long marvelling at the approaching thunderstorm, on the return to the train station I got caught in the middle of the downpour, and was subsequently drenched head to toe. Thankfully, the camera was safe and dry within its camera bag and I returned home to import the images into Lightroom on my computer.
Handily, the latest version of Lightroom supports panorama creation with Lightroom itself, and preserves the images in RAW format with complete data and information. I selected the 6 images I wanted to turn into the panorama, right-clicked and selected Photo Merge > Panorama. Lightroom then works its magic in stitching the images together to create one single panorama. Once the preview has been created, I generally choose Spherical for the projection option, and leave Auto Crop unchecked (you'll see why later). Then hit Merge and Lightroom will create the final panorama (this could take some time, so go make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee).
Step 3: Editing The Panorama
I then applied general adjustments to the panorama. I left cropping untouched for now and sought to correct the white balance by increasing the temperature (+yellow) on the overcast scene and bringing out the purple of the sunset clouds (+magenta). I boosted the exposure by one stop (+1.00) as I underexposed each of the images so as to not burn out the highlights in the clouds.
After boosting contrast to accentuate the scene's drama (+60) I then brought up the shadows (+100) to bring out the detail in the city skyline, while bringing down the highlights to recover the bold sunset light in the clouds. Vibrancy and saturation were boosted slightly to emphasise the light shining through the approaching storm clouds. I reduced Clarity somewhat (-40) to add to the dreamlike scene, and increased Sharpness (+70, Masking +80) to ensure the building outlines were crisp.
STEP 4: Finishing Touches
I then applied local adjustments to everything but the sky. Normally with a straight horizon, it's easy to simply apply a Graduated Filter in Lightroom and edit everything below or above the filter. However with the city skyline reaching into the clouds, things become slightly more difficult.
However a tool I discovered only recently makes things much easier. Within the the Graduated Filter menu, there is an option for a Brush tool which allows you to paint in (and away, if you use the alt key) certain areas to receive the same edits as the larger Graduated Filter. I then pressed the letter O on the keyboard to reveals the Filtered area in red (as in the image above) and slowly brushed in and out the city skyline. Once I was pleased with the selected area for my filter, I increased temperature and exposure, leaving the clouds untouched.
Almost finished, the image still had areas of white surrounding it which were part of the panorama process. Rather than cropping the image down to within these areas, I imported the uncropped version into Photoshop. Using the Magic Wand Tool, I selected the surrounding areas and then expanded the border of this area by 5 pixels (go to: Select > Modify > Expand). To then fill in the blank space, I selected Edit from the menu, and under Fill I chose Content-Aware and hit OK. While this method of filling in around the panorama isn't perfect, it does a pretty good job of it, particularly in the clouds.
And there you have it! I've included the original and final versions above for comparison. While a lot of effort went into processing this one photo, it was an unbelievable scene that deserved it. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them for me below! :)