One of my favourite things in photography is to learn about what other people see, what they notice, when they look at a scene and turn it into a photograph. I love listening to expert photographers talking through one of their photographs and the decisions they made along the way when creating it, and I wanted to follow that process myself, from spotting an opportunity on a hillside to having a finished photograph ready to publish, with a set of stages showing what I was thinking at each point. This article doesn’t describe any of the technical process of image editing, just the decisions I made and why I made them.

The image I chose is this one of a clump of trees, made at sunrise on a hike across Alpes Di Suisi in Italy, a part of the world famous among hikers and photographers although there weren’t many about on the cold morning we were there. It was right at the end of October, so there was still some interesting colour in the trees, but a storm two days previously had dumped a lot of snow in the area as well, leaving both autumn colours and snow on the ground for some great conditions.

The sun was just coming up behind me from where I took this photograph, and the clouds behind these trees had turned some incredible shades of orange and purple, which I knew would only last for a few minutes. I spotted this photograph just at the right time.

A slightly wider view of the scene I wanted to photograph; although this is already quite zoomed in to the clump of trees I had spotted on a distant ridge. Even from far away, they seemed just right for a simple composition to capture the colour of the sky, but with enough of a foreground to make the photograph interesting.

There is a great leading line at the bottom (1) and on the left from the small mound on which the trees stand (2), and the clump itself is separated enough from its surroundings to stand out from an otherwise quite cluttered hill

The problems were a hut and another tree on the right (3), which are just too close to give the trees enough space. There was no way to include them in the composition, and the dark trees are almost overlapping with the leading line (4) which I was worried would be a problem in the final image.

I walked back and forth until I had minimised how much the tree and the hut intruded into the photograph, but no matter where I stood they were both always going to interfere.

The first thing I needed to do was zoom in and crop as much as possible to avoid the building and trees on the right, though you can see they are still visible. I couldn’t crop any more because the leading line would be too close to the edge of the image. Although my main interest was the sky, the clump of trees was good enough to fill quite a lot of the frame, and I needed them to be not too big (by zooming in more) or too small (by zooming out).

I also cropped to a 5:4 rectangle. I’ve have loved to include as much of the colourful sky as possible, more of it at the top would have thrown off the balance, and I wanted the line in the snow to at least register with a viewer. In general I prefer vertical landscape images to be cropped, as the 3:2 aspect ratio of my camera is often just too tall in portrait.

With the crop as good as I could get it, the first thing to deal with at home on the computer is that the trees are too dark. It was pre-dawn so no direct light was on them, and it was inevitable that my camera was going to capture a very bright sky contrasted against a set of dark trees.

I used a brush in Adobe Lightroom to brighten the trees relative to the ground and sky, and bring out what colourful leaves were left on them this late in the season. This was more like how it appeared to the eye, where the colours in the leaves were more clearly visible, and the branches have some sharpness and definition. I also sharpened them a little to add in some detail.

Although I’ve managed to balance the lightness of the sky and the trees, in general the image still appears a little grey and washed out, and not the vivid colours I saw when i was there. Without direct light, the trees don’t shine as much in the photograph as they did when I saw them.

After boosting the white parts of the image, and adding a small amount of saturation and brightness, the photograph is starting to look more like a finished image. The trees are vivid and detailed, and the colours in the sky are more real and bright.

The next area to work on is a part of the composition. The very top and bottom of the image are still too light, with a bright patch of snow and sky drawing attention away from the trees. Our eyes are usually drawn to the brightest parts of an image, and the trees are the main subject here despite being the darkest point, so I need to darken the top and bottom to stop a viewer’s eye being led out of the frame.

I’ve applied a gradient to the top and bottom here, and tried not to make the darkening of those areas too obvious (although with a direct comparison it was always going to be clear). Fortunately, the clouds behind were actually quite layered and the darkening has just accentuated that.

For the finishing touches, it’s time to get rid of the hut and tips of the tree branches on the right (5). While I’m removing some unwanted objects, I should also take the time to get rid a few of the darker stones piercing the layers of snow below the trees.

The final result. Although it was the sky that got my attention at first, they are a perfectly formed group of trees and a lucky spot at the right time. I like the leading line at the bottom of the image, although it would have been better if it had been clearer and there was more of it – it’s cropped more closely to the bottom than I would have liked. I also would have preferred more room on the right where the line has gone close to the edge, but was so limited by the hut which was there.

The tree in the middle at the front is brighter and more yellow than the others, which was a great bit of luck – if one of the side trees had been the brightest, it would have made the clump feel less balanced.

The sky has come out exactly as I’d hoped – one of those moments where the colours were so distinctive and unusual the photograph of it looks almost unreal.