I understand that the post-production process for images like these typically involves increasing the exposure and saturation and lifting the blacks of the image. However, I notice the histogram of this image that I love (and other ones at http://www.cntraveller.com/recommended/coast-countryside/french-riviera-holidays-islands) lack the far-right spike I see in those that I'd associate with lights or highlights. Is it possible this photographer has done anything else – say, decrease whites or highlights at the same time?

enter image description here


3 Answers 3


The histogram for this image looks like this:


Key points:

  1. Nothing over in the far left — the blackpoint is lifted, or to put it another way, the deepest, darkest color is not black, but gray (and there's not much of that).
  2. The bulk of the tones, including a big spike, are way over in the brightest 90%.
  3. And, there's also a spike at 100% — that is, fully "blown" highlights.

So, I'm not quite sure why you say "I notice the histogram of this image [...] lacks the far-right spike" — it's pretty apparent. So, I'd say that's pretty much what's going on.

However, there is one other thing: the focus is on the foreground umbrella, leaving the background tower and trees moderately blurred. That background, however, is about ²⁄₃rds of the frame, and has a lot of the visual weight (the geometric shapes of the tower attract my eye most strongly). To me, that blur adds to the "dreamlike" feel you describe.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey MattDM, Thanks for your comment – for some reason, the histogram I get on Lightroom when viewing this picture looks different than the one you linked to. It looks almost the same (would attach a pic but not sure how to do that in a comment), just minus that far-right crushed-white-type spike. Does that just mean my histogram's making a mistake? Do you still think there's nothing beyond this than what you mentioned (no decrease in highlights or whites, for example)? \$\endgroup\$
    – user41848
    Sep 2, 2015 at 2:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Dunno — might just be hard to see? Also might be "smoothed out" as an outlier? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Jun 8, 2018 at 17:30

I think there's a psychological aspect to this as well.

It's easy to only look at the technical things of a photograph, but no matter how fancy your lighting equipment or camera is or how many years of experience and gathered post processing knowledge you have: in the end, content matters, that is: what you see in the image.

I think the post processing helps to sell the effect, but an essential part to making this image dreamlike is the location that you see.

If you saw a landscape image at sunset your first thought wouldn't be "Oh well, this looks great, but what slider did he/she move to make it great?", but rather "Oh this looks great, I wonder where it is..." In the image you posted, this is much more subtle, but still there.


I appreciate your question how to make dreamlike pictures and also your analysis of the histogram. My point here is that the histogram only helps you in part for making a dreamlike picture.

This is my analysis of the picture and some of the others on the linked page:

  • First and foremost, these pictures are dreamlike, because these are our dreams. It's sunny, there's nature, nostalgic buildings, a beach, children, food. I'm sure you also noticed that the photographer is hiding a lot (by cropping tightly) so that there is much more to imagine in our mind.

  • Second, most of these pictures don't have auto white balance set, which would have ruined the overall look.

  • But most importantly, shooting pictures in harsh sunlight is a challenge, because there is such a difference between lights and shadows. Even though the camera can capture this dynamic range when shooting in raw, it's really hard to output these pictures to JPEG without clipping highlights or shadows. So the photographer must consider this before pushing the trigger. Either by framing so that shadows don't even appear in the frame (like in the umbrella shot) or by lifting the shadows by bouncing indirect sunlight onto it. That's just my practical experience.

  • Finally, here comes the histogram part: If he/she cannot lift the shadows at the scene, he has to do it in post. But this will only work if his main object has neither large bright surfaces nor dark ones. Take the "Mini Moke" picture of your linked blog post for example (see below). The bright background has some detail lost, which was still there in the raw file. But as long as there is some texture left, we can accept this because it's not our main focus. The photographer also lifted the dark parts quite a bit, which you can see in the low-contrast details of the roots. This pulling down of the highlights and bringing up of the shadows is only possible, because the main object (the car) was not affected by it. It has its full detail and contrast in the midtones. Far too many pictures cannot be modified this way because lost detail in highlights and shadows also have an effect on the main object. So, here too, the photographer has to take care before shooting, which kind of detail he/she is willing to sacrifice, if a scene with high dynamic range has to be captured. In the case of the umbrella picture he/she chose not to have any shadows at all.

"Mini Moke"

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks so much Fred42vid for your comprehensive answer. I appreciate it and what you're saying about this being something that's not completely possible to achieve in post. That said, if I did try to arrive at the closest effect in Lightroom to that original palm-tree image – without creating layers – what would I do? Let me know if this is correct: darks: lift / shadows: lift? / exposure: increase? / whites: leave as is? / highlights: move down (how much?) –– If I were to use layers on the other hand, would I only apply these changes to the background layer? Thanks again :) \$\endgroup\$
    – user41848
    Sep 2, 2015 at 22:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't use Lightroom, but know a bit about it from tutorials. So, please double-check what I say here. Without layers, I would first adjust the exposure for the main object. Then comes highlights and whites, shadows and blacks. When adjusting highlights and shadows, take care that they don't affect your main object too much. If you work with layers or the adjustment brush, you could selectively work first on the main object, then the grass background, then the roots. \$\endgroup\$
    – Fred42vid
    Sep 3, 2015 at 2:36

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