What did it look like straight out of the camera? Not good:
Obviously, it's underexposed. Only one part looks right: the blue/orange sunset. That's because I employed the digital photographer's maxim: Expose for the highlights; develop for the shadows.
This method only works in raw mode. A jpeg has 8 bits of dynamic range; it'll look weirdly posterized if you do drastic contrast manipulations. You'll also want to shoot at "base" ASA, which for the Nikon D600 is 100. If you shoot at a higher one, say 400, you'll hit the noise floor in the shadows that much sooner.
Next, I applied Lightroom's lens correction and perspective tools (this was shot with Nikon's 28mm F2.8D).
I took this picture planning to crop it; it was inspired by a similar shot from 90s done with a Hasseblad. The tilting Skyway was my fault. Fortunately, Lightroom's automatic perspective control - set on "auto" here, but it's worth trying "vertical" and "full" to see which one is best - straightens (sorry) things right out.
Now comes the good part: I applied a graduated filter to the entire picture. It's placed in the lower right corner. The highlight slider is hard left, the shadow slider hard right. Then I played with the exposure slider until the setting sun was again correct - about 1 and 1/2 stops of additional exposure.
I use a graduated filter, rather than LR's Tone sliders, because I'm frequently "maxing out" both the highlight and shadow controls. Using the filter let's me keep "main" set of controls for fine-tuning.
We now have a nice a soft proof. This image has tremendous dynamic range; for many subjects you wouldn't need to "flatten" the contrast so much. I know from experience (we'll talk about how to do this "scientifically," in an upcoming post) that Nikon's raw files hold a lot of data in the shadows. You can open them a lot before noise becomes too intrusive.
In the film days I carried multiple bodies with different kinds of color print and slide film, and processed them using (for the night shots) various shortened (or "pull processed") development times. Thanks to the VSCO presets, we have tons of film stocks, with two stops of pull and two stops of push processing, only a mouse-click away. I often use these as a jumping off place, often choosing the Kodacolor Gold 100 ones that come in the free sample pack. The top image uses the "Vibrant" flavor.
Contrast is our friend. But large blocks of hard black (or hard white) rarely work. So I used the dodge/burn tool to punch up the main dark areas, boosting the shadows and adding some clarity.
I also went into the Tone Curve section and steepened the "toe" of the curve a bit. Everyone's aesthetics are different. To me, a photo doesn't have to be a accurate, but it must be plausible. If it looks obviously manipulated, I've failed. That said, one's tastes and powers of discrimination change over time. Sometimes I look back at work I did a few years ago and wince. Will that happen with this shot someday?
We will see. This kind of cliffhanger suspense makes getting out of bed in the morning an adventure.
Thanks for reading!