The Fate of the Dinosaurs

Have you ever wondered what the dinosaurs saw on that fateful day 65 million years ago? Did they look at the sky and notice something unusual? Did they see ominous reflections in the water? Or did they carry on as usual, oblivious to the species-ending spectacle in the sky?

One of the words in the latest Photography Scavenger Hunt on G+ was Fate. I decided to depict that day of fate for the dinosaurs.

I knew right away I wanted a dinosaur looking out out over a lake, with the asteroid burning bright in the sky and its reflections on the lake. I didn’t know if I could create realistic asteroids in the sky, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to make the reflections happen, so those would be new skills to learn.

The Sketch Image

Often, something that looks great in my head doesn’t translate well to a photo, so as I sometimes do, I started with a photographic sketch to see if the idea had potential before investing time and effort in the final photo.

For my sketch image, I searched my archive for photos of lakes. I chose a suitable one to use as a backdrop. I have a number of photos of toy dinosaurs, but none with the proper perspective, so I set up my studio lights and photographed the toy, lighting it with two lights: one to the front left for basic illumination, and one back and to the right for rim lighting. The rim lighting would simulate light shining from the asteroid. Ultimately I liked the perspective and lighting of the dinosaur in the test shot, so I used it in the final image.

The sketch came together quickly. The sketch backdrop was fairly low resolution and not particularly sharp, but no problem since I intended to reshoot it anyway.

The first learning came when I painted some asteroids in the sky and played around trying to create the reflection in the lake. I liked how the asteroid painting went, but I quickly found that, unless I wanted the sky to dominate the image (which I didn’t), I would have to paint the asteroids to extend beyond the upper edge of the image. More on that later when I talk about creating the reflections in the final image.

Sketch Image

The Dinosaur

The dinosaur is a 4-inch toy I bought several years ago. He’s been featured in several Scavenger Hunt images. As mentioned above, the shot I made for the test ended up being the shot I used in the final image. I did plenty of dodging and burning to adjust the light even more, partly to make the light work better in the final image, and partly to remove some of the detail in the molded plastic. Although I’m not sure I totally accomplished the goal of making the toy dinosaur look real, it definitely looks less toy-like than the raw photo.

Toy Dinosaurs

Lake and Sky

For the lake, I went to the same lake where I had shot the sketch image 8 or 9 years ago. Standing at the same spot on a dock, I shot a high-resolution panorama of the entire lake shore. That made it easy to find the perspective I wanted at home without having to make the final framing decision at the lake, while still having enough pixels for the final image.

There was a breeze that day, causing ripples on the water. The ripples made a big impact (pun intended) on how the asteroid reflections looked.

I shot the lake during daytime, and turned it into night in Photoshop with Curves adjustment layers and Nik filters.

Panorama at the Lake


I painted the asteroids by hand in Photoshop, using a Wacom tablet. I used white paint on a soft round brush at low opacity, painting onto a blank layer. I painted multiple brush strokes to build up the brightness in the center. I drew one main asteroid and a bunch of companions, fragments broken off from the main asteroid when it hit the atmosphere. I’m guessing something similar actually happened, and it certainly makes for a more dramatic image.

I used more white paint on the ground and lake immediately below the main asteroid to brighten the surface. Kind of the opposite of creating a shadow, but the technique is basically the same.

Reflections in the Lake

I created the reflections by duplicating the asteroid layer, flipping it vertically, then positioning it on the lake where it looked good. I used Overlay blend mode, which allowed the ripples in the water to show through. Additional brush strokes and opacity changes made the reflections less intense than the asteroids in the sky.

You may notice that the reflections in the lake are longer than the asteroids in the sky. The problem I encountered with the sketch image was having more lake than sky, which meant the reflections were chopped off. When I started the final image, I made the canvas about 50% taller than the planned final image. I drew the asteroids on the larger canvas where the sky extended higher. Since I wanted the final image to have a 16:9 HDTV-style aspect ratio, I created a 16:9 mask so I could view the final composition while working on the larger canvas. Once I was satisfied with the overall composition, I cropped off the top of the sky. Thus, you can see the full extent of the asteroids in the lake, but they are slightly cropped in the sky.


With the reflection done to my liking, it was time to spruce up the background. Well, spruce isn’t the right word. How about palm? I used the tree renderer in Photoshop to create some palm trees, placing them at various spots along the far shore of the lake. The trees are all lit on the side facing the asteroid. I drew shadows of the trees in the water, dark color on an Overlay blend mode layer.

I added a couple of other toy dinosaurs standing in the shallow lake water, munching on the palm trees. I created shadows in the water by duplicating and flipping.

While examining the image at 100% I noticed a lot of background details I had to clone away. People, roads, hiking trails, houses, and other out-buildings all had to go. They were very small, but noticeable if you looked carefully.


For the finishing work, I ran the image through two filters in Nik Color Efex Pro to add contrast and detail, and to produce the overall dramatic color tones. Originally, I was planning a mostly orange-yellow look, but I decided it looked better as a darker nighttime scene, with some blue toning in the lake.

Finally, to verify accuracy of the image, I set my time machine for 65 million years ago to see what actually went down. Amazingly enough, this is exactly what it looked like on that fateful night!

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