The original image shows El Castillo, Chichen Itza in Mexico. (And if you're interested in an exclusive photo tour to Mexico in 2017 with Peter Eastway, visit the website!)
This stock shot is typical of the photos submitted by our Anonymous Photographers. It's a 'record shot' of El Castillo in Mexico and while technically exposed correctly, it doesn't really have much mood or emotion. Now it's true that not every photograph needs to be interpretted and the final image in this series might take the post-production a little further than you would. However, just making simple adjustments to exposure can really improve an image and how your viewers respond. And how the judges respond too!
In the first adjustment, the only change is the exposure. The whole image has been darkened, but note how the stone work takes on more detail. To my mind, this is the subject of the photograph and surely our viewers want to know all about it! Darkening the image down puts a little more tone into the highlights. Hence the importance of a good quality monitor so that when you make adjustments like this, you are doing them accurately.
In many photographs, the viewer's eye goes to the lightest part of the scene first. Given the grass is similar in brightness to the step pyramid, I have darkened down just the grass. This can be done with an adjustment layer or an adjustment brush - the trick is to darken down the grass without darkening the pyramid. Note how the eye now goes to the pyramid more easily - although those clouds are still a little distracting.
The next step follows this process a little further: it darkens the sky. Note what has been done: rather than lightening up the subject (the step pyramid), we have darkened down the surroundings. Whether something is lighter or darker is relative to what is around it. Of course, in darkening down the blue sky, we have also increased its colour saturation and strength. Now the eye is attracted to the brilliant blues, perhaps more strongly than the steps... What else can be done?
One solution is to desaturate the blues. This is easy enough to do, either with the blue and cyan channels in the HSL (Hue Saturation) control, or just a general desaturation with a mask. You might not take the desaturation as far as I have above, but can you agree that now the eye goes very directly to the stairs on El Castillo? It's still a record shot in many ways, but one with a little more mood and impact. And it was really just a matter of exposure.