UPDATE: This tutorial was written a few years ago and I was using Lightroom 2, which is completely outdated. You can check out some newer tutorials on How I Edit my images with Lightroom 4 and 5 too. The below information still works with newer versions of Lightroom though. Happy reading!
I have been asked many times about my post-processing workflow, how I fix and improve my photos and what software I use.
Well, I finally decided to share my technique and write a tutorial on how to process photos with Lightroom.
I use many softwares. However, the one I spend most time on is definitely Adobe Lightroom (LR) which I consider to be the perfect tool for photographers. I use Lightroom 2 because of my laptop’s age (it’s old) but you can do all the following with Lightroom 3 (and probably more).
Lightroom is the modern era darkroom. It is less complicated than Photoshop and just got improved tremendously with the addition of layers, which was the only thing lacking. Lightroom works on photos in a non-destructive way, which means it doesn’t destroy pixels and doesn’t alter the quality of the photo.
Alright, let’s get to the serious stuff. I would first like to point out that in order to get the best results, it is crucial to shoot in RAW format. There is much more information contained in a RAW files than a jpeg and all that information will be used to correct and improve your shots.
So let’s start with the guinea-pig-photo:
I took this shot in Chiang Mai, during a field trip in a market. It was a bright overcast day. I wanted to get this photo of a Thai lady selling street food. As you can see, I was shooting in difficult lighting conditions. She was lost in the shadow while the background and foreground were too bright because of the sky. This resulted in a failed photo.
But thankfully, I knew I could fix this the way I wanted later in LR.
Of course, It’s important to clarify that I don’t advocate the idea of just randomly getting shots and thinking “I can fix this later“. I try to get the best shot possible on the spot but I always think post-processing is absolutely necessary to bring out the best in a photo (read my article about why I don’t believe in ‘Photo Purists’).
So, after a long day of shooting, I go back home, upload my photos, import them in LR, go through all the keywording and cataloging (this workflow will be for another time) and I’m ready to fix this photo.
First I analyze it for a while. What’s the main problem? Is the composition good? Is the lighting good? Does it tell a story? Are there any distracting elements? Once you figure out what needs to be fixed it’s much easier.
Looking at my photo, I realize that the main problem is the lighting. Half of the photo is dark and the main subject is lost in the shadow. The background is also distracting and attracts the eye away from the lady.
The composition is fine, I like it the way it is. It just needs a slight cropping to remove some unwanted elements.
I use the ‘Crop Tool‘ to improve my composition (key shortcut is ‘R’). It’s important to set the ratio before cropping in case you intend to print your photos one day (if you don’t want to end with parts of your print chopped off). Usually 2×3 is good for most photos. I then adjust the crop frame on the photo to remove some of the unessential elements on the left side. You can see that the main subject (lady) is correctly positioned according to the rule of thirds (intersection of the thin lines). If you don’t know about the rule of thirds, Google it! It’s a very important rule to understand if you want eye-pleasing compositions.
Now that I have my composition set, I need to fix the biggest problem: the shadow.
To fix this, I use a very handy tool on Lightroom: the Graduated Filter (you can click ‘M’ to access it). This is basically a virtual GND filter that can also be used to brighten up sections of photos.
When I click on the filter, a menu opens up with some settings. As I need to brighten the upper part of the photo, I increase the exposure and add some brightness. Then I click on the image in the area where the shadow meets the bright part (see position). As you can see, it increases the exposure on the shadowy part while leaving the bottom part untouched. The space between the 2 lines is the ‘feather zone’, I play around with it a bit to make the lighting appear uniform.
You can see here the ‘before’ and ‘after’ the Graduated Filter. The shadowy part is all gone. The main problem is fixed!
Now, all I need is to play around and adjust the photo to my liking. I usually follow the settings from top to bottom, makes it easier.
1. This is a personal taste but I usually like my photos to be on the warm side. So I slightly increase the temperature to my liking.
2. I increase the exposure a little bit to make it brighter. I also max out the recovery slider. The recovery slider helps recover details in the blown out white parts of the photo. In this case, it brings out some more colors and details in the background. I add some fill light which brightens only the dark parts of the photo without touching the light parts and finally I increase the contrast.
3. I add some clarity which helps sharpen the photo and bring more details on the food in the foreground.
After all the little adjustments, I use the tone curve to add more contrast and punch.
On the tone curves menu, I use the sliders to decrease the highlights (all those bright parts in the background are not necessary). I increase the light parts to brighten up the photo a little while I decrease the dark and shadow parts to add contrast. This also brings up the colors a tad more.
The next step (not pictured, you can figure it out easily), I go to the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) menu and increase the red/orange/yellow luminance slightly (between 10-20) to make the warm colors on the background pop up against the dark zones.
Next, it is important to make sure the main subject of a photo is clearly visible and no distraction will attract the viewer’s eye to other parts. To achieve this, it is required to know how to “paint” your photos with light and shadows (hey, this website is called Canvas of Light after all, right?).
First, the easiest and fastest way to do so is to add some vignetting. This will darken the borders of the image to help viewers focus on the center of the photo. There is nothing important on the edges so they can all fall into darkness.
By comparing with the above photo, you might not immediately notice the difference, but the eye is naturally focusing on the center part of the photo where the lady and food are. I just adjusted the post-crop vignetting to darken the edges.
Now to the painting part. To ‘paint‘ over parts of the photo that are distracting, I use the Adjustment Tool Brush.
Once it’s clicked, a menu appears similar to the menu on the Graduated Filter. I can adjust many settings with the sliders and paint over my photo.
Here, I decrease the exposure, brightness and saturation and use a small to medium sized brush with a high flow and feather and paint over the unwanted areas. I focus on the bright background, the green cover on the right side, the colorful sheets in the middle and the edge on the left side.
All these areas are distracting and attract the eyes away from the subject. They do not contribute anything to the photo so I just paint them into darkness/oblivion. (Tip: When you hover your mouse on the little pin, it shows you the painted areas in red).
Finally, the last step, after painting distracting elements out, I focus on the lady with the same tool brush.
I click on ‘New‘ (don’t forget or you’ll end up painting in black again). I adjust the exposure, add some brightness and contrast and paint over the skin of the lady. The face is actually the most important part as the human eye is naturally attracted to eyes and faces in a photo. This makes her pop out against the dark background.
And that’s it!
I usually spend a little more time fine-tuning details, painting over shadows and brightening up small parts. I would also slightly desaturate and darken the blue bucket next to her (the lady and the food are the main subjects, not the bucket). But for the sake of this tutorial, I’ll just keep it simple.
After all is done, click on File>Export and you’ll have a beautiful and shiny new photo to show to your friends.
Here’s a Before/After photo to see the difference, you will easily notice the improvement (play with the slider, it might not show the ‘After’ image sometimes, just reload the page).
I hope this tutorial helped you understand a few techniques in Lightroom and how to fix photos shot in difficult lighting conditions. If you are looking for more tutorials, just visit my Tutorial page for more.
Please do not hesitate to ask any questions or for clarifications and I’ll gladly answer.
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