Note: This tutorial has been completely re-written from scratch. If you’re wondering where the older one went, check at the end of the post for more info.
Processing an image is essential. I have already given my opinion about it so I won’t dwell on the subject.
But even though it’s essential, it also seems overwhelming when you first open a software like Photoshop or Lightroom and stare at all the sliders and buttons.
It doesn’t have to be.
I mostly use Lightroom CC to process my photos. Yes, I do use Photoshop and various plugins too, but Lightroom is more then enough if you’re just starting to learn about processing. People think Lightroom is mostly to make basic adjustments, but it’s actually much more powerful than that.
So, without further ado, 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 a lot more information contained in a RAW file 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:
This shot was taken in Granada, Spain. It’s a photo of the Alhambra Palace, overlooking the city during sunset.
The first thing we need to do is analyze the photo and figure out what needs to be improved. I shot this on a tripod with a wide angle (28mm). The sky was very bright, and the whole foreground was in the shade.
So obviously, the foreground is way too dark and the sky is fairly exposed. If we quickly check the histogram of this image, we can see that we don’t have any lost details or clipping (if you don’t know how to read a histogram, I wrote a tutorial about it).
I could’ve shot it at a slower shutter speed, to have more details in the shadow areas, but let’s assume I forgot (in reality, I did 3 exposures to merge them, so no, I didn’t forget, but that’s not the point of the tutorial!).
Another thing that I don’t like are the dull colors in the sky. I also need to fix that.
So let’s open the file in Lightroom.
The first thing I always do in every photo I work on, is to apply lens correction settings and fix the distortion. On the right panel, scroll down to Lens Corrections and click on Enable Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberration. These 2 settings will correct some of the distortion, vignetting and color fringe introduced by the lens.
Next step is to correct the distortion due to the wide angle. If you look at the Alhambra towers, you’ll notice that the ones on the edge are ready to topple. I want to prevent a disaster and straighten them.
In the same Lens Corrections panel, click on the Manual tab and use the vertical slider to straighten those Pisa-tower wannabes. As you straighten your images, you’ll notice that the entire photo gets distorted and white areas start to appear. This is inevitable and you need to compromise between straightening buildings and losing big chunks of your image.
Once my towers are straight enough to my taste, I click on Constrain Crop to remove all the white empty areas. Yes, I’ll lose a part of my photo but that’s fine.
Ok, my photo is distortion free! My next important step is to make sure it’s also clean and spot-free!
On the right panel, right under the histogram are a bunch of super handy tools. I’ll pick the Spot Removal tool.
But seeing spots on some photos is really hard sometimes. You’ll assume that your photo is clean but you’ll very often be dead wrong. Fortunately, there’s a great tool to help visualize where the spots are. It’s on the bottom of the photo once the Spot Removal tool is selected. It’s called….. Visualize Spots. With the slider pushed towards the right (not completely to the right), I get this:
No, don’t ask what it is or how it works. It’s just magic.
Now you can clearly see the spots (they’ll appear like little circles). Just a click on them with the Spot Removal tool and they’re gone! As you can notice, I barely have any spots on this image.. This is because my camera was brand new at the time.
Done! Spotless and distortion-free. Now I can start working on improving the overall image.
Since my photo is pretty underexposed, I increase the Exposure a bit. This brightens up the entire image, adds a bit more detail to the foreground. But the sky gets way too bright, so I decrease the Highlights to fix that.
I know, it doesn’t seem to change much. So let’s fix the foreground.
I’m going to dramatically increase the Shadows by pushing the slider to the right. This will brighten only the dark areas of the photo and ignore the highlights (the highlights slider does the opposite). I’ll also play with the Whites and Blacks sliders to stretch the histogram and get more contrast.
BAM! Now we’re talking. This is what my Granada looks like!
I’m still going to slightly darken the sky and brighten the foreground. To do that, I’m going to head to the super handy toolbar under the histogram, and pick the Graduated Filter. This tool allows me to apply various effect to parts of the photo. It works better if you have a fairly defined horizon though. If not, you have the adjustment brush that does the same (you just have to paint over the areas).
So, I click and drag downwards on my image to apply the filter. It’s a tricky beast, this filter.. so don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. I’ll decrease the exposure and highlights on the sky to darken it, and add some clarity to add more contrast and punch to the clouds.
Next, I’ll do the same with the foreground. I click on New, drag upwards this time (so the effects I apply are on the bottom part) and slightly increase the exposure to brighten the area.
Make sure there’s enough feathering to have a nice transition (the top and bottom white lines around the pin can be enlarged. The area in between is where the effect you apply gradually fades. The larger the area, the softer the effect).
Alright! Looks pretty good so far. I’m just going to add some contrast using the Tone Curve.
Looks good! We’ve fixed the main problems, which was the exposure. Here’s how the image looks like now.
Pretty nice change compared to the original version!
Now, what I need to work on are the colors. I find them dull. I want more punch and more sunset-y colors. Of course this is all a matter of personal taste. Some will like it this way, others will increase the saturation to 75896% and call it done.
To improve the colors, I never ever use the (global) Saturation slider. If I could kick it out of my Lightroom panel, I would. I barely use Vibrance either, and if I do, never beyond 10-15%.
To fix colors, I prefer using other methods. And for this image, I’m actually going to ADD new colors using the Split Toning panel.
The idea behind it is to add some colors to the highlights and shadows of the image to make the sunset colors come alive. Again, this is a matter of personal taste. This is how I envision sunsets. With warm colors and purple-ish hues in the sky.
So, starting with the highlights, I just click on the small gray box, and pick a color between the blue and purple with a fairly low saturation. This will add colors only to the brighter areas of the photo.
You can see the sky and clouds have slightly improved. The sky has less greenish hues and looks more like a sunset.
Now to add colors to the shadows. I do the same and click on the gray box next to the Shadows and pick an orange color with low saturation.
The difference is subtle, but the area around the Alhambra looks warmer.
And…. That’s it! I usually add some sharpness and noise reduction, and I can export this photo and publish it where I want it.
Here are the before and after versions of the image.
And here’s the final image:
Hope you found the tutorial useful and not too complicated. If it isn’t convenient to read it, I’m also preparing a video of the same tutorial and will add it here very soon.
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments section and I’ll be glad to help.
Thanks for reading and for sharing if you found it useful!
*** Note: The reason I completely rewrote this tutorial is because the older version was posted in 2011, while I was using Lightroom 2 (we’re on version 6 now). Many tools have improved, as well as my skills. And since this page is the most visited page on my entire website, it just didn’t make any sense to deliver outdated information.