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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Use Lightroom Like a Darkroom

How to work like an old-school master printer when you’re processing images in the computer

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The final image is the result of a series of darkroom-inspired digital techniques.

Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film, is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom. To do this in Photoshop, you need to use things like selections, feathering, layers, adjustment layers and layer masks. They give you a great deal of control, but they can take a lot of time and effort. Even expert Photoshop users would often avoid doing some of the local adjustments a photograph needed just because of the time and effort involved.

Figure 1: The original RAW file of a scene from the Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine, California.
With Lightroom, local controls are easy to apply, and doing so can take comparatively little time. The key controls of the Adjustment Brush and the Graduated Filter allow you to make a range of local adjustments from brightness to color saturation to white balance and more. We'll take a look at a specific photograph and how these controls can bring out the best from that image. There's no question that it takes some practice to master the Adjustment Brush and the Graduated Filter, but the learning curve with Lightroom is a fraction of the learning curve for Photoshop.

The original photograph of a scene from the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, Calif., is okay, but the limitations of the camera and lens are adversely affecting the image (Fig. 1). A nice backlight defines the composition, but exposing properly for the rocks makes the sky and distant mountains overly bright because the contrast range is beyond the capabilities of the camera and sensor. In addition, the very bright backlight is causing a green flare on the right side of the picture, and it's dulling the contrast and colors of the photograph. The camera hasn't captured the shot as any person actually would see it. So here's how I freed the image from those limitations.

Figure 2: Use the Blacks Threshold screen to set the blacks in the image.
Set The Blacks And Check The Whites
In the traditional darkroom, a critical need was to be sure that the image had the right blacks and whites so the photo would have the proper contrast and use the display medium properly. RAW files aren't designed to have optimum blacks and whites for display—they're designed to capture blacks and whites to allow for their processing. If you don't have blacks and whites set in your image, it never will display at its best either on a computer or in a print.

Lightroom allows you to do this easily. Hold down the Alt or Option key as you click and drag on the Blacks slider to get the Blacks Threshold screen (Fig. 2). This screen shows you where blacks are in your photograph. Most of the time it will turn up white, meaning there are no blacks. For most photographs, move the Blacks slider until you start to see some colors or areas of black within the photo (a foggy day won't have blacks and shouldn't be set this way).

Figure 3: Use the Whites Threshold screen to check the whites in the image.
You can adjust blacks quite strongly and have an interesting image, but whites are very sensitive. Again, hold down the Alt or Option key as you click and drag on the Whites slider (Fig. 3). (Exposure in Lightroom 4 isn't the same as Exposure in older versions; in previous versions of Lightroom, the Exposure slider set whites.) Whites should just barely show up as specks of white or color in the Whites Threshold screen, and on some images, you may need to back off the adjustment until they just disappear.

Blacks almost always need to be darkened, but whites can go plus or minus, depending on the shot. Bright areas of sun or sunlit reflections shouldn't be adjusted to remove them. Often, as seen here, they can't be fully removed nor should they be, or you'll overdarken important bright details in the rest of the photo.


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