Use Lightroom Like a Darkroom

How to work like an old-school master printer when you’re processing images in the computer
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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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Figure 4: Midtones are best adjusted with the Tone Curve.

Adjust The Midtones
In Lightroom 4, the Highlights and Shadows sliders are very good for bringing out detail in the brightest and darkest areas of the photo. They should be used in conjunction with other Midtone controls such as Exposure to brighten the overall image without hurting your blacks or whites. The Tone Curve is an important control for affecting midtones, especially the dark areas, which DSLRs rarely capture as well as they should because of an inherent weakness in the ability of any sensor to handle the darker tones of a scene (Fig. 4).

At this point, make color corrections to the image, if needed. Also look at Clarity to affect the fine contrast of midtones and make a photo livelier. Use Clarity sparingly as it can quickly make an image look harsh and unattractive if you aren't careful with it.

Vibrance can help colors, but be wary of overusing it, as it can make colors, especially skies, look garish. Use the Hue, Saturation and Luminosity controls of the HSL panel instead of the overall Saturation slider (Fig. 5).


Figure 5: Clarity affects midtone contrast, and Vibrance adjusts color intensity.

The Graduated Filter
When you click on the Graduated Filter icon in the toolbar below the Histogram, you'll get a lot of options for adjustment. Most of the time, you'll start with Exposure to darken or lighten a part of an image. This is analogous to burning techniques that Adams and Smith used in the traditional darkroom. It's also the easiest one to see as you make the adjustment.

Set the Exposure slider to a setting beyond what you need—this helps you see it as you drag and drop your adjustment across the image (Fig. 6a). You'll set the Exposure slider to the proper amount after you've tweaked the way you've applied this local control (Fig. 6b). The sliders in the Graduated Filter can be changed as much as needed. The adjustment you set begins where you first click in the photograph, then it gradually disappears as you drag your cursor across the image.

You end up with three lines that represent the gradation of change from full adjustment to none. Keep your mouse button pressed to change the distance between these lines and rotate them to fit a particular image. You also can go back and readjust these lines later by clicking and dragging on the top or bottom line to increase the size of the blend, by clicking on the center dot to raise or lower the whole adjustment, or by clicking and dragging on the middle line away from that dot to rotate it.

For many, many photos, all you'll need to do is use Exposure, but Lightroom 4 offers many other controls, as well. Remember to set Exposure to the right amount for your photo. Clarity can be useful for skies, Sharpness can allow you to affect the sharpness of specific areas, negative Highlights often can be used to get better clouds, and so forth. To set a slider back to its default, double-click the slider itself. If you don't like a particular graduated filter, just press the delete key to remove it. You can add multiple new graduated filters to refine your image as needed. Each filter is represented by a white dot on the picture—click on the dot and it will turn to a black dot, which means you can change any of the adjustments once again.

Figure 6a: Start by setting Exposure to a stronger adjustment than you need so you can better see the changes as you click and drag across the photo. Figure 6b: Then dial the exposure back to a proper level.

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Figure 7: The Adjustment Brush has all of the controls of the Graduated Filter, plus brush size and feather controls.

For many, many photos, all you'll need to do is use Exposure, but Lightroom 4 offers many other controls, as well. Remember to set Exposure to the right amount for your photo. Clarity can be useful for skies, Sharpness can allow you to affect the sharpness of specific areas, negative Highlights often can be used to get better clouds, and so forth. To set a slider back to its default, double-click the slider itself. If you don't like a particular graduated filter, just press the delete key to remove it. You can add multiple new graduated filters to refine your image as needed. Each filter is represented by a white dot on the picture—click on the dot and it will turn to a black dot, which means you can change any of the adjustments once again.

Adjustment Brush
The Adjustment Brush sits right next to the Graduated Filter in the toolbar below the Histogram and holds all of the adjustment capabilities of the Graduated Filter. Setting its size and edge softness (feather) is key to its use. I rarely use Flow or Density because I like to keep use of the brush simple (Fig. 7). Once you set an adjustment for this tool, you paint the effect onto the picture. If you don't like the look, erase it by using the Erase option for the brush.


Figure 8: Use extreme settings to see the effect.

Once again, set Exposure to an extreme amount so you can see exactly where you're brushing (Fig. 8). Set the brush to a reasonable size for the area you want to work on, and keep Feather at 100 for better blending. It can be helpful to continually change your brush size as you move along edges and into smaller or larger areas. Use the bracket keys on your keyboard to quickly make the brush larger or smaller.

A big problem that I see people consistently having with this in my classes at BetterPhoto.com is edges. If you go too far over an edge where there's a big difference in brightness, you'll start getting a haloing effect along that edge. That affect is very obvious to viewers and will make them question your work. Go back along that edge and use the erase option for the brush to fix it.


Figure 9: A total of six Adjustment Brushes were used on this photo.

Pro Tip: Don't use the Reset button at the bottom of the Adjustment Brush or the Graduated Filter to reset your adjustments for the tool. That reset button gets rid of all of your Graduated Filter or Adjustment Brush work. You can reset any slider by double-clicking on the slider itself, or you can hold down the Alt or Option key and you'll see a new reset button appear at the top of the panel. Click that to reset a single brush or filter application.

Six different Adjustment Brushes were applied to the photo you see here (Fig. 9). The active one shown in this image is removing the green flare at the bottom right with the white balance controls of Temp and Tint. The other brushes used mostly Exposure, with a little bit of Clarity mixed in. The brushes were constantly changed in size to fit the needs of the area being worked on. To do these sort of adjustments with Photoshop would take an inordinate amount of time, which is why many photographers using Photoshop never do them.


This Article Features Photo Zoom


Figure 10:
Edge darkening is achieved with Post-Crop Vignetting.

Edge Darkening
There's an additional darkroom control I use frequently, in part because it was such an important and basic tool for the traditional photographer working in the darkroom. Ansel Adams stressed the importance of darkening the edges of your picture to give the photo more dimension and help keep the viewer's eye on the image. This is easily done with Post-Crop Vignetting in the Effects panel (Fig. 10).

Overadjust the Amount at first so you can see where the effect is occurring and what the other sliders do. You have to be careful that you don't make a very strong vignette without also making a rather large feather or the edge of the vignette will be too obvious in your photograph. The style, Highlight Priority, is fine.

Rob Sheppard's latest books include Landscape Photography: From Snapshots To Great Shots and the free iBook A Nature Photography Manifesto. His blog is at www.natureandphotography.com.

8 Comments

    Nice article, although it could be read as dismissing this as a technique in Photoshop. In its native form, I’d tend to agree. But add Nik’s brilliant filters with their U-point technology and you’ve overcome all of the PS limitations and then some. There’s not an image in my portfolio that doesn’t include a Nik filter somewhere in the workflow. (Disclaimer: I do not receive any inducement from Nik to make the above statements.)

    Rob:
    I noticed in your article you made no mention of the auto mask feature when using the LR adjustment, nor was it turned on in figure 7. I find that to be a very useful feature. Do you not like/use it, and if so why? Thanks for your response.

    Outstanding tutorial for lightroom. I am a noob when if comes to lightroom. I switched from aperture and am liking it so far just trying to adapt. Your tutorial will definitely get put to good use. Thanks

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