No matter how much you plan, sometimes things go against you. For the outdoor photographer, this is usually the weather. Stormy weather can be very photogenic, but what if you have arrived at your location, the place is beautiful, the composition is perfect, but the weather is that awful dull, flat overcast that gives nothing to photograph? With programs such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture, all is not lost.
Using a few fairly simple techniques, adding life to a flat image is possible. We can add contrast and color to a dull image. In this tutorial we are going to take a look at how to do this in Lightroom, but the techniques are broadly similar for other editing programs too. One thing to note; you cannot make a poorly composed image good in post production. Choose an image that has good composition and good potential to be improved.
For the tutorial, we are using an image taken in an old courtyard in Odessa, Ukraine. The image has potential, but because of the low, overcast light, it is flat and lacking in color. The aim is to brighten up the shot and punch out the colors of autumn. Ready?
With the image selected in the Lightroom Library module, select the Develop module at the top right of the screen.
Adding Contrast via Curves:
Our first adjustment will use the Tone Curve tool in combination with the histogram. We use the histogram to make sure we keep our shot within tolerance and that we don’t add noise or blow the highlights. By clicking on the two triangles at either end of the histogram, we can see where the highlights and shadows are clipping.
The first thing we adjust is the shadow detail on the Tone Curve, moving the slider to the right very slightly to lighten up the image a touch. Next, we move the highlights slider to the left to pull back the highlights. The direction you move the sliders depends entirely on your image. In some cases, you may need to boost highlights or shadows, but for this image we need to pull them back so that we have no clipping.
The next thing we will do is to use the lights and darks sliders to add some contrast to the image, again being careful with clipping (although in this case, in order to get good contrast, we are going to accept some highlight clipping on the building in the background). To get a finer result, we can also manually manipulate the Tone Curve. The left side if the histogram is the darker end of the image, and the right side is the highlight end. Dragging the curve up lightens that particular tonal range; dragging it down darkens it.
Once we are happy with the overall exposure and contrast, the next thing we are going to do is adjust the white balance.
Using the Tone Curves to boost contrast
The Tone Curve
Correcting the color:
Because this image was taken in autumn, we want it to have a warm autumnal feel to it. Having shot the original in RAW, I am free to adjust the color temperature to suit my needs. In this case I will simply move the color temperature slider from its “as-shot” setting of 5300K to a little over 7000K. This gives the image a nice warm, yellow feel without it looking like a color cast.
Changing the white balance to 7000k
Next, for this image I want to add some saturation, but just to the fallen leaves on the ground. Using the Radial Filter tool, we can define the region that we wish to work on (in this case, the leaves to the left of the car). Select the invert button at the bottom of the filter dialogue and then increase the saturation to add color to the leaves. In order to saturate the leaves under the car, we duplicate the filter by right-clicking on the center point and selecting Duplicate. We can then drag the new filter into place and modify its shape.
Selective saturation using the radial filter
The Final touches:
Because the main composition is fairly central in the image and the outer edges of the scene are a little distracting, the next thing to do is add a subtle vignette to draw our eye to the old car and leaves. Scroll down the Develop Tools, and under the effects tab you will see Post Production Vignette. Moving the slider to the left will apply a dark vignette to the outer areas of the image. You can further refine the look using the other Vignette sliders. Lastly, if needed, we can add a little sharpening from the Detail tab. Be careful not to over sharpen as you will introduce artifacts into the image.
Adding a vignette
So there you have it – a fairly dull, lifeless image, transformed into something altogether more interesting and colorful. As we said at the top, always try to choose an image that has some compositional merit. Trying to liven up a poor image is just a waste of time. However, as you have seen, with a few simple but effective techniques you can take many of your older, forgotten images and give them a new lease on life.
The final image