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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From blah to PIZZAH! How to Make Your Photos Pop - Part 1

Recently I attended the San Diego Photography Users Group where Art Suwansang from Rule of 3rds presented some amazing techniques in Lightroom.  I utilized some of these techniques to process one of the photos I took for the 19 Frame Challenge from an earlier post. 

Today you'll learn how to take the original photo on the left and turn it into the one on the right--all in only a few minutes!!
Lightroom Tutorial - before/after

The two techniques I'll highlight today are the Graduated Filter and Adjustment Brush Tools.  Whether you are a professional photographer or a weekend photographer with an iPhone I think you'll find a new tip or trick to really help make your photos pop. I am "stacking" a lot of separate techniques to build a complete image but any of these techniques by themselves can work on their own and might just be all you need to make your photo pop. 

Today's examples are tailored more towards bringing out the landscape in your photos.  In a later post, I'll talk about similar techniques you can do to make your portraits reach out and grab your viewers :)

Here's the photo we'll be using today.  It is a sunrise view from one of the amazing suites at The Grand America hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. It's an ok photo.  Not horrible, but nothing special either.

Lightroom Tutorial - original image

The first thing you'll want to do is get the photo nailed down perfectly first.  If anyone out there is interested, I can talk about how to do this. Once you've got your white balance nailed, your exposure set for your white point and your blacks adjusted for your black point then you can move on.  For this photo I did not need to make any adjustments.

For this image the first thing I'm actually going to do is play with is to go back to the White Balance.Since this is a landscape shot I am going to give myself a little more artistic license and change the White Balance to give me a warmer feel. 
Lightroom Tutorial - white balance adjustment

The next tool we'll use the Graduated Filter Tool. Make sure you're in the Development module.  Then select the Graduated Filter Tool.  You can also use the keyboare shortcut (m). 
Lightroom Tutorial - select graduated filter

Select the Graduated Filter tool and apply it to your image. Here you can see that I applied a very small band right around the mountain range. (Note: if you hold down the SHIFT key you'll keep your filter straight) The main reason for doing this was to darken the sky and bring out some of the color. I did this by dialing down the exposure before applying the filter. You can see that just this one adjustment helps out a ton!!
Lightroom Tutorial - apply graduated filter

While the filter is still selected (you can tell that because there is a black circle within a white circle), let's utilize the filter to add some more pop to the image. If you look at the right hand panel there are a bunch of settings to adjust the Graduated Filter.
  • Lower Brightness to darken the skies a little more
  • Increase the contrast to further darken the skies and separate the clouds from the sky
  • Increase the clarity to bring more texture to the clouds
Lightroom Tutorial - graduated filter settings

Now, let's apply another Graduated Filter.  For this filter let's stick to the very top of the image.  The settings for this filter are to lower the exposure and brightness by just a tad to give a little more darkness gradient to the top.  We'll also select a blue color to apply and bump up the saturation to add some blue to the top part of the sky. 
Lightroom Tutorial - graduated filter settings

One other really cool use for Graduated Filters is to color correct portions of your image.  For this image, because we changed the White Balance the ground has a yellowish cast to it.  To fix this, we'll apply another filter moving upwards that has a blue tint to it.  This is counteracts the yellow and gives a more neutral tone.  While we're at it, let's also increase the brightness to give a little more life to the party.  Here, we're using Brightness instead of Exposure because we like where our white points and highlights are--we don't want to blow them out.  So we adjust the Brightness which changes only the mid tones in our images.
Lightroom Tutorial - graduated filter settings

One thing that's important to do when you're processing your photos or editing an image is to keep track of your progress and keep an eye on the big picture.  In Lightroom, you can easily view the original image without any adjustments by using the keyboard shortcut (\). 
Lightroom Tutorial - view original image

WOW!!!! What a difference we've made already!!
Lightroom Tutorial - original image

The last thing we're going to modify for this image is to put some white back into the mountain snow and make it jump out just a tad more.  To do this we'll use the Adjustment Brush Tool.
Lightroom Tutorial - select adjustment brush

Once you select the brush, let's increase the exposure a little to make the whites a little whiter and decrease the saturation to pull some of the yellow color out.  But make sure not to decrease the saturation too much because we still want a tint of the yellow/orange to keep it realistic because the snow would reflect some of the sky's light. Just go ahead and paint in right over the mountain snow.  Quick note about the two brush circles you see: the inner circle is the size of your brush.  The outer circle is the amount of feather the brush has. 
Lightroom Tutorial - apply adjustment brush

So there you have it!  Just a few minutes in Lightroom and you can make your photos go from blah to PIZZAH!!!

Lightroom Tutorial - before/after

Lightroom Tutorial - sunrise view from The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, UT


  1. Great tutorial. Have already applied it to an otherwise dull but well composed photo, and am very happy with the result.

  2. Awesome!! Glad to hear it :)

  3. Although, the application that you've described is really good, you may also like using www.besthdrsoftwaremac.com.