You are into photography. This means you are a light chaser by definition. Because we all know: light makes or breaks a photograph. So how about working light purposely in post-production to create mood and interest in your images?
Portrait photographers have an advantage over us landscapers because they set up their artificial light sources inside the studio to have it work just the way they want it to. It is a bit trickier in nature because we have to take what the elements give us, even when thoroughly planned with apps like PhotoPills and all of your weather apps. We never really know what we are going to get. Providing plenty of potentials to leave a great spot with nothing but frustration if the light just wasn’t really there. But makes it even more rewarding when you are the lucky one to capture natural light that is sometimes sheer breathtaking and greater than we ever thought possible.
But have you ever opened up your raw files from one of those magic moments and felt like “meh, it felt better at the location than it actually looks now!“? We all have been there. And we all will be there again and again. Truth is you have to work the light inside your image to make it shine. But when you know how to lead the eye of the viewer by light and saturation you will take a huge step forward in presenting your images.
Here are 5 tips on how to work with light to display what you saw and felt while shooting.
1. Focus Your Light
Do you know what your image is about? No really, if you had to draw it from scratch and you would just scribble your picture: what would be the main element? Your focal point? Your story? This sounds easier than it sometimes is. Because with all of the emotions we go through while shooting and all of nature´s greatness and possible other angles, we sometimes tend to leave too many details in a shot.
But if you strip all of this down to your main element, make sure to have the light work in its favor: by highlighting it and making your subject stand out. Of course, it would be best to have nature provide this kind of light. But how often do you capture perfect?
If the lighting in the captured image is mostly right already, you sometimes only need a soft radial filter with an added exposure by +5-10, or +10-20 in the shadows in your post processing inside Camera Raw or Lightroom. This gentle boost of light will already lead the eye.
As a more advanced user, you will probably use the relatively new masking function inside Lightroom, or even more so work luminosity masks inside Photoshop. That way you can work your changes way more selectively. I like to use Raya Pro for this.
Shifting light altogether is possible in post, too, of course. But it needs more work. And usually plenty of layers; and you have to keep in mind that working with brightness will affect the contrast and hues inside your image. You should pay attention to this to keep your image sound. Remember: subtlety is key in editing.
If you want to focus your light and raise brightness selectively you have to follow tip #2 as well:
2. Remove Light
Darkening your image selectively is just as important – or in my personal way of editing even more important.
When I start working my raw files I usually lower the exposure by 0,3 to 0,6 inside Lightroom while raising the whites (and also lifting the shadows and blacks). Lowering the overall exposure while making the highlights pop, enhances the intensity of light and increases contrast and saturation.
Taking light out also means working with vignetting. I usually erase the natural vignetting of the lens inside LR (just click “profile correction”) and put a self-controlled one back into the image later. I like to do this either with radial filters that are being masked selectively inside PS but most of the time I just work the “Darken/Lighten center” effect in the Color Efex Pro4 Plugin from Nik (you probably have downloaded it already. It comes for free.)
Alternatively, I use a self-made preset inside Skylum’s Luminar which only contains a Vignetting and a micro contrast. Either way works fine and lets me control the exact spot I place the vignetting inside the image.
The amount of vignetting is up to your taste, of course. Your goal is to keep the eye of the viewer inside the frame. And remember: this doesn’t have to be dead center. But it should be dead right at the center of where you want the attention. That’s why I get rid of the lens’ natural vignetting and place it anywhere I want myself manually later.
Lowering light is also something I like to do with gradual filters inside LR or PS, for example in the sky. You can easily compensate for not using a graduated filter in the field that way. By doing this you can handle the dynamics of your image but also, once again, you keep the focus on your main subject and guide the viewer’s eyes with light inside the frame and not on its outside. When doing this: always keep a good eye on the saturation.
Most skies I see in processed images (and I have been guilty of this, too!) have dark blue clouds that result from darkening skies (which ultimately raises the saturation) and look completely unnatural. So when hiding parts of your image by lowering the highlights or overall exposure, fix the saturation, too, by desaturating it (take a hue/saturation layer or use a layer with the layer mode turned on luminance inside Photoshop).
3. Enhance the Light
Ever heard of dodge and burn? A technique from the old film days and mastered by classics like Ansel Adams. “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” he gets quoted. And who would argue the godfather? (and no, I am not getting into the discussion of which and how much editing is real photography here. Funny side fact; ask purists and many will tell you that Adams is a standard for true photography. Ignoring the fact that he was a master of processing in the darkroom and therefore a role model for photo editing)
There are different techniques to dodge (selectively brighten) and burn (selectively darken) your image. I use a 50% grey layer in Photoshop (use Raya Pro once again, it is very convenient) and dodge with color and a high brightness value. I usually use luminosity masks to target highlights and brighten them in a color tone I find matching for the selected area. A good way is to enhance bright edges. That way you can make reflections of the setting sun on a stone stand out more, for example.
Creating so-called light bleeds where bright spots of sunlight are actually painted into your image with a soft or hard light layer in Photoshop can really create interest and a lot of mood. I like to use this effect every now and then. But, here comes tip number 4:
4. Have Plausible Light
The difficulty with that is the fine line between good and too much. This line is defined by personal taste in the first place, of course. My personal definition is plausibility. If the glow of light is somehow believable and you can imagine seeing this in nature, then it is fine with me. Purists might argue that this effect is fake all over. Well, you decide for yourself. I just give the advice to check for the direction of light source thoroughly.
There are many examples on the internet where people have placed a new sun into an image by the help of the Luminar effect ‘sunrays’, ignoring the fact that on this planet (in opposition to Tatooine in Star Wars) we have just one sun. Obviously having sunbursts from multiple directions is just wrong. So is a light bleed that is just put into the shadows where sunlight cannot go to (for example into the dark side of a sidelit tree).
Again; there is a fine line how the human eye perceives light appearing to be bleeding into a shadow but it surely will not fill up the entire darks. In Photoshop, make sure you mask out those spots. Yes, this is nitpicky work in editing. But this is what will separate you from the ok images.
Another modern effect makes me wonder about plausibility: in many of the newer nightscapes where you can see the milky way, artists add a glowing light source to the horizon.
Spicing up their images to create a focal point or merely blending the light pollution (that gets pretty heavy in long exposures with high ISOs) and enriching it with an Orton Effect. I mean this looks kinda cool, actually. But lately, I notice that those glowing spots seem to get more and more intense in images on the social media and it is starting to resemble light explosions or meteor crashes. So for the sake of plausibility: come on, what light should this be?
I know, I know. Personal preference. But again, mine is often defined by what’s plausible.
5. Dare Darkness
In my editing, I aim to have the darks at a point where you can still see texture. But in contrast to the formerly popular HDR-look when there were no real shadows, I like to keep dark spots of the image, well, dark. My goal is to have images look close to the way the eyes perceive the environment. Notice the difference: I am not saying how the camera technically captures it.
Have you ever looked into a bright light, say the setting sun, and still been able to see everything inside the darker areas around you? No? Me, neither. The same is with night photography: this should be rather dark, shouldn’t it? That is why I encourage you to dare to have darker parts in your images. You will create believability and a dynamic feel to your picture which will appear more realistic to the eye.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying your image should be all dark! It is about balancing darks and brights and have your light effectively and where you want it. Coming back to our portrait photographer: unless it is for a targeted effect it is not a good idea to have the eyes disappear in a shadow. On the other hand, it might be extremely helpful to have the background behind the person really dark. I bet you get the point.
If you succeed with a good image you will build tension between the bright and dark areas. You will create interest (as long as you leave the shadows discoverable) and deliver a mood similar to situations every one of us has experienced within twilight. At best you will create an emotional connection.
Go through the aforementioned tips and work the light. Keep a dynamic and resist the urge to make every detail stand out and scream for attention. Let your focal point shine and enhance with plausibility. Next step will be having your colors in check, too. Because as much as you guide with light, you guide with color, too. But that is for another article.
For now, have fun with making your image shine and work with the light. It is possible. In fact, it is essential. Go and try.