Holly's original file, a JPEG from her Canon Rebel

Holly sent me a photo from the Cosmosphere down in Hutchinson, KS. It's a photo looking up into a rocket engine. Upon opening the photo there was 2 things I noticed immediately,

  • The composition is a little boring. It looks like Holly was aiming for a symmetrical composition, using the pattern of the engine bell and the bright green engine cap as it's center. I feel that when you are shooting a photo that relies on symmetry, there is no room for error. You have to nail the symmetry or it won't work. This is difficult – lens distortion, camera height, tilt, and even just being able to access that one spot where it will fall into place – it all comes into play. So, here we have a teal engine cap near the middle of the photo, not ideal. Even if we miss the composition out in the field, we can fix it once we get home.

The histogram from the original JPEG, notice the large amounts of space between the ends and our graph

  • There was little to no contrast – it looked very flat with no "pop". This happens through no fault of the photographer. You'll see this on cloudy days when the light is very even and diffuse, and you'll see it in situations like this, where you're in shade with no direct light source. Looking at the histogram, there are large gaps on the sides of the graph. Nothing approaching pure white, and nothing near pure black – everything is bunched up in a small section of the histogram. This tells us there isn't much contrast – or, put another way, all of the colors are very close to each other in brightness. We will explore the histogram and how to read it in more detail in an upcoming blog post, but for now – when you see all the data in your histogram bunched up, it's telling you there isn't a bunch of contrast. Remember, there isn't a perfect histogram, every photo is different! But we can learn to read the histogram to make sure the camera is recording a scene the way we intend.

Before and After, click image to enlarge


The Nitty Gritty

Below you'll find the steps, along with my thought process and technical details on what I did. I chose to edit this photo in Lightroom only, because it's so widely used and to keep it a simple post-processing tutorial. If anyone would like me to use Photoshop, Aperture (RIP), iPhoto, or CaptureOne, my new RAW tool of choice, I'd be glad to show you your favorite in the next installment.


Tackling composition through cropping

I cropped the photo down to give us space to move our subject – the teal engine cap – out of the center of the frame. Your composition is what guides a viewer's eyes through the photo. Your goal is to make sure the viewer sees what you want, and ignores what you don't.

There are 3 things to remember with composition:
1. Bright attracts the eye more than dark
2. In English speaking countries, our eyes are trained to move Left to Right
3. There are exceptions to the above rules ;)

I love the lines in this photo, they all guide us towards the subject. In your compositions, leading lines are great aids in defining your subject and controlling your viewer's attention. I decided to place the subject on the right to give the viewer's eyes space to move across the photo before they focus directly on the engine cap. If we placed it on the left, many people would stop right there, and not allow themselves to see all of our beautiful leading lines.


Fill the Histogram

I mentioned before that the contrast in this photo was very low, or flat. How do we fix this? Fill the histogram! In Lightroom, there isn't a levels tool but there is a curves tool. I love the curves tool, it gives me total control over colors and contrast. To make the dark parts of the photo dark, we will grab the handle in the bottom left of the curves (which controls the dark tones in the photo) and drag it to the right until it's near or touching the first part of the histogram. Do the opposite for the top right handle (which controls the brights), drag it to the left until you get closer to your histogram. By doing this, we've told Lightroom that we want everything to the left of the bottom left handle to be pure black and everything right of the top right handle to be pure white. We are essentially telling Lightroom to re-set the bounds of our histogram and re-evaluate the photo with these new brightness levels as the extremes.


Bring out the color through vibrance

The teal engine cap is the only noticeable color in the photo, so we don't need to make it scream at people; however, we need it to come out of it's shell a bit and not look so hazy.

The Vibrance slider in Lightroom is the smarter, younger brother to the Saturation slider. The Vibrance slider increases saturation of colors that aren't already quite saturated, so it's safe to use fairly liberally without fear of making everything look overdone.


Add more contrast through curves

Now that we have a photo with more contrast and some color, lets further increase global contrast before we focus on smaller sections of the photo.

Grab the curve inside the top-right handle that we moved earlier (the side that is increasingly bright), and drag it up a touch. You don't need to drag it very far to see a noticeable brightening of the brights. Do the same for the bottom-left handle we moved before, drag the curve down just a touch to darken the darks.

The amount of separation between the brights and the darks is contrast, we are exaggerating the contrast across the entire photo with this curve adjustment. The shape of the curve you have now looks a bit like a diagonal "S", which is why you'll hear this called an "S Curve".


Dodge & Burn

Dodge and burn? No, this isn't the name of a game or a dance move – it's a technique to further control where in the photo people focus their attention. We do this by making portions darker (burning) and some lighter (dodging). I'll explain why they are called dodge & burn in a later post, but for now just know that it's vernacular from the days of dark rooms, enlargers and film.

Now, looking over this photo for areas that need to be darkened, I find that the silver ring on the engine cap is actually too bright. It sticks out too much from our curves adjustment. Easy fix, I'll open our Adjustment Brush panel (located on the far right under the histogram – it is conveniently shaped like a brush :))

Here I've taken an Adjustment Brush, dropped the highlights quite a bit and painted just a bit on the ring to bring down the harsh highlight. Fixed.

Taking the highlights down on the center ring

Taking the highlights down on the center ring

Burning the engine bell

Burning the engine bell

Dodging the engine bell

In the engine bell, there is a really cool wear pattern. Not only do the ridges in the bell lead us to the subject, but the wear pattern further emphasize the leading lines. Let's make them even more obvious.

I've taken a new Adjustment Brush and a soft, not-quite-100%-flowing brush and painted into the dark streaks of the engine bell. With this brush, I've set the exposure to -.30 (or, 1/3 of a stop darker). You can see with the red overlay in the image above where I've painted. It's just a quick stroke with the brush on the darker, more prominent areas of the bell – and it doesn't have to be super perfect.

Now for the light areas. With a new Adjustment Brush, I've done the opposite. I'm adding .30 to the exposure (or, adding 1/3 of a stop) and painted into the light streaks and even touched the lighter areas of the engine cap to brighten them a hair.

Tip: With Adjustment Brushes, you can paint into your photo and then change the effect, you don't need to set the effect once and for all before painting.



Now that I'm nearing the end of my work on this photo, I'll add just a touch more sharpening – this is a JPEG straight from Holly's camera. When working with JPEGs, you often won't need a bunch of extra sharpening, because when the camera saves the JPEG to the memory card, it's already added some sharpening, saturation and contrast to the photo. So, we'll be adding just a little bit.

To control the amount of sharpening, I'm going to adjust our sharpening mask. A mask is an area where an effect will not be applied. So, increasing the mask will reduce what areas of the image are affected. I've taken the Mask to 10, the larger the number, the more of the image is masked, and therefore, less of the image will receive the sharpening.

Tip: If you're curious as to what Lightroom is applying it's sharpening to, hold down Option (Alt on Windows) while dragging the Mask slider (in fact, holding down Option/Alt while dragging most of the sliders in Lightroom will show you what that slider is doing).


Revealing the sharpening mask using the Option/Alt key


White Balance tweak

Before finalizing a photo, I'll usually step away from the computer for a few minutes. Take a walk around the house, get some water or more coffee, get outside for some fresh air – anything to get your eyes away from the image. Your sense of color changes depending on your mood, what your eyes have been looking, etc and I need to make sure I put "fresh" eyes on the image to see how I feel.

Sometimes it's a color tweak or maybe some contrast adjustment and sometimes it's that the photo is just way too bright or too dark, it's always something.

In this case, it was the white balance. It felt so cold and green when I looked at it after coming back. I played around with color temperature quite a bit before deciding that just a bit of warmth to the image, with a bump in the magenta tint to help balance out the yellow/green solved it for me.



I wanted to continue to force the viewer to look into the engine cap, so I've darkened the edges of the photo using a small vignette.

I'm a huge fan of a nice, small vignette whether it's in-camera or from post-processing. It's very easy to go overboard with vignettes, I'm constantly scaling them back before I publish or print an image.

In this photo (and this happens mostly on darker photos) it made the photo look too dark overall. Easy fix! Increase the global exposure adjustment up a notch or 2 and you retain the slightly darker edge, but it brings the overall feel of the photo out of the dark.

Bringing in a vignette

Pushing the global exposure compensation up a couple of notches


All Done

I feel like my photos are never "done", just "done, for now". I might come back to a photo after a year and have a new technique or a new idea I want to try out in Photoshop or Lightroom that really transforms what I feel about an image.

Always experiment, drag sliders around, feel free to make an image worse sometimes! Maybe what made that image look horrid would make another image really sing.

Final product

Final product