Drawing Attention to the Subject with a Vignette

Photographers use vignettes to put a subtle frame around (and draw attention to) the subject of the picture. They draw our eyes to one part of an image and away from the remainder of the image. For me, creating an effective vignette is a balance between getting the effect of the vignette, but still not noticeable to the untrained eye.

So, what is a vignette? For the definitive answer, let’s look at the ultimate source of all things true… Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, a vignette in photography is “a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation at the periphery compared to the image center.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Although you can also vignette with a blur. But they got it mostly right. Anyway, in most cases, vignettes are based on a reduction in brightness, which is what we’ll be discussing here.

Below is a picture of a cheetah with no vignette. You will notice the image looks fairly evenly lit throughout.

A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera
A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera

Below I have added a subtle vignette to the image. Notice the cheetah’s face is a little brighter as compared to the rest of the image. It is somewhat difficult to see, but it does help focus your attention on the cheetah. And cheetah’s command attention.

A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera
A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera

Just in case you can’t see the vignette, below is a version in which I apply too much vignette so the effect is clear.

A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera
A cheetah in a field looking intently at the camera

Adding a vignette is usually the last thing I do with an image. Although Lightroom has the option of adding a post-crop vignette, I do my vignettes in Photoshop because I do my output sharpening there. In Photoshop, vignettes are easily created non-destructively, meaning you are adding an adjustment and not changing pixels. Here are the steps to create a simple non-destructive vignette:

Take the elliptical marquis tool and drag it over the photo so that your screen looks something like this:

Marquis Drawn

Make sure your foreground and background colors are set to black and white, as shown in the image below. Create a curves adjustment layer which will result in a layer mask that looks like the one below.

Curves Layer

Do Command-Shift-I (Mac) or Control-Shift-I (Windows) which will change the mask colors (black & white) to the inverse.

Curve Inverted

Select “refine mask” in the menu (Command-Alt-R for Mac or Control-Alt-R for Windows) and, if you are working with a RAW or large JPG, try an initial feather at around 250. The idea is to get a nice feather around the edges of the image.

Feathered Normal Model

Change the blending mode to Multiply, which will darken the selected area. You image should look like this, which looks pretty horrible.

100 Percent Opacity Vignette

Lastly, reduce the opacity until the vignette is not really noticeable. I usually reduce to around 20%, as in the case here.

Screen Shot Cheetah Complete

You can make further refinements to the vignette with a brush. I sometimes do this if a corner is already dark and the vignette results in the corner being too dark. Just paint black on the mask at perhaps 30% opacity until the effect is painted out.

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