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.

TK Actions: Sharpening for Web

For many photographers, the last step in the image processing workflow is the creation of a downsized JPG from a large Photoshop file. During this downsizing process, you lose some sharpness in your image. Because of this, it is important to add back some “output sharpening” while creating the JPG. There are a range of options for doing this, including sharpening during export in Lightroom, sharpening a layer in Photoshop or using a Photoshop plug-in, such as Nik’s Sharpener Pro.

I tried a number of methods and landed on a Photoshop action created by Tony Kuyper. The “Web-Sharpening” tool is built into Tony’s “TK Actions” panel. This set of actions is the best value out there. In fact, almost all of the landscape photographers I know use TK Actions. But, this blog is about the Web-Sharpening tool, so I will [try to] stay focused on that.

I sharpened the image below using the action and, as you can see, the sharpening looks great (click on the image to see it as it appears on my site). I’ll take you through the process so that you can see how easy it is.

LANDFORM,LIGHT,LOCATION,beach,eastern,europe,field,hofn,iceland,klifatindur,mountain,pond,pool,sand,southern,sunset,vesterhorn,water body

Sunset at Vestrahorn : Prints Available

Glowing fields from low-angled sidelight in front of Iceland’s Vestrahorn Mountain.

Below is a screen shot of the Web-Sharpening section of Tony’s actions panel. To size this image at 800 pixels wide for my website, I simply enter “800” pixels in the box, check “horizontal” for a horizontal image, leave the layer opacity at 50% (this can be adjusted later) and hit “OK”.

Web-sharpen section

If I understand correctly, the action first creates an image sized at 1.67 times your final specified image size. This image is over-sharpened and then re-sized to your originally specified size (in my case, 800 pixels wide). The action creates a separate file with a layer stack, as pictured below. Your Photoshop file is left unaltered.

whole screen no mask

Below is a close-up of the layers. The sharpened image layers are grouped together in the layer called “TK Web-Sharpen”. You’ll notice that the 50% opacity that I had specified appears as the opacity in the sharpened group layer.

layers and opacity

I find that 50% opacity works well on the sharpening group layer for most of my landscape images. For landscape images that have a clear horizon line (such as in this example), I then add a white mask to the sharpening group layer and paint a black line on the mask along the horizon line at between 80-100% opacity. This is because sharpening a high-contrast horizon line can often make a slight halo look more pronounced. Masking it out solves this potential problem.

horizon masked out

You then have the option of making additional adjustments using the available hue/saturation, curves or levels layers/masks. I normally use the Curves layer to increase contrast slightly to try to match the contrast of the Photoshop file. These three layers are available to further tweak the color or contrast of your JPG if you noticed a loss of either from your Photoshop file.

With the JPG copy still open, hit the “Save for Web” button on the Web-Sharpening section which opens Photoshop’s Save for Web dialogue box. This dialogue box is beyond the scope of this blog, but here is what it looked like prior to saving my image:

save for web screen

The image below was shot several hours after the image above. Because it was very dark, I shot this at high ISO. I was concerned about sharpening the noise which would make the JPG image appear noisier. So, for this image, I masked out almost all of the sky in addition to the horizon line.

aurora,beach,borealis,eastern,europe,field,hill,hofn,iceland,klifatindur,mountain,northern lights,pond,pool,sand,south,southern,the northern lights

Aurora Over Iceland : Prints Available

The Northern Lights illuminating the sky over southeastern Iceland.

I also use the Web-Sharpening action for my portrait work. Because I want to avoid over-sharpening my already-heavily-sharpened subjects, I drop the opacity to 30% which seems to be the right amount to me.

asia,asian,china,chinese,da zhai,da zhai terrace fields,dazhai,elderly,environmental portait,hat,longji,longji rice terraces,longsheng,male,man,old,older,people,portrait,smoking,standing,terraces,tian

One Eye Closed : Prints Available

Chinese man from the Longji area takes a break outside his house.

You can find the TK Actions panel at the link below, as well as excellent videos by Sean Bagshaw on how to use the actions, including the Web-Sharpening tool.


Even though the Web-Sharpening tool alone is worth the price, you get loads of actions as part of the TK Actions panel, including the famous luminosity masking actions which will change your life.