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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Compelling Shapes in Silhouette Images

Silhouette images can be pretty cool. This is because the high level of contrast between lights and darks, often combined with saturated colors, makes an immediate impact on the viewer. However, this visual impact makes it easy to let a mediocre image slip into your portfolio.

For this reason, I hold my silhouette images to a higher standard when it comes to the shape of the subject. The subject must have an interesting graphic shape, such as in the picture below:

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Twins : Prints Available

Two women in silhouette on beach outside XiaPu, China

This image works well because the dancer (a.k.a. my wife) knows how to pose well.

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First Light : Prints Available

Dancer exercising at sunrise on Lake Michigan

Depending on your shutter speed, you will most likely need to use a tripod and also ensure your subject is completely still. None of the edges of the silhouette should be blurred, unless you are blurring for effect.

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The Fountain : Prints Available

Elegant woman watching a fountain during a brilliant sunset

Also, in many cases, you don’t want the silhouette to go completely dark. Including a little detail in the shadows often works better than having a completely black shape. In the image below, I brought out some of the details of the lighthouse in post-processing.

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All is Well : Prints Available

Silhouette of two men fishing off a lighthouse pier during sunset

The Stories Behind the Pictures, Part 2

Sometimes it is fun to hear the details of what was going on behind the scenes when a picture was taken. With that in mind, I bring to you, “The Stories Behind the Pictures, Part 2”. If you are interested in seeing the first installment, here is a link to that blog from August, 2013:

The Stories Behind the Pictures, Part 1

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Friendship : Prints Available

Older Chinese women sitting on the stairs

I took the above shot during a trip to Guilin, China in May of 2012. There were actually three ladies in the scene, but this particular composition included just two of them. In May 2015, I was back in China. Exactly 3 years and 1 day from taking this picture, I was walking through the same village, not knowing I had been there before. My guide and I came walking around a corner and there were the three ladies. Each of them was sitting in the exact same location on the stairs as previously and wearing the exact same clothes! They liked looking at the previous picture but had no interest in a follow-up portrait.

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Clouds Over the Forest : Prints Available

Clouds over Deadvlei, Namibia’s dead tree forest

I shot the above image in Deadvlei, which is a dead tree forest in the Namibian desert. For a period of time before sunset, I had the entire place to myself… not a single person there except me. I was lining up this shot and enjoying the solitude when, out of nowhere, a group of angry bees showed up. I guess I would be angry too if I lived in the Namibian desert. The bees were after my water bottle and, for some reason, liked my camera bag too. They were apparently pretty thirsty and not taking “no” for an answer. I literally could not get into my camera bag to change lenses without getting attacked by the bees. It took me 20 minutes to get the bag away. I finally ended up kicking my water bottle away, swinging my tripod at them, grabbing my backpack and running.

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Aurora Over Iceland : Prints Available

The Northern Lights illuminating the sky over southeastern Iceland.

This image was taken in the middle of the night on the Southeastern coast of Iceland. Earlier that day, we were told by a lady from Hofn (the nearby town) to NOT pay the $4 “entrance fee” to get into the park where these mountains can be viewed. She said it was basically a scam. So, when we got to the park, we drove right past the sign demanding payment. Later that evening, we set up tents in the park to shoot the Northern Lights. All of a sudden, we see lights coming up the road. Scam or not, the Icelandic guy had shown up with his car and was now looking for us with a flashlight. This is not a fun situation. My first thought was to fold the tents up and run. My second thought was, “wait… I’m a fully grown adult.” So, I did what any fully grown adult would do in that situation… I played dumb and pretended I did not see the sign.

Foggy Lenses

Photographers have a lot of pet peeves. For those of you unfamiliar with the expression, a “pet peeve” is something specific that is particularly annoying to you. The list of pet peeves among photographers is so long that you could literally write a doctoral dissertation on the subject. But, generally, anything that can ruin a picture is included. Without a doubt, “foggy lenses” makes the top ten list. This is because it takes quite awhile for lenses to un-fog in humid conditions…. sometimes 20 minutes or more.

Lenses become foggy when you go from a cool environment (such as an air-conditioned vehicle) to a hot, humid environment. This scenario is not uncommon in photo shoots where you are jumping out of a vehicle to shoot a scene. Lenses can also fog up in very wet or humid environments, even if the camera had already adjusted to the outdoor temperature. This is common when you are shooting in the rain or next to a waterfall.

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Fog Over Ponytail Falls : Prints Available

Fog creeps through the trees overlooking Ponytail Falls

Here are a few quick tips for minimizing the risk of ruining part or all of a shoot due to a foggy lens:

1. Shut off the air-conditioning prior to the shoot. When on the way to photograph in a warm area, I try to get the environment in the car similar to the environment outside. Opening the window and dealing with some heat or humidity is well worth it.

2. Control the lens temperature with your camera bag’s zipper. If I am stuck in a cool environment and have no control over it, I’ll leave my camera bag zipped. However, if I’ve left an air-conditioned or cool temperature and am now in the car and can keep the car warm, I’ll begin to acclimate my camera and lenses by unzipping the camera bag slightly.

3. Use the air blower and lens cloth. If your lens is already fogging up, then using your air blower and lens cloth between shots to keep the lens as dry as possible is your best option.

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Wave Crash at Oceanside : Prints Available

A wave crashing on the rocky shore of Oceanside, Oregon is frozen in time

Sometimes, you are in a situation where the environment is so wet and humid that these techniques don’t solve the problem. During my recent visit to Iceland, I was photographing waterfalls close up and was getting pummeled with spray from the falls almost constantly. I was battling both water drops and fog on the lens. In those cases, you just do your best to keep the camera dry between shots and wipe the lens after each shot. Using this technique, I was able to get the pictures I wanted, but I did end up with moisture in the lens that lasted until the following day. Another photographer was photographing the same waterfall and ended up with actual water in his lens because his camera and lens did not have sufficient weather sealing. So, you need to be extra careful if you do not have a higher end camera and lens with good sealing.

Packing for a Photography Backpacking Trip in Iceland

I just returned from a 10-day photography trip to Iceland that involved both camping and backpacking. Before I left, I took some pictures of the gear I took along for a blog post. Now, I’m sure that at least half of the readers of this blog just yawned, closed the window and got back on Facebook when they saw that the topic was packing. But, I’m convinced that there are a lot of photographers out there that will use this list as a resource. So, I will write on undeterred.

I’ve never really been a “packing list” person, but I recently created a detailed packing list specifically for this trip. Below is what I brought along, organized by major category. There will be very little commentary in this blog… just pictures and a list of items.

Photography equipment

Below is a picture of everything I typically bring if there is enough room. I’ll leave some things at home depending upon the trip. Virtually all of this (except the large tripod if I bring it) gets packed in my carry-on for the flight.


f-Stop Tilopa Bag (not pictured) with internal camera unit
Rain cover, straps, hooks for camera bag
Canon 5d Mark III with tripod plate
Canon 5d Mark II with tripod plate
Canon battery charger and extra batteries
16-35 w/ hood
24-105 w/ hood
100-400 w/ hood, ring, tripod plate
Memory Cards and case
Card Reader and cable
580EX II flash(es)
STE-2 flash trigger
Umbrella (Lighting)
Portable flash stand and connectors
Lee filter, holder, polarizer
Gitzo GT3542LS Tripod
RRS ballhead
Tripod adjustment wrenches
Lens air blower
Lens cleaning cloths, wipes

Camping Gear


North Face Tent
Tent Footprint
Sleeping Bag and stuff bag
Sleeping pad w/ bag
Inflatable pillow
MSR Stove w/ case and accessories
MSR Fuel Bottle
Foldable Pot
Foldable cup/bowl
Foldable measuring Cup / Drinking Cup
Water bottle
Whistle & Compass
Small Fenix flashlight
Swiss Army Knife
Water purification tablets
Sunscreen – Mini
Camping Towels


Because I want to keep this blog rated “G” for family viewing, I’ve excluded my underwear from this picture. But, trust me, I brought underwear to Iceland.


Short-sleeve and long-sleeve “base layer” shirts
Long underwear bottoms
Hiking pants
Hiking pants 2
Socks (Heavy)
Socks (Light)
T-shirts for sleep
Pajama Bottoms
Patagonia Down Jacket
North Face fleece jacket
Rain jacket
Rain pants
Winter hat
Baseball hat
Thin gloves (waterproof)
Fisherman’s Boots
Hiking Boots
Hiking Sandals
Clothes dry bag (Medium)
Clothes dry bag (Small)
Larger ziplocks for shoes
Sunglasses and case/bag
Glasses and Reading Glasses w/ case



Freeze-Dried Meals (I brought around 12)
Protein Bars
Hot chocolate
Gatorade powder packets

Miscellaneous and Equipment


MacBook and cable
External drive and cable
Cell phone and charger
Electric adapter(s)
Memory stick
Headphones – small
AA Quick Charger and adapter
AA Batteries and case
Copy of passport
Airline itinerary & Boarding Passes
Cash (USD / Foreign / Tips)
Ziplock bags
Eye Shield
Ear Plugs
Duct Tape
Things to light a fire (not pictured… check on airline regulations for approved items and how to pack)

Medication / First Aid / Toiletries


My prescription meds
Prescription Cipro
Alcohol prep pads
Elastic wrap
Nail clippers
Lip Balm
Towlettes – Small
Bio-degradeable toilet paper
Hand sanitizer
Razor – electric
Contact case
Small contact solution bottle
Contact lenses (extras)
Eye glass wipes
Glasses repair kit

Using Gradients to Draw Attention to Your Subject

I frequently use the gradient tool in Lightroom and Photoshop to draw attention to the subject of my photograph. Gradients are extremely useful because they can help create gradual transitions between adjusted and non-adjusted areas. This blog won’t be a comprehensive look at gradients, but simply a demonstration of how I use them for one particular purpose. This blog assumes that you have a basic knowledge of either Lightroom or Photoshop. With those disclaimers, let’s get started with a quick description of what a gradient is.

For our purposes, a gradient is the gradual feathering of whatever adjustment is being made to the image. There are different types of gradients, but the one I use is the most straightforward. At the start of the gradient, 100% of the adjustment is applied, while at the end 0% is applied. There is an even feathering of the adjustment between start and end.

This will be better illustrated using an example. Here are before and after pictures to show you how I use a gradient to draw attention to my subject by darkening the outer areas of the image.

Original Image

Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars
Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars

Image after darkening the outer parts of the image using 3 gradients

Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars
Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars

For some of you, you may need to look a few times to see the effect. Notice that the transition from darkened to non-darkened areas is smooth. Here is how to create this effect in both Lightroom and Photoshop, starting with Lightroom:

1. First click on the gradient tool (pictured below). This will bring up the local adjustment menu.

Lightroom Gradient Tool

Lightroom Local Adjustment Tools

2. Adjust the exposure slider left, as in the image below.

Exposure Slider Down

3. Then drag the gradient from somewhere outside the image towards the subject. I usually overlap the gradient with the subject because the effect is hardly applied as you get to the center.

4. Fine-tune the adjustment using the exposure slider. Generally, you don’t want to go too obvious with the adjustment.

5. Hit “New” at the top of the menu and then repeat the adjustment from other sides and angles if you want. In this case, I’ve used three gradients, including from the right side, left side (but angled upward) and top left corner.

Screen with Picture

For Photoshop, below is one way among many to get the same basic effect.

1. Create a curves adjustment layer.

2. Click on the middle of the curve and drag the curve down to darken the whole image.

Photoshop Curve Layer and Curve

3. Click on the gradient tool button (pictured below)

Photoshop Gradient Button

4. Make sure your foreground color is set to white and your background color is set to black, as in the picture below. Hitting the letter “d” on the keyboard should re-set the foreground/background colors to these default settings.

Photoshop Colors

5. Then, make sure the layer mask is active by clicking on it and drag the cursor from outside the image towards the subject. This will result in a feathered mask.

6. Adjust the opacity of the curves layer until you get the desired effect.

Photoshop first layer adjusted

You might ask whether you can accomplish the same thing by creating a vignette. With a vignette, you have less control because it is a single adjustment rather than several adjustments from multiple sides, each controlled independently.

Lastly, you can use the same gradient techniques with a variety of adjustments, like contrast, saturation and a color fill layer, among others.

Coastline Moving Water Images

I love coastline images that include moving water. Although there are many ways to incorporate water into an image, I especially like combining blurred streaks of water bubbles with an interesting distant subject. Here is an example:

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Waves on Rialto Beach : Prints Available

Retreating water in front of sea stacks on Washington’s Rialto Beach

The above image works well because the sea stack makes a great subject out in the water. This is not always easy to find, which is why so many landscape photographers flock to the Pacific Northwest. If you are lucky enough to have access to this type of scenery, here is how to take these pictures:

You’ll Need…

  • A sturdy tripod. This is especially important because the camera needs to stay still during a relatively long exposure while standing in moving water.
  • A remote shutter trigger. This will help you keep your eyes on the waves to get your timing right, as well as minimize camera shake.
  • Depending on the lighting, you will most likely need a solid neutral density filter, such as a 4-stop or even a 10-stop for bright conditions.
  • A wide to ultra-wide lens (probably in the 14-24 range).
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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Composing the Image…

  • Where you stand and what focal length you use will be driven by getting the water streaks composed properly in the foreground and the subject as an important part of the image. The picture above is an example of a good balance between foreground and distant subject.
  • You want to position yourself in a spot where the water passes you as the waves go in and out but is relatively shallow or dry after the water moves out. Yes, this means your feet and probably legs will get wet.
  • One good compositional technique is to use the water streaks as leading lines to the subject, such as in the image below.
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Rocks on Ruby Beach : Prints Available

Water retreating between rocks on the shores of Ruby Beach

Your Settings…

  • Set your camera to manual or shutter priority
  • Set ISO to 100
  • For starters, set your shutter speed to between 1/4 and 2 seconds. You can then adjust later based on what looks good.
  • You then have to arrive at a desired aperture. I generally choose between f/18 or f/20 so that the distant subject as well as the water streaks are in focus. Even though the foreground water is blurred, you still want it to be in focus.
  • If you are still overexposing the image, you can then bring in the neutral density filter(s) and re-adjust to your final aperture to get a proper exposure.
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Oceanside Sea Stacks at Sunset : Prints Available

Beautiful sunset on the Pacific at Oceanside

Timing the waves…

  • You want to shoot as the water is retreating back into the ocean or lake. When the water retreats, there are often bubbles which help the water streaks look more pronounced. You will have to work with the timing of when to trip the shutter, but I generally wait until the water is retreating around the tripod.
  • Keep checking what your images look like and make adjustments to your settings and timing.

Lastly, take a lot of pictures… each one will be different, so it is best to have more options to choose from.

Seeking Out Great Subjects

One of the best lessons I learned early on from photographer Jim Zuckerman is that great subjects form the foundation for great pictures. A great subject can make the difference between a snapshot and a work of art. Yes, there are some excellent photos out there of very ordinary things. But, quite often, the strength of your photo depends on the strength of your subject.

Don’t avoid taking pictures of ordinary things. But, take the extra step to seek out great subjects. Below are some examples of images where a great subject made all the difference in the final result.

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Red-Eyed : Prints Available

Close-up of colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog

The picture above of the Red-Eyed-Tree-Frog is a compelling image because the frog is super cool. Put an ordinary frog on the same Heliconia flower and the picture is probably a tosser.

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One Eye Closed : Prints Available

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

I’ve seen great pictures of ordinary people. However, there are people out there that are especially unique and compelling looking. I like to take pictures of older people that have been around the block a few times because they often make for amazing subjects. The older Chinese man in the picture above is no exception.

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Leaves Swirl at the Subway : Prints Available

Gold colors from the sand-filled pools at the Subway

The above picture is of a place known as “The Subway”. It is located in Zion National Park and involves a long hike, scrambling over and between rocks and across rivers. But, the place is otherworldly and resulted in a great picture that I’m glad is part of my portfolio.

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Of course, it is not always easy (or cheap) to get to far away places. But getting to places that most people haven’t been to adds to the impact of your photos. Deadvlei, pictured above, is such a place that leaves those that haven’t been there asking questions about what it is and where it is.

Controlling Tonal Contrast Using a Histogram

Okay, I admit it. The title to this blog sounds pretty boring. However, this is pretty important stuff. Apart from getting a compelling composition in camera, controlling tonal contrast during post-processing is perhaps the most important part of creating a successful image. So, read on!

First, what does tonal contrast mean from a photography perspective? It is simply the magnitude of the difference between the light and dark areas of the image. To see this visually, let’s look at the histogram… a tool found in your post-processing software that can help you control contrast more effectively. In Adobe Lightroom, you can make the histogram visible by making sure the word Histogram is checked under the Window menu. Whatever software you use, it should have the option to view a histogram.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 5.22.29 PM

Identical tones in your image are reflected in the vertical movement of the graph, while differences in tones are reflected in the left to right movement. An overall darker image results in a histogram concentrated on the left, while a lighter image results in concentration on the right. The following should make this clear…

The image below is just a gray box. Every pixel is filled with the same tone… middle gray, which is exactly halfway between pure black and pure white. This zero contrast image results in a histogram that is made up of a single column right in the middle.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 4.39.31 PM

Now, look at the next image. As expected, the histogram has two columns at the edges… the left representing the black pixels and the right representing the white pixels. All of the pixels are concentrated in two tones.

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Lastly, here is an image with a gradient applied from pure black to pure white. You can see what the histogram looks like in this case, with a full range of tones.

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So, how do I actually control contrast and how do I use the histogram when processing an image? Although I work with contrast at different stages in post-processing, I initially adjust contrast as one of the first steps, right after white balance and exposure if needed. I will focus here on this initial contrast adjustment using a landscape image as an example.

The image below is a pretty extreme example of one that completely lacks contrast and looks “gray” in tone. The histogram is concentrated around the middle. This image can be substantially improved by increasing contrast.

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Below is the same image after a quick contrast adjustment. This image is not finished with processing, but it certainly looks a lot better already. The histogram shows greater left to right movement. Each side of the graph does not quite reach the edge. I do this because I like to leave myself some room for a later contrast adjustment in Photoshop.

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In the partial screenshot above, you can see the adjustments I made using the sliders in Lightroom. Other software should have similar sliders. Again, this is a pretty extreme example, so my adjustments are pretty extreme here. There is no real right way to do this, but here is what I did for this image:

First, looking at the histogram, I moved the Blacks slider to the left to get the leftmost part of the graph line fairly close to the edge, but not touching. So, there is no pure black in this image. If this image had pure black from the start, I may have moved the slider to the right to reduce the pure black in the image.

Next, I looked at the darker parts of the image (ignoring the histogram) and adjusted the Shadows slider so that the image had greater contrast, but without losing detail in shadow areas. You usually want to still be able to see detail in at least some of the shadows.

Third, looking at the histogram, I moved the whites slider to the right until the graph line was close to the edge, but had room to spare. If the image didn’t look good with that adjustment, I could have simply backed off on the adjustment. Also, if the graph was up against the right side at the beginning and I didn’t want pure white in the image, I would have moved it left to reduce or eliminate the pure white cells.

Fourth, looking at the image, I adjusted the highlights slider until the image looked good and the lighter areas of the image showed some nice contrast.

Fifth, I went back and tweaked the sliders again.

It is important to note that this is really only an example of how I initially adjusted contrast for one particular image. In many cases, you want to reduce contrast, rather than increase contrast. For some images, it is okay or desirable to have a fair amount of pure black and/or pure white in the image. In some cases, you want your image histogram concentrated to the left, middle or right. An image of a night sky will likely have a histogram that shows a lot of dark tones and pure black.

So, the above doesn’t apply in all cases. But, hopefully this exercise is helpful to you. Most importantly, be sure to balance what you see in the histogram with what looks good to your eyes.