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Getting That Trendy High-Contrast Look

There’s a Photoshop effect that started making the rounds a couple years ago, and now it’s one of the hottest and most requested looks out there—you see it everywhere from big magazine covers to websites to celebrity portraits to album covers. Anyway, you can get pretty darn close to that look right within Lightroom itself. Now, before I show you the effect, I have to tell you, this is one of those effects that you’ll either absolutely love (and you’ll wind up over-using it), or you’ll hate it with a passion that knows no bounds. There’s no in-between.

Step One: Before we apply this effect, I have a disclaimer: this effect doesn’t look good on every photo. It looks best on photos that have lots of detail and texture, so it looks great on city shots, landscapes, industrial shots, and even people (especially guys)—anything you want to be gritty and texture-y (if that’s even a word). So, you’re usually not going to apply this effect to anything you want to look soft and/or glamorous. Here’s a shot with lots of detail—it’s a shot of the Paris Opera House, which has lots of textures. It’s just screaming for this type of treatment.

Step Two: You’re going to really crank up four sliders in the Develop module’s Basic panel: (1) drag the Contrast slider all the way over to +100, (2) drag the Highlights slider all the way to –100, (3) drag the Shadows slider all the way to +100 (that opens up the shadows), and (4) drag the Clarity slider all the way to the right to +100. Now, the whole image has that high-contrast look already, but we’re not done yet.


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Step Three: Now, at this point, depending on the photo you applied this effect to, you might have to drag the Exposure slider to the right a bit, if the entire image is too dark (that can happen when you set the Contrast at +100), or if the photo looks washed out a bit (from cranking the Shadows slider to +100), then you might need to drag the Blacks slider to the left to bring back the color saturation and overall balance. Outside of those potential tweaks, the next step is to desaturate the photo a little bit by dragging the Vibrance slider to the left (here, I dragged it over to –45). This desaturation is a trademark of this “look,” which kind of gives the feel of an HDR image without combining multiple exposures.

Step Four: The final step is to add an edge vignette to darken the edges of your photo, and put the focus on your subject. So, go to the Lens Corrections panel (in the right side Panels area), click on Manual at the top, and drag the Lens Vignetting Amount slider to the left (making the edges really dark). Then drag the Midpoint slider pretty far to the left, as well (the Midpoint slider controls how far the darkened edges extend in toward the middle of your photo. The farther you drag this slider to the left, the farther in they go). This made the whole photo look a little too dark, so I had to go back to the Basic panel and increase the Exposure amount a little bit (to +0.25) to bring back the original brightness before the vignette. I included a few befores and afters on the next page just to give you an idea of how it affects different images. Hey, don’t forget to save this as a preset (see page 194), so you don’t have to do this manually every time you want to apply this look.

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