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Making the Essential Adjustments

Now that your white balance is set, we can make some reasonable decisions about how the rest of the photo looks. We make these essential adjustments in the rest of the Basic panel (again, I think it should be named the Essentials panel. Don’t get me started). Luckily, these adjustments are easy, they make sense, and Photoshop Lightroom even helps to keep you out of trouble while you’re making these adjustments.

  • Step One. Once you set the white balance (in the top section of the Basic panel, as you just learned in the previous tutorial), we move on to the middle section of the Basic panel, which controls the overall tonal range of your photo (that section is shown within a red rectangle here). Before we make any manual adjustments in this middle section, there is an automatic tonality adjustment feature (sometimes known as “the chicken’s way out”) that lets Photoshop Lightroom automatically adjust all the settings in this one section of the Basic panel to give you what it thinks is the best tonal correction (it sets the highlights, midtones, and shadows for you, but does not adjust the white balance). To use this feature, just click the Auto button (as I have done in the second capture here). Depending on the photo, this Auto button can work quite nicely. Other times it’s...well...let’s just say “less than optimal.” My biggest problem with the Auto adjustment is that it generally increases the exposure to just below the point of losing detail in the highlights, which is good, but in a photo that is supposed to be dark and low key (like a dramatic portrait or a nighttime cityscape), it tends to make the photo way too bright. So, give the Auto button a try and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, press Command-Z (PC: Ctrl-Z) to Undo it.
  • Step Two. If you tried the Auto button method, go ahead and hit Reset (at the bottom of the right side Panels area), because now we’re going on to my suggested method of adjusting the tonal range of your photo—using the tonal control sliders. The first slider in this section, Exposure (shown circled here), is probably the most important slider (maybe that’s why it’s first, eh?). Basically, it lets you set the white point for your image by controlling the highlights in your photo. Dragging the Exposure slider to the right increases the highlight exposure (as shown here, where the image is much brighter), and dragging to the left decreases the exposure. Again, you get a visual cue by looking at the sliders themselves—white is on the right side of the slider, which lets you know that dragging toward white makes this adjustment lighter, and black is on the left side, so dragging that way would make your exposure darker.
  • Step Three. If you wanted to increase the overall brightness of your photo, you’d start by dragging the Exposure slider to the right. Easy enough. However, there is a concern, and that is “how far is too far?” In other words, at what point have you dragged to the right so far that you’re actually losing detail in your highlights? Well, Lightroom gives you two types of visual warnings to keep you from blowing out your highlights (or “clipping” your highlights, as it’s commonly called). If you press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key before you start dragging the Exposure slider, your image preview turns black (as shown here).
  • Step Four. Now, as you drag the Exposure slider to the right (increasing the exposure in the highlight areas), any colors that are blowing out (losing highlight detail) will start to appear onscreen. If red and yellow areas appear (as seen in this image), that lets you know that the reds and yellows in that area are blowing out (although the blues may still have some detail). If you start to see blue areas appear as you drag further, that lets you know that the blue in that area is now blowing out, too. If you see white areas (as shown here), that’s pretty bad because all three colors are blown out in those areas, and if the Exposure slider is left at its current setting, those areas will have no detail whatsoever.
  • Step Five. Well, before you cure the problem, you have to decide if losing detail in this area is actually a problem. To do that, look at the photo itself without the Option (PC: Alt) key held down. If this was a sunset photo and your blown-out area appears in the center of the sun, you can pretty much ignore it—the center of the sun isn’t supposed to have detail. There are often lots of very bright things in photos that will have no detail—like a shiny reflection of the sun on a chrome bumper (these bright reflections are called “specular highlights”). So, before you cure the problem, first make sure the area that is blowing out is an area you care about, and one that should have detail. If you look at the photo and determine that it is an area where you do need to hold detail (like in our case, where those blown-out areas are in a critical area—our subject’s face), then you’ll have to fix this. But first...
  • Step Six. Before we look at the cure for blown-out highlights, I need to tell you about the other highlight clipping warning method. Some people prefer this method because it doesn’t require holding down any keys—once you turn it on, it stays on, and it doesn’t turn your preview black (you see your color photo the entire time). Instead, any blown-out areas appear in solid red. To turn this highlight clipping warning on, just press the letter J. When activated, you’ll see two white boxes appear in the top corners of your histogram—the right one for highlights (shown circled here) and the left for shadows. (Note: These boxes also give visual cues. For example, if a tiny red, green, or blue triangle appears in that box, it means that color is getting clipped. If a white triangle appears, it means all the colors are getting clipped. You can also click on either box to toggle just that warning off/on.) Lastly, if you don’t want to keep them on, you can get a temporary clipping preview anytime by just hovering your cursor over either one of the boxes. Okay, now it’s time to learn the cure.
  • Step Seven. So, if you see a highlight clipping warning (using either of the early warning methods outlined moments ago), you can lower the Exposure setting until the highlight warnings go away. You do that by dragging the Exposure slider to the left until those solid red warning areas disappear (as shown here). If you’re using the Option-click [PC: Alt-click]-on-the-slider method instead, you still lower the exposure, but you do it until the preview turns solid black again. However, lowering the exposure like this isn’t ideal, and it really only works in cases where you’re getting just a tiny bit of highlight clipping (you’ll see why in the next step).
  • Step Eight. Here’s the problem: let’s say you dragged the Exposure slider to the right until the overall exposure looked much better to you, but some small areas began to blow out. You can drag the Exposure slider back to the left a little, and those blown-out areas will go away, right? As long as the overall exposure still looks pretty good, you’re set. But what if you use the Exposure slider to set what looks to you like the ideal overall exposure, but there are a lot of blown-out areas? Your only recourse would be to drag it back to the left until those blown-out areas go away. Unfortunately, that might make the photo look underexposed again (like the photo shown here). That’s when you grab the Recovery slider—one of the most brilliant features in the Develop module.
  • Step Nine. The advantage of the Recovery slider is that as you drag it to the right, it pulls back only the very brightest highlights, so it doesn’t lower your overall exposure—just the brightest areas. This is incredibly useful, because now you can set the Exposure slider to what you feel is the ideal exposure, and if the highlights get a little blown out, you can recover them with the Recovery slider. So, I always start by adjusting the Exposure slider first, and then if I blow out a few of the highlights, I go to the Recovery slider and drag it to the right until my highlights come back into line. In this example, drag the Exposure slider to the right until some highlights start to blow out. Then, drag the Recovery slider to the right until those blown-out highlights go away. Nice. (Note: You can also press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key to see the same highlight clipping warning you get with the Exposure slider. It’s a great way to see when you’ve really recovered those clipped highlights).
  • Step Ten. That exposure still looks a little hot to me, so I’m going to pull it back to the left just a bit. Now, the next slider down in this tonal adjustment section is the Fill Light slider (shown circled in red here). Basically, this brightens just the shadow areas within your photo, and it does a very nice job of it at that. This can be incredibly handy because chances are, if you have a major lighting problem with a photo, it’s in the shadow areas. Maybe you shot a portrait with the sun behind the subject, so the subject is mostly in shadows, or there are just areas of your photo where there’s not enough detail in the shadows. Or in this case, you’ve got a photo where there’s too much shadow on one side of the face.
  • Step Eleven. The photo we’ve been working on is one I took of my buddy Scott Cowlin (Peachpit Press’ Marketing Director) during a live Photoshop training session in the middle of a tradeshow floor. It was shot using a single Nikon SB-800 flash mounted on a Bogen/Manfrotto light stand (using a Bogen/Manfrotto model 175F spring clamp [called a “Justin” clamp] with a flash hotshoe). I diffused the harsh direct flash by shooting it through a Lastolite TriGrip 1-Stop Diffuser (mounted on another identical stand, with the same Justin clamp). I wanted a dramatic look, so I positioned the flash in front and to the right of the camera to create dark shadows on the left side of his face, but I felt they came out too dark. I should have used a reflector to bounce some of that light into the shadow side of his face, but since I didn’t, now I need Lightroom’s Fill Light slider. Just drag it to the right (as shown here) to open up those shadow areas and reveal detail.
  • Step Twelve. The next slider down is Blacks, which adjusts the shadow areas in your photo. Dragging to the right increases the amount of black in the shadows; dragging to the left opens up the shadow areas. Just like with the highlights, you want to avoid losing detail in the shadows (clipping the shadows so they turn solid black). So, use one of the clipping warnings we used with highlights: (1) Press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key while dragging the Blacks slider to the right, and the screen will turn solid white. Any shadow areas that are losing color detail will appear in red, green, or blue (you can see the red and yellow channels clipping here big time), or if all three colors are clipping, those areas appear as solid black (and you can see quite a bit of that here too—remember, if there’s no clipping, the preview should be solid white).
  • Step Thirteen. You can try that, or (2) press J on your keyboard to turn on the shadow clipping warning, where any clipped areas will appear in blue on your photo (as shown here). Of course, when you see shadow areas being clipped, first let go of the Option (PC: Alt) key so you can look at the photo and see if those clipped areas are worth saving. For example, if those areas are supposed to be solid black (like the midnight sky, or the inside of a well), then you can ignore them. If they have detail you need to keep, then either press-and-hold the Option key again and drag the Blacks slider back to the left until the screen turns solid white, or you can try increasing the Fill Light amount to open up some of those shadows (be careful about dragging the Fill Light slider too far—it can magnify any noise in the photo).
  • Step Fourteen. Okay, remember earlier how I mentioned that Lightroom would help you with your tonal editing chores? Well, more help is on the way, but this next part goes even beyond warning you about clipping the highlights or shadows. You see the Histogram panel at the top of the right side Panels area? It’s very helpful because, by just looking at it, you can tell even before you make any adjustments if your highlights are blown out. For example, if you open a photo and the histogram shows a bunch of pixels stacked up against the far right-side wall (like the one shown here), it tells you right there that plenty of your highlights are clipped. If the opposite were shown—where a bunch of pixels are stacked right up against the left side, that would tell you that a load of the shadows are clipped off. Pretty standard stuff, right?
  • Step Fifteen. The histogram in Lightroom looks pretty much like the histogram in Photoshop CS2/CS3, or even like the one on the back of your digital camera. But that’s where the similarities end, because the one in Lightroom does two pretty darn amazing things: (1) it can show you exactly which slider adjusts exactly which part of the histogram, and (2) you can even click-and-drag right within the histogram itself to make adjustments to your image. Let’s try the first one first. Move your cursor up over the histogram, and you’ll notice that as soon as you do, the area in which your cursor is currently located gets lightened, and the name of the slider that controls that part of the histogram appears right there on the histogram (as shown).
  • Step Sixteen. As you move your cursor to the left or right, hovering over different parts of the histogram, when you reach an area of the histogram controlled by a different tonal slider, that slider’s name will appear (go ahead and give that a try. I don’t mind waiting). Okay, now if showing you which slider controls which area isn’t enough, take a look down at the sliders themselves. When your cursor is over the Fill Light area (for example), the Fill Light slider is highlighted for quick identification (you’ll see that its name is highlighted, and the number field to the right of the Fill Light slider is also highlighted). Now you instantly know which slider controls which range of pixels in your photo (see, I told you Lightroom would help, but there’s even more help to come. In fact, there’s still more to this histogram, as you’ll soon see).
  • Step Seventeen. While you’ve got your cursor up there floating over the histogram, you might as well put it to work. Here’s how: Let’s say you’re working on a photo, and you look up at the histogram and see that the right side of the histogram graph stopped well before any of it got anywhere near reaching the far right wall of the histogram, like the one shown here. In other words, there’s a large flat area or gap where there would normally be some highlight data. That missing pixel data is the missing highlights in this photo. (Note: In portraits, ideally I like to have a very small gap between the right side of the histogram and the wall—that lets me know that the highlights in my skin tone areas aren’t blowing out.) You can probably bring that missing highlight data back if you happen to know exactly which slider will bring it back, or...
  • Step Eighteen. Just move your cursor over the last bit of data on the far right side of the graph (right within the histogram itself), click your cursor on this data, and literally drag the histogram to the right. This expands the tonal range of your photo and brings back those lost highlights (of course, stop before you hit the right wall, as shown here, or you’ll blow out some of your highlights). Now, whether you drag the histogram itself or use the sliders in the Basic panel, it makes no difference (use whichever you’re most comfortable with), but I do recommend turning on the highlight and shadow clipping warnings to help you keep as much detail in your prints as possible.
  • Step Nineteen. There are two more sliders in this middle section of the Basic panel. The first is the Brightness slider which kind of acts as a midtone slider. So if you wanted to open up the midtones a bit, you would drag this slider to the right (to darken the midtones, of course you’d drag to the left). This slider has a broad, coarse range so you have to be careful not to push it so far to the right that you start clipping highlights or so far to the left that you start clipping shadows. There is no press-and-hold-the-Option-key highlights or shadows clipping trick with it. You’ll have to turn on the highlight and shadow clipping warnings (press J on your keyboard), so things don’t get accidentally clipped. Now, I have to tell you, since I’ve been using the Recovery and Fill Light sliders, I find myself using the Brightness slider less and less. It seems just too broad in most cases, but give it a try for yourself and see what you think.
  • Step Twenty. Below Brightness is the Contrast slider and it does just what you’d imagine—dragging to the right adds contrast by making the shadows darker and the highlights brighter. Here, I dragged the Contrast slider quite a bit to the right, and you can see the photo has gotten really contrasty (and I’m not sure contrasty is really even a word, but I’m counting on the book’s editors not looking too closely at this step). Although this control is an easy way to add contrast, it’s not the most effective because it’s also too broad. When it comes to creating contrast, the Tone Curve controls (in the Tone Curve panel) do a much better job than this simple slider (we’ll cover the Tone Curve panel later in this chapter).
  • Step Twenty-One. In the bottom section of the Basic panel are two controls that affect the color saturation. The Vibrance slider totally rocks, and is much more usable than the Saturation slider (which appears right below it). Here’s why: When you use the Saturation slider, it saturates all the colors in the photo—the shadows, midtones, and highlights—everything gets saturated at the same intensity (it’s a very coarse adjustment). If you drag the Saturation slider to the right (as shown), your photo does get more colorful, but in a clownish, oversaturated, unrealistic kind of way (as seen here—though some of the oversaturation will have been lost in the book’s CMYK conversion for printing). Go ahead and return the Saturation amount to 0 by double-clicking on the slider control knob. By the way, this works for all the sliders in the Develop module.
  • Step Twenty-Two. However, the Vibrance slider has a bit of nuance, as it gives more of a color saturation boost to the least saturated colors and less to colors that are already somewhat saturated. This gives a much better result, with more realistic-looking saturation across the board, especially in skin tones (and that’s by design), which makes this a more usable tool. Here’s the same photo with the Vibrance slider set at a higher amount than the Saturation setting was in the previous step, yet look how much less clownish the colors look. His eyes are much bluer, but yet his skin tone isn’t totally trashed (though it’s a bit warmer than I’d probably choose). So, unless I’m desaturating an overly colorful photo, I pretty much avoid the Saturation slider altogether, and just use the Vibrance slider.
  • Step Twenty-Three. Now you can reset the Vibrance and Contrast amounts to 0, and basically return the photo to how it looked before we messed with the bottom of the panel (as shown here, in the final edited photo). So, let’s say you have corrected this photo, but now you’ve got another 15 to 20 photos of the same person in a similar pose, taken in the same light, that you have to process. The good news is you can apply all those edits to the other 15–20 photos all at once, and the step-by-step tutorial on how to do exactly that is on the next page. How convenient.
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