Editing in Lightroom #1 - Rushing Water

03 June 2015

About the Spotlight series

Welcome to the first of my Spotlight posts. I hope this series will have something for everyone, from the enthusiast who wants to improve their skills to anyone interested in how I edit my work. I'll show off the raw images straight from the camera, the end result and the stages in-between. I'll illustrate each step with screenshots and explain my methods. If possible, I will also show my setup for each photo so you can see how I position the camera and what equipment I'm using.

Some will focus on particular aspects of photography or editing, while others will be based around specific photos in my gallery, showing how I came to the end result.

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I want these posts to be interactive. If you like a post, if you learnt something, or if you have your own tips to share, let me know by sharing it using the social buttons below.

Adobe Lightroom

You don't need to have any high end equipment to benefit from these posts, and many of the principles of editing and composition can be applied to any camera. The free editing software bundled with cameras these days can also be very powerful. That said, if you're interested in getting the best out of your photos or want to follow my workflow, I highly recommend Adobe Lightroom. It's where I do all of my work, and it's a fantastic tool both for organising and editing your photos.

You can buy Lightroom outright or subscribe to Adobe's Creative Cloud, which gets you access to both Lightroom and Photoshop. I currently use Adobe Lightroom 5 for all my work. 

So, with the introduction done, let's move onto the first Spotlight - capturing the power of rushing water!

Introducing the photo - Rushing Water

I took this photo while exploring New Zealand from the back of a campervan last summer. It was taken at Huka Falls on the North Island. At the falls, the Waikato river, usually over 100m wide, is channelled into a narrow passageway by layers of hard volcanic rock. The result is over 220,000 litres of water per second being forced into a frothing and roaring channel. The sound and sight is truly awe-inspiring and really demonstrates the raw power of nature. 


Camera: Canon EOS 70D

Lens: Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM (taken at 18mm)

ISO: 400

Shutter speed: 1/4000s

Aperture: f/3.5

Setup: Handheld, resting against a railing to steady the shot

Step-by-step editing process

I really wanted to bring out the power and movement of the water in this photo, so I opted for a strong, contrast-heavy and colourful image.

You can click on each step's picture to view a full size version.

Step 1 - RAW image

As with all RAW images, the first impressions can be a bit dull! Unlike the JPEG format used in compact cameras which you are probably familiar, RAW images have no post-processing applied to them, so we see exactly what the camera image sensor saw. This can often leave them looking a bit grey and lacking in contrast compared to what your eyes perceive. Fear not, for we are going to fix all of that to recreate the impressive sight as it was.

So why would we use RAW, I hear you ask? Well RAW files are an uncompressed image format. They capture all of the data that the camera image sensor saw, and don't remove anything. This means they are much larger files than the JPEGs a compact camera or phone will take, but we have much more control over how the image is processed in programs such as Lightroom. They also tend to be sharper as they don't lose any detail during compression. 

Step 2 - Auto Tone

To get us started, let's head to Lightroom's 'Auto Tone' feature. This attempts to improve the whole look of the image to bring it closer to the post-processing seen in JPEGs. It's usually pretty good as a starting point. In this case, it has definitely helped, increasing the exposure and balancing the shadows and highlights - the water definitely stands out more now and there's more detail brought back into the trees either side of it.

Step 3 - Blacks

The auto tone is good, but I always like to check the white and black balance in each photo to make sure we retain as much detail as possible. With blacks, this means we want to ensure nothing is so dark that there is no detail left. Using the 'Blacks' slider while holding down the 'Alt' key switches view to black exposure warning mode. While in this mode, any areas of the image that are under-exposed to the point of containing no detail are highlighted against a white background. We want to set it so that we're just starting to see the warning. Here the auto tone got it right on and I've actually left the slider at -17. We're only just starting to see a small amount of under-exposure in the trees on the right hand side. This means you retain as much detail as possible without making the whole image too bright.

So why wouldn't we just increase the blacks all the way to get even more detail? Well if you bring up the exposure of the blacks too much, you'll introduce a lot of noise to your image (the grainy speckles) and it won't look good! Also, if there wasn't any detail captured in the first place, Lightroom can't make it appear from nowhere. We'll end up with strange artefacts in our image when it tries to create the detail that wasn't there.

Step 4 - Whites

With whites, we're looking to avoid any area of the image being so over-exposed that it 'bleaches out' and you lose all the detail. This is most often the sky in landscape shots, as the camera tries to balance the dark foreground with a bright clouds. Sadly, cameras are nowhere near as good as our eyes at dealing with large ranges in contrast! The process is the same as for the blacks, holding 'Alt' while clicking on the whites slider and adjusting until we only just see the highlight warning (here in blue on a black background) in the sky. Here, I've set it to +31, a bit higher than the auto tone had gone for.

Step 5 - Clarity

Clarity is a hard setting to explain. The best way to describe it is to say it gives images more 'punch'. It increases the contrast on edges, enhancing them and making images appear to be crisper. We use clarity in images where you want to bring out detail, such as architecture and macro shots. Here we're using it to bring out the swirling power of the water. Because I used a fast shutter speed (1/4000 of a second) when I took the picture, the water appears 'sharp' and you can see each droplet caught in time. Increasing clarity brings this detail out more. I've set the clarity slider to +74, and the result makes the water really start to stand out.

As an aside, it's worth noting that often in landscape shots, especially with water on longer exposures, you may want to actually decrease clarity to give the image a 'softer' feel. 

Step 6 - Vibrance

We now have a much sharper image, but the colours all feel a bit washed out. It hardly feels like the beautiful blue water I remember. To fix that, we're heading over to the vibrance slider. Vibrance pretty much does what it says - it makes all colours more vibrant! I've moved it right up to +62. With that, we're really starting to see the blue of the water come out and the trees don't look quite so dull. We're making progress!

Step 7 - Tone Curve

I think the image still needs a bit more contrast to bring out the dark water from the frothing foam and separate the clouds from the sky. To fix this, we use the tone curve. This is essentially an advanced contrast editor. Lightroom has some pretty good presets here, and I've just used 'Medium contrast' to enhance the lights and darks a bit more. You can achieve similar effects by using the Highlights and Shadows sliders in the Basic menu, but the tone curve allows a little more fine control.

Step 8 - Sharpening

With any handheld shot (not using a tripod), there's always going to be some camera shake making the image a bit burry. This is noticeable, even with the fast shutter speed used on this photo. Using a bit of sharpening can help to counteract this by making the edges of objects feel, well...sharper. The downside of sharpening is it can add a bit of noise to your image, and if over used can create strange artefacts. To control where we want our sharpening, hold 'Alt' while clicking on the 'Masking' slider. This allows us to control where on our image the sharpening is applied. Here, I've set it to 88 so that only the sharp edges of the water and trees are being affected, and not the sky (notice how the top section of the image is black which indicates sharpening will not be applied). I then set the sharpening value to 25. You may not be able to see the difference when looking at the whole picture, but when you zoom in I promise it will be there. 

Are you sure that sharpening made a difference? These zoomed in images show the before (left) and after (right) effect of the sharpening on the water. Look at the water drops in the middle of the picture. It's a subtle difference, but you'll notice it when you flick between the two. It seems almost imperceptible at first but once you see it you'll always see it!

Step 9 - Noise Reduction

The bane of photographers, noise is the little speckles you see on images, particularly those taken in low light. Shots taken with higher ISO speeds allow a faster shutter speed for a given amount of light, but increase the noise on the image. With this shot taken at ISO 400 there won't be much noise, but it's still worth seeing if we can reduce it a bit more. 

Noise reduction removes the speckles, but at a cost of sharpness and detail. The more noise reduction you use, the softer your image becomes and the more detail you lose. Not great for this shot where I'm trying to keep it sharp! There are two types of noise reduction in Lightroom - Luminance and Color. Essentially, luminance reduces the white noise (like when your TV loses signal) while color reduces coloured spots you get at night and when enhancing colours.

Here I've used a low Luminance noise reduction of 15. This takes the edge off the noise without impacting the sharpness of the photo. I've also used a Color noise reduction of 25 as when the vibrance of the image was increased in step 6, we started getting a few colourful speckles in the sky and clouds.

Step 10 - The Adjustment Brush

The adjustment brush is a fantastic tool in Lightroom. It allows us to select specific parts of your picture and apply changes only to that selection. It's similar to the magic wand tool in Photoshop for those of you familiar with that. There's a lot to learn about using this brush, but the best way is through experimentation as, like everything in Lightroom, all the changes are easily reversible. Here I decided I wanted to make the water stand out even more by increasing its saturation, but without affecting the rest of the picture. So I brushed over the water using the 'auto mask' setting and added a +20 saturation effect.

Top left shows the brush settings; top right shows the area in red which will be affected by the change; and lower left shows the result with increased colour saturation on the water.

Step 11 - Adding a Graduated Filter

When I took the picture, the clouds were highlighted with a beautiful gold from the sunset behind me. Sadly, this seems to have been lost somewhere in the camera's capture of the moment! We can add this back in using a Graduated Filter. These filters apply an effect which decreases over a set distance and is often used to alter the colour of the sky in landscape shots. 

To create a filter we simply drag along the photo from a starting point to where we want it to end. Then we select the filter effect we want to apply. Here I added a yellow colour to the sky  which brings back that warm yellow sunset on the clouds. The left picture shows the filter selection and the right the effect.

Step 12 - Increasing the Saturation of certain colours

Now call me crazy (or colourblind, which I am!), but I still don't think the water is the star of the picture as much as it should be here, especially with the sunset back on the clouds. So it's time for extreme measures as we head over to the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) tool. This allows us to change the saturation of specific colours in the image. Let's bump up the Aqua to +80 and the Blue to +51. Now the water really looks like the azure glacial frothing water I remember! It also brings out the blue in the sky, contrasting it with the golden clouds.

Step 13 - Correcting Lens Distortions

Depending on the lens, the zoom level and the shot itself, pictures can become slightly distorted by the camera. This is most obvious when you take a picture looking up at a building, where it can appear to converge into the distance with slightly bowed walls. You can also get a fisheye effect on wide-angle shots, where the whole world goes a bit rounded at the edges. In this shot, there's a slight distortion in the lower foreground which we should correct. Using the Lens Correction tool, in the Manual mode, I have added a small +5 distortion adjustment to 'stretch' out the foreground. 

The other common artefact of lenses is vignetting. This is where the edges of a photo are darkened by a shadow of the casing of the lens itself. I noticed a bit of this in this photo, so I used the correction tool to add +24 correction, lightening the corners and keeping an even exposure across the image.

The easiest way to see these changes is to flick between two pictures on the right. The left is from Step 12, before the adjustment. The right is post-adjustment. Notice how the corners are now lighter and the water feels a bit 'wider' in the foreground.

The final result

After all that, let's compare the original image to the final version. As with everything, it's down to a matter of taste. We've really brought out the colour and power of the water in this picture and it almost feels like you're there. It definitely feels a lot more like what I saw when I was standing there!

This level of colour and clarity enhancement won't be suitable for all pictures, but in this case where it was all about capturing the movement and power of the water, I think it really works.

Did you enjoy this? Find it useful? Have your own top tips?

I want these posts to be interactive. If you like a post, if you learnt something, or if you have your own tips to share, let me know by sharing it using the social buttons below.

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