Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

How to relight a scene in Lightroom

In photography, things don’t always come together as you’d want them to. Sometimes you get wonderful lighting but there’s no effective subject in front of the camera for bringing it out, and sometimes you’ve got a good subject but the lighting isn’t right.

This is one of those situations. I thought the couple walking a dog on a beach made a good composition in this image (below) but the light is just a little bland. I think this shot could also work well as a vary spare and simple black and white image, but for now I want to try something different. I want to ‘relight’ this scene to make the subject, the textures and the sunlight much more dramatic.

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

For this I’m using Lightroom Classic and, in particular, its Radial Filter tool. It doesn’t have to be Lightroom. What I’m using are really just some fairly straightforward localised adjustments and tonal control. You could get similar results in many other photo-editing applications. Here’s an annotation showing exactly what’s been done and where.

Read more: Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic CC

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

01 Lightroom’s Vignette effect has been used to concentrate the composition on the centre of the picture. 02 Lightroom’s Radial Filter has produced this ‘spotlight’ effect. 03 Adjustments in the Basic tab have restored full contrast and brightness to the key subjects in the picture. 04 This subtle, softened look in the shingle beach comes from a negative Clarity adjustment. 05 A Saturation reduction compensates for the exaggerated orange/red tones created by the other adjustments.

There are quite a few stages in this particular image’s adjustments and they could probably be pared down a little, but quite often you need to feel your way through to a finished picture with a combination of guesswork and trial and error. What I felt this photo needed was heightened contrast and a kind of spotlight effect on the walkers.

Step 01: Post Crop Vignette and Dehaze effect

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

Vignette Amount: I felt that Lightroom’s Vignette effect would work well as a starting point for this image, and it is a step in the right direction. Reducing the Amount value darkens the corners of the picture so that your attention is concentrated on the centre. There’s a bit of a balancing act here between getting a strong enough darkening effect and not making the edges of the vignette too obvious.

Dehaze: The Vignette adjustment on its own didn’t look quite strong enough and trying to lower the value even further made it look artificial, but adding a Dehaze adjustment has helped a lot. It’s increased the intensity of the lighting without making the edges of the vignette effect any more visible. It’s still some way from the effect I was looking for, however.

Step 02: Relighting with the Radial Filter

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

This is the tool that’s doing the serious ‘relighting’ work. The great thing about the Radial Filter is that you can move it around, make it larger or smaller and apply your editing effects either inside or outside the filter area. I’ve positioned its centre near the walking couple, stretched it into an elongated ellipse along the beach and lowered it in the frame so that the surf is in the darkened area at the top.

Exposure: Pushing the Exposure right down too its minimum value has created a strong ‘spotlit’ effect, but the picture does look quite dark and saturated now, so there’s still work to be done.

Clarity and Dehaze: I’ve reduced the values for both of these sliders because I want to give this picture a slightly surreal, ‘other-wordly’ look. There effect doesn’t show up much in this screenshot, but it does become more apparent later on. Negative Clarity values produce a kind of soft-focus ‘glow’ but object still retain their hard edges, while a negative Dehaze value reduces localised contrast and, if you push it further still, can add a kind of mistiness.

Step 03: Global adjustments in the Basic panel

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

The Post Crop Vignette and Radial Filter effects have produced the lighting effect and composition I was looking for, but they left the picture looking dark and muddy, so there was a lot to be done in the Basic panel to restore the right levels of exposure, contrast and saturation. The sliders in Lightroom interact in subtle ways, so often you need to trade one off against another to get the effect you’re looking for. The picture has a very different look at the end of this third stage, so here’s a closer look at the adjustments that got it there.

Exposure: The picture was looking too dark, so an Exposure adjustment was the obvious first step. Here you have to be careful you don’t change or spoil the mood of the picture, though, and a setting of +1.20 was as far as I could go before the shadows started opening up too much.

Highlights: With the Exposure adjustment I’d made, the highlights in the breaking surf were starting to blow out, but an adjustment to the Highlights slider brought them back. In fact, adjustments to the Whites (below) meant an event greater adjustment was needed, which is how the Highlights slider has ended up right down at -100.

Shadows: Increasing the Exposure did brighten up the key central part of the picture but it also, as I feared, brought out the shadows around the edges of the picture just a little too much. That was fixed by dragging the Shadows slider down to -30. Normally, you use this slider to bring out details in darker areas, but you can also use it to darken them down when you want more contrast.

Whites: This is the key adjustment here. Pushing up the Whites value dramatically lightens the brightest parts of the picture while leaving the midtones where they area. It’s given me the contrast and brilliance I was looking for. Inevitably this will start clipping the highlights in the picture, which is why I went back to apply such a strong adjustment to the Highlights slider.

However, while the lighting and contrast are now just about right, I’ve got too much ‘bite’ for my liking in the edge details and way too much saturation…

Step 04: Reducing Clarity

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

I mentioned earlier that I wanted a slightly softened, other-worldly look, and the negative Clarity and Dehaze values I used in Step 2 only applied outside the Radial Filter area. Applying a negative Clarity value in the Basic panel affects the image globally, and it’s given me exactly the softness I’m looking for.

Step 05: Reducing Saturation

Relight an image with the Lightroom Radial Filter

You can have too much of a good thing, and in this instance all the adjustments I’d made to this picture had pushed the saturation higher and higher – a common side-effect of contrast increases. It was left way too high, so knocking the Saturation value way back down again has made the colours much more subdued and effect. The lighting contrast in this scene is quite dramatic enough without the colours fighting for your attention too!

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