You can’t always choose the lighting you shoot in, and sometimes it’s just so flat that your pictures don’t have any depth or intensity. It doesn’t help that most digital cameras lean slightly towards overexposure in these conditions too.
That’s why I wanted to have a go at ‘relighting’ some shots I took in Paris a few years ago on a basic Nikon Coolpix compact, and I’m using a technique I’ve been working on a little while now, using nothing more than the Gradient tool and one of Elements’ lesser-used blend modes – Color Burn blend mode.
Color Burn mode darkens tones and colours dramatically, so it needs to be used with care. But if you get it right, it’s just that little bit more effective than Overlay mode, which is the usual Photoshop/Elements mode for techniques like these.
Once you’ve got the Gradient tool set up, which takes just a minute or so, you can try out these ‘relighting’ effects in just a few seconds.
01 Gradient tool settings
Here’s my first example, a heavy ornamental door in Montmartre. The subject is good but the photograph is pale and weak.
So start off by selecting the Gradient tool (1), then click on the gradient swatch in the tool options panel (2) and choose the Foreground to Background option. This sets the gradient to the colours in the Foreground/Background colour swatches at the bottom of the tools panel (3). These need to be set to black and white, so that you’ve got a straightforward black-white gradient.
02 Swap to Color Burn mode
Now open the blend mode menu, also in the tool options panel. Scroll down the list and select Color Burn.
03 Reduce the Opacity
The Color Burn mode is too powerful in its normal state, so this next step is vital. I’m reducing the opacity of the gradient tool to 50%, though for many shots you need it right down to 25% or so.
04 Create a Radial Gradient
For this shot, I want to darken the edges but leave the centre alone, so I’m selecting the Radial Gradient option…
Now I drag out the radial gradient from the centre of the door knocker right out to the edge of the central panel – I’ve added a red arrow to this image so you can see the direction of the gradient. (If it goes the wrong way, and you get a dark centre and a light outer, hit ctrl/command-Z to undo the action, click the ‘Reverse’ checkbox in the gradient options panel, then try again.)
This has worked really well. The central part of the door is unaffected, but the outer edges have taken on the rich, dark intensity I was looking for – and which I remembered in the original scene.
05 Try a Reflected Gradient
I’m going to try some ‘re-lighting’ with this picture, and for this I’m swapping to a Reflected Gradient in the options panel. This is like a regular linear gradient, but works in both directions from the point you drag it out from.
Again, I’ve used arrows to show the direction of the gradient (I only dragged once – the second arrow shows the ‘reflected’ gradient half of the gradient). I decided to ‘relight’ a narrow strip of the building behind the sign and chose the angle of the gradient carefully. The Metro sign is the real subject, but I thought this looked better than trying to align the gradient with the sign.
06 Using a Diamond Gradient
For this square sign I thought the Diamond Gradient option would be worth a try. It’s a more complex gradient type that works in four directions, but the result is mostly square, and in this instance I thought any slight variations in lighting wouldn’t matter.
Here, I dragged the gradient out from the centre of the sign diagonally into one corner at an angle of 45% – the red arrows show the direction of the final gradient.
07 The finished images
Given that this is such a simple technique, I think it’s really effective. It just shows you don’t always need long, tedious processes to enhance your images.
I could have fixed the overall brightness and contrast with levels and curves adjustments, of course, but the result wouldn’t have been quite the same – by using the Gradient tool I’ve been able to modify specific areas of the image rather than all of it, and add tonal contrast between different parts of the picture.
Incidentally, I have tried this on blank layers over the main image, adjusting the opacity to control the strength, but Color Burn mode appears to operate in a very particular way. The effect only works if you set the opacity of the gradient directly before you apply it – if you use it at full strength and then change the layer opacity, it doesn’t work.