Right, let’s dive right in and start editing this file.
The first thing I notice is the stance of the model – she looks slightly hunched forward and a bit awkward – not by a lot, but it’s there. I also find the background elements a little distracting. I don’t like the hard shadow on the wall, I don’t like the way her jacket looks a bit bunched up on her left shoulder and there is a shade too much headroom for my taste. So, immediately, I know I’m going to crop and rotate this picture slightly.
Next up is exposure, and this picture is underexposed. If we take a look at the histogram we can see there is very little data at all on the right hand side of the graph. This is rarely a good thing, especially as we can see information being lost in the shadow areas. If I saw this histogram after taking a shot, I would increase the exposure by about 1 stop… maybe more. In Lightroom, I increased the overall exposure by +0.41.
When you edit an underexposed file, more often than not you will see signs that there is just not as much data as you would like as you start pushing and pulling sliders around, especially in the darker areas. As you can see in the image below, we’re already running into problems with posterization in the red tones of her jacket.
This is a good example as to why you shouldn’t trust the image preview on the back of your camera as a guide to exposure. Learn to use the histogram! Also, it’s worth pointing out that this photograph was taken with a Nikon D3S – a £3500+ professional camera body. Underexposed is underexposed, whether it’s taken with a D3S or a compact camera. If you put the effort into learning how to get good exposures now, you will reap the benefits time and time again in the future.
White balance. The white balance isn’t that far off, but I wanted to warm things up a little, so I increased the colour temperature from 4900k to 5700k. This just took a little bit of the coolness out of the picture and aligned it more towards what I had in mind. White balance is often viewed as something that needs to be “corrected”, and while that’s generally true, you do have some latitude for creativity when adjusting this value.
The next slider I moved was the contrast slider from +25 to +50. This gives the image a bit of a boost and was modified to taste – just be careful not to overdo it. I then moved the clarity slider down to a value of -49. The primary reason for this was to soften the skin. The secondary reason was to soften other elements in the scene knowing I would go back and selectively add positive clarity later.
The above side-by-side picture shows what a dramatic improvement can be achieved by making considered adjustments to the image. The skin looks smoother, more even and more radiant. The shadows on her face also look much softer. But everything else also looks a bit soft as well…
If you look at the above image, you can see the negative clarity has softened the entire picture. It doesn’t look too bad, but we’re losing the impact of the eyes and I know we can do better. I mentioned earlier that I would be going back and selectively adding some positive clarity.
The red highlighted areas show where I have applied the positive clarity with the local adjustment brush. I’ve paid particular attention to the eyes and hair. You can see the results with the mask turned off below.
As you can see – a definite improvement. Her eyes in the first picture look almost “glazed over” whereas in the last picture the impact is back. Take a moment to compare the two.
There are a couple more final tweaks worthy of mention. I took the vibrance slider down to -24, the saturation of the red channel to -9 and the luminance of the yellow channel to +5. I usually make these small tweaks to take the sting out of colours especially if they are affecting the skin tones.
Noise reduction was left at 0% because I didn’t deem it necessary and the default sharpening was left alone too. The final adjustment was to add quite a strong post-crop vignette of -49 and the edit was complete.
You can see what the original photographer was trying to do just by looking at the settings and the way the subject is lit. Popping a flash on her head and shoulders in high speed sync mode (or the Nikon equivalent) and at a very large aperture suggests an attempt at very strong subject separation from the background. I think this edit stays true to that original vision, and even though the photograph was underexposed we had enough to work with in the places that matter.
The original source can be found here: