Make Boring Night Photos Look Amazing in Lightroom

Make Boring Night Photos Look Amazing in Lightroom

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The Lightroom Develop System

If you want the source file to follow along with the video, you can download it from: here.

Video Transcript:

“Hi, I’m Tim Daniels from lapseoftheshutter.com, and in this video you will learn how to process photos taken at night, to turn them from snapshots into something more special. Here are a handful of photos that I took from a bridge in Venice as it got darker, the light faded, and the streetlights were switched on. I was hoping for a much better sunset, but the haze over the city meant that I didn’t really see any interesting colours. But even with a fairly flat photo, you can inject some interest through relatively minor work in Lightroom and Photoshop, as I will show you in this photo.

I chose this photo to work on, as it captures the streetlights at just about the right moment. By shooting this as underexposed, the highlights in the streetlights are not too blown out, but equally there is enough detail in the shadows. Generally, if you are shooting cities at dusk, it helps to underexpose by a couple of stops for this reason. It may not look good on the screen on the back of your camera, but there is enough detail here to create a correctly exposed photo with a little Lightroom work.

So, let’s take this photo into the Develop module of Lightroom to begin. With blue hour city photos, it helps to set the base of the photo to be much warmer than would normally be recommended, as this really highlights the warm glow of the streetlights. We can recover the correct colours later, using targeted white balance adjustments. Do this by pushing up the white balance and tint.

For the next step, click the two symbols in the corners of the histogram to see areas of pure black and white, shown in blue and red respectively. These areas have no detail, and so generally you want to minimise them. It’s best to do this when you take the photo through under or over exposing, as appropriate, but you will rarely be able to completely eliminate them. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on these areas as you make exposure changes to ensure these areas don’t increase.

I’m going to increase the exposure and contrast as the photo is too dark. To prevent the bright areas from getting even brighter, you can reduce the highlights. For nighttime photos like this, you can often take it right down to -100, as this will recover a lot of the pure white areas in the streetlights. This makes the photo overall darker, so to counteract this, you can push the shadows up to +100. Generally, the effect of doing this with these two sliders is to reduce contrast, but we can fix that by pushing up the whites and reducing the blacks slightly. You can give a small boost to texture, and reduce clarity, if you need to make a more minor, targeted change, to contrast.

Now we can move onto Split Toning to recover bluer, nighttime colours. It’s best to start with the highlights, by first increasing the saturation. Then you can move the hue somewhere into the range of blues. This should start to give the sky a more natural blue colour. Do the same with the shadows toning, where a slightly more purple blue is a better colour option.

Finally, in terms of global adjustments, activate the RGB point curve, by clicking the symbol in the bottom right of the tone curve, and go through the individual red, green and blue channels, making changes to the curves. Be careful here, as even very small changes will have a large overall effect on your photo. Each curve lets you modify the relative luminosity of each colour, so pushing the red curve up towards the top end makes all bright areas of your photo more red. If this feels too difficult for you to get right, there are a number of presets that directly target only the RGB tone curve available in the totally free Lightroom Develop System, which you can see in the left hand pane.

We’ve now finished the main global adjustments, so it’s time to move onto using filters and brushes to tidy up what we have done.

Using a graduated filter set to a cooler temperature, and with an exposure reduction, lets us darken the sky to create a partial vignette. Increasing contrast and reducing shadows helps with this when you are dealing with a large area of uniform colour, like the sky.

Next, we can use radial filters to make a custom vignette. The filter options in this menu are all from the Lightroom Develop System, freely available from lapseoftheshutter.com, or by following the link in the video description. To create the custom vignette, draw a radial filter over the centre of the photo, with invert not ticked and feather set to 100. I will show the mask overlay, so you can see where it reaches. I have made this filter give a slightly blue colour, but the key here is to push highlights to -100 and shadows to +100, as we did in the global adjustments. Doing this on top of the global adjustments really boosts the vignette, while the radial filter stops it from darkening the central portion of the photo.

Using another radial filter set to invert, with an exposure boost, you can boost the brightness of the central part of the photo to complete the vignette.

The next step is entirely optional and will depend on the photo you are processing, but if you wanted to give the streetlights a boost, there is a series of filters and brushes in the free Lightroom Develop System that will do this for you. Just go to lapseoftheshutter.com to find out more. Here we can use a ‘Turn on Streetlights IV’ radial filter, drawn over the streetlights to boost them. The effect is a little strong, so you can use the luminance mask option to restrict the effects to only shadow areas, by reducing the range of the mask. This will make a much more naturalistic effect, particularly when combined with a clarity reduction.

Finally in Lightroom, use an adjustment brush to complete any tidying up. Here, I think the buildings in the distance need a little more warmth and sharpness.

And that’s the photo complete in Lightroom. Personally, I feel the photo is missing something. As this is Venice, it should have a gondola in the canal. As I set my camera on a tripod and spent an hour or so here taking photos, I have a picture from earlier in the evening that has a gondola in it. After exporting this photo to take into Photoshop, I’ll copy all the settings, then paste them into the gondola photo. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of creating this effect by hand every time, there are a number of presets that will do it for you in the Lightroom Develop System, a free download at lapseoftheshutter.com.

The gondola photo needs the exposure to be reduced, as this was taken much earlier in the evening. I’ll now export this and take it into Photoshop to digitally blend the layers together.

It helps to zoom in until the object you are cutting out fills your screen, then using the quick selection wand to roughly paint a selection around your object. Holding down all while painting will remove the selection from your object. This doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s worth spending a couple of minutes to get this right. Then, click select and mask in the toolbar to let Photoshop’s algorithms tidy up your masking. Set transparency to 100% so you can see what you are doing, then play around with the sliders until you get something you like the look of. It often helps the most to reduce the size of the selection by pushing shift edge into a negative figure. Once you are happy with this, and have clicked ok, with the object layer selected, click the button in the bottom right to create a layer mask. This will automatically apply your selection and cut-out the object for you.

As the gondola photo was taken earlier in the day, the light blues reflecting in the boat from the sky don’t really work with this photo. By adding a new layer and linking it to the gondola layer by holding alt and clicking on the join between the two layers in the layer palette, you can then paint black at a low opacity over the light blue areas to reduce their exposure, and help the blend.

The edges of the boat’s shadow are a little severe, so the layer mask can be tidied up with a soft, low opacity brush used to paint out the edges.

Finally, the blurred boat going down the canal doesn’t work alongside the gondola. This can be removed by creating a new, blank layer, and using the spot healing brush in the first instance. This removes the boat, but leaves a bit of a blur that doesn’t look good. The clone stamp tool, set to 50%, can remove this. Select a nearby area to copy by holding alt and clicking, then paint over the blur.

And that’s the photo finished. If you want to learn more about how to use carefully targeted white balance to improve your photos like this, or want any of the free resources like the Lightroom Develop System, then take a look at lapseoftheshutter.com.

Follow Tim Daniels:

Hi, I'm Tim Daniels, photographer and photo trainer, founder of Lapse of the Shutter and creator of the totally free Lightroom Develop System. I've travelled to (probably) 30 countries over the last few years, taking photos and licensing them around the world, and creating lots of free photography learning resources. Read More ...

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