Add Impact To Photos With A Simple Vignette - 10/13/08
Vignettes put the focus exactly where you want it
When working in a chemical darkroom one of the first things a photographer learns is the importance of placing emphasis on a photo's subject. The easiest way to do this is with the technique of vignetting. By simply darkening (or even lightening) the corners and edges of a print, those extraneous areas manage to recede into the psychological background while simultaneously placing the point of focus squarely in the center of the frame-right where you want it, on the subject.
Many vignettes are created naturally at the time a picture is captured. Professionals add emphasis to the center of the frame by using lights that fall off at the edges. Some lenses and lens hoods actually create imperfections at the edges in the form of vignetting, but it can sometimes be a bonus. Either way, accentuating these natural vignettes or adding your own can do wonders for improving your pictures.
The digital darkroom may have replaced darkroom dodging and burning skills, but it hasn't affected the vignette's ability to improve most photos. In fact, it has provided photographers with many more options when it comes to vignetting, and the ability to vignette based on everything from brightness to color, and contrast to focus. The simplest way, however, is the brightness vignette-which is also often the most effective.
The first step in vignetting a photo is by making the edges darker to decide exactly how you'd like to go about doing it. A simple black-masked layer can provide a shadowed perimeter quite effectively, but since the digital tools at hand make a more subtle and refined vignette possible, I always appreciate going that extra step for success. Even so, there are still options for darkening a picture without destroying the detail.
You can make darker vignettes by adjusting levels in the shadows and midtones to bring them down, or simply adjust the brightness of an image to darken the corners. But the point remains the same: you're lowering the level of light in the same way you would make a vignette in the darkroom with an enlarger. That's bound to produce a refined result.
I like to use Photoshop's levels controls for my vignettes, so that's what we'll use for this example. (Remember that you can also experiment with brightness, contrast, luminosity, curves, or any number of other controls to create the effect. Don't hesitate to test them out as you refine your vignetting skills.) To start, duplicate the background layer with the image otherwise as you'd like it. If you have any retouching to do, I like to take care of that first and leave the vignette until I'm finished.
With the image ready and duplicated onto a new layer, I simply choose Image>Adjustments>Levels and adjust the midtones and shadows sliders to bring the overall image brightness down. Don't hesitate to make a significant change, because it can always be mediated later with an opacity change.
With the overall image now appearing distinctly too dark, it's time to carve out the vignette. The simplest vignette involves an oval shape that leaves the center of the image untouched with the edges and corners darkened. In the digital era it's easy to customize that shape with a specific selection around just the parts of the image you'd like to remain untouched. Either way, the real trick is to make the selection produce a vignette transition that is both dramatic enough to be worthwhile, and subtle enough to go unnoticed. Not a small feat, either way.
With the circle selection tool, start in the top left corner of the frame to click and drag the oval selection down to the bottom right. When you release it you should see a marching ants selection of the oval-shaped center of the image. It doesn't need to be perfect, but it should be pretty close to well balanced and centered.
Next comes the feathering of the selection to make the transition a subtle one. Choose Select>Feather and enter a value of 250, depending on the size of the image. (The program only allows a maximum value of 250, so for a huge file you may have to feather the selection multiple times. For smaller files, a smaller value may be required.) With the newly feathered selection, it's time to delete the center of the vignette.
First, in order to better see the effect of the vignette, I like to hide the selection with Command-H (or CTRL-H on a PC). Though you can't see it, the center of the image is still actively selected. Hit the delete key and you'll see your vignette start to take shape. For very feathered selections a single delete may not be enough.
For a larger image file that may require a smoother transition, or maybe just to provide a little more control over the shape of the vignette, instead of simply deleting the center of the layer you can use the eraser tool with a very large, very soft brush. This way you can erase more where you want it, and less where you don't. And you can make a very soft transition from the lighter center of the frame to the darkest vignetted corners.
When you're happy with the general shape and transition of the vignette edge, consider how dark and dramatic it is. If it's not enough, you can duplicate the layer to instantly see an even darker border. If it's too much, adjust the layer opacity to bring down the darkness and make for a less dramatic vignette. Or combine those two techniques to make the image darker where you want it, and lighter where you don't.
However, when you add vignettes to your images, one thing quickly becomes clear: this simple technique is a wonderful way to put the center of interest exactly where you want it-taking the viewer's eye right to your photograph's subject.