From Drab To Fab In Five Minutes


Check out the color, contrast and sharpness in this picture of a short-eared owl that I photographed with its prey, a small dove, in the Galápagos. Notice the exposure and the nice composition. Pretty good, don’t you think?

Well, the image didn’t start out that way. Here’s the original shot, which looks kind of drab and flat, mostly due to the poor lighting conditions.

Enter Adobe Lightroom

For this quick fix, I used Adobe Lightroom 3. Lightroom was designed from the ground up for photographers, unlike Photoshop, which I still use and love, but was designed for the whole spectrum of graphic artists. Keep in mind that the adjustments I use also are found in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Apple Aperture. Some are even found in Apple iPhoto.

Here’s a look at the Lightroom Develop module. This is where you can enhance your images, quickly and easily. Let me take you through the steps that I used to enhance my image.

1. Basic Panel

As the first step in my quick fix, I went to the Basic panel. I darkened the exposure using the Exposure slider, boosted the contrast using the Contrast slider and increased the vibrance using the Vibrance slider. If you’re just getting started in Lightroom, you’ll be amazed by the control you have over your image even in the Basic panel.

To open up shadows, use the Fill Light slider. For overexposed highlights, use the Recovery slider.

2. Touch Of A Brush

The biggest problem I had with my original image was that the branches were brighter than the subject, drawing attention away from the owl. The quick fix was easy! I selected the Brush tool, reduced the Exposure and “painted” over the branches. If you have an area of a picture that’s too dark, you can use the same tool, increase the Exposure and paint over those areas.

3. All Eyes On Sharpening

Ah, sharpening. It’s one of my favorite topics because sharpening an image is so important. I used the Sharpening slider in the Detail panel here. When I sharpen an image in any digital imaging-editing program, I always keep the Radius and Detail sliders (and the Threshold slider in Photoshop) set relatively low and adjust the sharpness of an image using the Amount slider.

While I’m sharpening an image, I have the most important part of the image in the Preview window—the owl’s eye, in this case.

Here are my two most important tips on sharpening: Don’t oversharpen, and sharpen last. If you oversharpen an image, your image will look pixelated. You want to sharpen last because adjusting contrast and curves also sharpens an image.

Another thought to keep in mind: Sharpen for viewing distance. As the viewing distance increases, you may want to increase the sharpness of an image; the converse is also true.

4. After Midnight

One of the cool things about Lightroom (and many popular photo apps) is that you can use plug-ins for additional creative enhancements. To create this version of the image, I used the Midnight filter in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro plug-in (

Summing up, it’s best to start with the best in-camera image, of course. But if the light isn’t quite right, it’s easy to turn a drab shot into a fab shot in a few minutes in the digital darkroom.

Rick Sammon is the author of many books on photography. He even has an iPhone app. Visit

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