LR Case Study: Palo verde blooms

One bright, sunny afternoon I came across a stand of palo verde trees near their peak bloom. They were absolutely stunning - a vivid yellow from head to toe. Of course, photos had to be taken!

I'm going to use one of the photos from that afternoon as a case study in how I approach Lightroom editing, and to show what playing with a few basic editing tools can do to help bring out the best in a photo.

Most cameras, when shooting RAW, tend to record rather dull images. That's actually a feature, not a bug, because what they're doing is maximizing the amount of data that's in each image, trying to avoid losing information to the dark blacks or the bright whites. So some simple image editing is usually required to bring out the photo's potential.

Think of it as the modern equivalent of developing your film.

All editing in this example was done using the Basic and HSL panels in the Develop module in Lightroom 6.

Before and After

Just so we're clear on where we're going with this, here are the before and after photos. On the left is the photo straight out of the camera. On the right, the developed photo. Note that one alteration I did not make was to bump up the saturation; it's often not required.

The original RAW image to the left, the final, processed image on the right

Exposure and White Balance

Normally, the first sliders I play with are the Exposure and White Balance.

Exposure adjusts the overall brightness of the image. In this case, I think the brightness is about right, overall. There's nothing pure white, and maybe a couple tiny spots that are dark black, but overall I have good detail throughout the image. So we'll leave it alone.

White balance controls the overall coolness or warmth of the colors in the image. Basically, I play with this until the hue of the image matches what I remember seeing. In this case, though, we again did a good job with white balance in the field, so I can leave it alone.

No changes!

Clarity

Clarity is a really interesting control. It seems to be some really smart combination of sharpening and contrast that work together to enhance the edges of things, making them stand out.

With most of my images, I tend to nudge the Clarity slider to the right. This image, however, was taken with a quite shallow depth of field, so it's not all in focus. Let's lean into that. Instead of increasing the clarity, let's decrease it. Slide it on over to the left until we have a kind of soft, vaguely dreamy, summery feel to the image.

Decrease the clarity to give the image a dreamy feel

Whites

The next thing that stands out to me in this image is how gray the branches look. They probably were gray, but in my memory, these branches looked almost white in the afternoon sun. Let's make the image match my memory.

Nudge the Whites slider to the right until the branches aren't so dull, but stop before they're completely blown out. Notice how much brighter it makes everything else, too.

Increase the Whites in the image to brighten up the branches - and everything else.

Crop

Now what's bugging me is part composition, and part the big blue blob in the background. Let's take care of both by simply cropping the image down so that the flowers fill the frame. They're what we're after, after all!

Since I do the vast majority of my photo-viewing online or on my computer, I don't worry about cropping to standard sizes.

Crop out everything that isn't flowers

De-Blue

The rest of the changes are more subtle.

There's still a bit more blue in the background than I like, but I don't want to try to crop it out. Instead, we'll use the HSL panel, which you may have to scroll down to. Switch to Saturation, then drag the Blue slider to the left until most of the blue is gone.

Desaturate the blue until it stops being distracting.

Vibrance

And finally, just to give it a rich finish, let's nudge the Vibrance slider a bit to the right, just enough to take some of the reflection off the flower petals.

Vibrance is a variant on the Saturation tool that tries to smartly increase the saturation of less-saturated colors, while not touching the most-saturated colors. So, if you have a bright blue sky and dull green grass, it might let you add more color to the grass without making the sky look fake.

Its effect in this photo is subtle, because almost everything is some kind of yellow, but it helps fill in some of the color on the petals and gives everything a bit more richness.

And a touch of Vibrance to finish it up