When you develop photos, regardless of which software you use, your actions are either local adjustments (i.e they’re applied to part of the image) or global adjustments (applied to the whole image).
It’s rare that you’ll find a photo that can’t be improved with local adjustments. Once you can see which local adjustments will make your photos better, you can then select the best tool to achieve the effect you’re after.
I developed the photos in this tutorial in Lightroom Classic, so I’ll reference its powerful local adjustment tools – the Adjustment Brush, the Graduated filter, and Radial filter. These techniques work exactly the same in Lightroom 5 and Lightroom 6.
If you’re not a Lightroom user you can make the same adjustments to your photos no matter what software you prefer to use. It’s just that the tools and techniques are different.
Note: Adobe added five new local adjustment tools and a new Masks panel in the Lightroom Classic 11.0 (October 2021) update. The techniques in this article still work, and you can get up to speed with the updates in my article New Local Adjustment Tools in Lightroom Classic.
Why do photographers use local adjustments?
You probably know that you can add impact to your photos by bringing out more highlight or shadow detail, emphasizing textures or adjusting color. The idea behind using local adjustments is that these adjustments are more subtle and often more effective when applied to part of the photo.
Let me give you an example.
Here’s a photo of an old car that I made in Bolivia. This is the result more or less straight out of the camera. The light and shadow from the setting sun creates lots of drama.
The eye catching elements of this photo (apart from the light) are the red car and the textures in the car’s paintwork and the wall behind it. If this were your photo, you might be tempted to use the Texture and Clarity sliders in Lightroom Classic’s Basic panel. The result could look something like this.
Powerful and effective maybe, but certainly not subtle. Let’s try it with local adjustments instead. I made this version by creating a mask with the Adjustment Brush so that Lightroom Classic applied the increases in Texture and Clarity to the red car only. I also reduced the Saturation a little as I felt the color of the car was too intense. The result is much more subtle.
Here’s the mask I used to make the local adjustment (shown in green).
Subtlety in developing is a mark of the mature photographer or artist. Local adjustments help you take the subtle approach.
Let’s look at some more examples.
When local adjustments get complex
In the old days, when photographers made prints in darkrooms, photographers would make complex diagrams showing how they intended to dodge (make lighter) and burn (make darker) a particular photo.
The process is much easier using a computer, but there are times when the same principle applies and you might need to make multiple local adjustments to bring the absolute best out of a photo. Luckily, I just happen to have an example of that to show you.
This is what I started with.
And this what the photo looked like after local adjustments.
Can you see what changes I made to the photo using local adjustments? This diagram shows what I did.
1. Make these shadows lighter.
2. Make this distracting highlight darker.
3. Make this corner slightly darker.
4. Make this part of the lizard’s face lighter.
5. Lighten the lizard’s eye and emphasize texture.
6. Emphasize the texture of the sharp parts of the lizard’s face.
I made the local adjustments using a combination of the Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter and Radial Filter tools in Lightroom Classic. But the exact tools I used are unimportant. The important thing is deciding what needs to be done in the first place. Once you know what you want to achieve, and why, it’s enough to figure out the how.
Local adjustments to recover highlights
I’d like to do three things to this photo.
- Reduce the brightness of the highlights created by the lights inside the church.
- Emphasize the texture of the stonework.
- Make the light from the internal lights a deeper shade of orange to contrast more with the blue sky.
This time I’ll show you exactly how I did it using the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom Classic.
First, I brushed in the areas affected by the bright highlights (shown in green below).
This is called the Mask Overlay and shows you which parts of your photo are going to affected by any edits made using the Adjustment Brush.
Tip: The default color of the overlay is red, but I changed it to green to make the mask easier to see. Use the Shift+O keyboard shortcut to change the overlay color, or the O keyboard shortcut to hide the overlay altogether.
Extra tip: The Radial and Graduated Filters also have Mask Overlay and you can use the same keyboard shortcuts to show/hide it or change the color.
Then I moved the Highlights slider left (to -67) to reduce the intensity of the highlights, and the Temp slider right to add some orange. This screenshot shows the difference.
Next, I created a new mask covering the stonework. This is important as I didn’t want the Texture/Clarity adjustment to affect the sky.
Then I increased Texture to +32 and Clarity to +12 to bring out the texture of the stone wall.
Tip: The Texture slider isn’t available in Lightroom 6 or earlier, but the Clarity slider gives a similar effect.
Here’s the original photo again.
And this is the result.
Local adjustments for retouching portraits
The local adjustment tools are ideal for retouching portraits. Here’s a before and after photo showing you what you can achieve.
You can learn how to retouch portraits in Lightroom Classic using local adjustments in my tutorial How to Retouch Portraits in Lightroom Classic
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