This article covers the typical processing steps needed to process a landscape image in Adobe Lightroom. Starting with a RAW image of a golden hour shot of Loch Etive, Argyll, Scotlands. In the article, we will step through the various adjustments made in each panel so that you can follow along.
The main assumption in this article is that the reader already understands the location and functionality of all of the various effects being used. If you don’t, then it will be worth looking at the earlier units in the Lightroom Ultimate Guide before undertaking this unit.
Lightroom Processing – Golden Hour Workflow
You can see from the example that it appears quite dark and lacking in contrast. Obviously part of this is because the image is shot in RAW, and therefore needs to be color balanced. Also though, it was intentionally under-exposed by 1-stop in camera to avoid over-exposure of the highlights.
I have though purposely picked an image that needs a lot doing to it, in order to demonstrate the breadth of edits that can be performed in the Lightroom digital darkroom.
Jumping straight into the Lightroom Develop Module, and the Basic Panel the first step is to set the color balance. My typical workflow for a golden hour photoshoot in this way is to set the Highlights to -100 and the Shadows to +100 and then optimize the Whites & Blacks.
Optimizing White Balance
Firstly, I set the overall White Balance (WB) to Daylight mode, as I always shoot with my camera in Cloud (regardless of the weather). From experience, this gives more consistency across all shots made, i.e. rather than the camera keep adjusting white balance automatically.
Next, using the White Balance slider:
Press and hold the Option key on a MAC or ALT key on a PC before left-clicking the Whites slider.
What this does is temporarily replace your image with a black mask. You then move the White Balance slider until you just see white pixels peeking through the mask. Then just dial that back very slightly so you can’t see any pixels peeking through to avoid pure white pixels. Now, moving onto Black Balance.
Optimizing Black Balance
This works in the same way as White Balance optimization. Pressing and holding the Option (or ALT) key before adjusting the slider brings up a white mask. You then move the Black Balance slider until black pixels are just peeking through. I tend to keep about 5-10% black pixels in an image when doing this. i.e. Adjust the slider until the white mask shows about 10% black.
Optimizing Highlights & Shadows
Next, I bring back the Highlights and Shadows. Unfortunately, there is no semi-guided way of doing this, as we did with Black & White Balance. Highlights & Shadows need to be optimized visually based on the look you are trying to create.
As a guide however, you can work from the histogram as a prompt. Because, What you are trying to achieve is a bell type shape over the entire curve of the histogram.
With Shadows & Highlights set, we move onto Saturation & Vibrance.
Saturation & Vibrance
Remember, that Saturation & Vibrance are very similar. The difference being that Saturation affects all tones globally, and Vibrance targets the tones in an image that are already saturated. Therefore, Vibrance is normally the way to go, as it has a less radioactive effect on your overall image. Both sliders though need to be used sparingly.
Lightroom Processing Final Tonal Adjustments
The overall tone, I still found to be a little dark, so I upped the Exposure by just under half a stop and reduced Contrast at the same time to lighten the mid-tones. This had the effect of lightening the blue tones in the sky too much, I, therefore, added a little Dehaze to bring them back.
Here are the settings used on this image so far:
- Profile: Adobe Landscape
- WB: Daylight
- Exposure: +0.41
- Contrast: -5
- Highlights: -70
- Shadows: +63
- Whites: +5
- Blacks: -8
- Dehaze: +9
- Vibrance: +15
- Saturation: +1
Lightroom Tone Curve
As you can see from above we have already significantly improved this image. But, it lacks tonal punch. We can correct this using the Tone Curve, by adding a little S-Curve.
Specifically, we push the Highlights up on the Tone Curve and drag the Shadows down. This has the effect of compressing the bandwidth of the histogram and tightening the contrast.
S-Curves are used extensively in landscape retouching for this very reason.
In this image, it has done a great job with the sky and the reflections, however, it has darkened the areas of land too much. We therefore need to make some more localized adjustments using gradients.
Dealing with the land on the left-hand side of the image first. I added a Radial Mask and rotated it slightly to follow the land-line from the foreground. Note that, by default, radial masks affect everything outside of the circle. In this case, I want to affect only the areas inside, so I selected the Invert radio button. I then raised the Shadows and Blacks. You can see straight away that this has lightened that area.
The changes were:
- Shadows: +70
- Blacks: +15
- Invert Mask: Checked
Next, I wanted to increase the brightness and color around the sunset area along the horizon, so finalized the previous mask by selecting Done, and then created a new Radial Mask.
Again, using an inverted Radial Mask, I increased the Temperature to add more warmth, slightly reduced the Highlights to avoid over-brightening.
I then increased the Saturation level and reduced the Dehaze slider slightly to intentionally give a more heat-haze feel to the horizon area.
Clicking Done finalizes the Radial Mask changes:
- Temp: +17
- Highlights: -22
- Dehaze: -11
- Saturation: +21
- Invert Mask: Checked
Starting with the sky portion, I added a Gradient Mask to the sky down to the horizon line. I wanted to brighten the sky and try to draw out some of the colors. Increasing the Exposure, Highlights, Shadows & Whites achieved this. But, this was then balanced with a little Dehaze to add to the vibrancy of the sky and bring back the blue tones.
- Exposure: +0.53
- Highlights: +60
- Shadows: +78
- Whites: +34
- Dehaze: +12
Lets now add a small gradient on the reflections to brighten them slightly.
This time, focussing on just the Shadows & Blacks, because we don’t want the reflections to look unnaturally bright.
- Shadows: 48
- Blacks: 22
A very popular tonal effect in golden hour photography, is to enhance the color of highlight tones.
I adjusted the highlights Color Grading slider to add a magenta tone. Then, increased the Opacity very slightly.
When you are performing Color Grading changes, it is normally better to keep things subtle and natural. I used magenta because it is already present in the sky. Even then, keeping the opacity quite low avoids everything going radioactive.
You can see from the image so far, that we have a much better color and tonal balance than we did in our starting image.
One of the things I consistently do to all images, regardless of what genre I am working in, is select the Lens Corrections options. This is as simple as selecting the two radio buttons Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Correction.
With modern cameras, I rarely get chromatic aberrations in my images, however, it does not hurt to check this option. Lightroom then hunts any out and eliminates them automatically.
The second option for profile corrections, I find extremely useful. All lenses by design have some distortional effects; because they are bending light through the lens to your camera sensor. Assuming that your lens profile is loaded into the Lightroom database and that the lens information is stored in your metadata, then Lightroom automatically eliminates distortional effects.
The horizon line is slanted down to the right. Selecting the Crop Overlay and doing a small crop and rotation corrected this.
Lightroom Processing – Post-Crop Vignette
As a final edit, I added a post-crop vignette to darken the edges and help draw the eye into the centre of the image.
Hopefully, you will agree we have vastly improved this image based on what we started with. Other steps I sometimes use, are to add a little noise reduction. It was not needed in this image, but when I do use noise reduction, I tend to jump into another plugin.
For this, I generally use Topaz Labs’ Noise Reduction program. The reason being that it uses AI to analyze where best to apply noise reduction, as opposed to a global effect. If you wish to try this, we have a 30% discount available if you use our affiliate link – here.
If you enjoyed this article on Lightroom Processing, please check out some more of our Lightroom Ultimate Guide. Here are a couple of articles that may interest you:
Understanding the Lightroom Histogram forms the foundation of all post-processing you will ever do in Lightroom
The HSL & Color Panels allow you to perform targeted adjustments to specific areas in your photograph for Hue, Saturation & Color optimisation.
The Color Grading panel is a great tool to perform targeted hue adjustments to Highlights, Shadows and Midtones.
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Specialising in landscape and wildlife photography, David is a semi-professional photographer based in Scotland, with an established fine art and stock photography portfolio; which includes published photography with the New York Post, Huffington Post, as well as various travel and tourism companies worldwide.