Digital Darkroom; Local Adjustments Lightroom and Camera Raw

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography and Editing. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves, editing colour with the HSL/Color panels, black and white toning and split toning. This week we are looking at using split toning to help create a rounded image. If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

In Lightroom and Camera Raw the adjustments that we have been looking at have been global, adjustments that change the tones across the whole image. These global adjustments can give us a great image, but sometimes we need to make adjustments that are more selective.
If you wish to watch the companion video for this post you can so here.

In Lightroom and Camera Raw there are three different local adjustment tools; Radial, Gradient and Brush. Each of the tools has the same settings that can be adjusted, similar to those that are in the basic adjustments panel we looked at in an earlier post. You also can make changes to sharpness and noise, to selectively increase or decrease, as well as Moiré (reduce artefacts caused by patterns on clothing) and Defringe (Reduce colour fringes, saturation on the edges of high contrast areas). Adjustments also let you add colour with the colour picket at the bottom.

The Radial Adjustment

The radial adjustment is a circular adjustment you draw over an image, with the adjustment taking place inside and outside of the radial area (to switch from outside to inside click invert). You can also feather the adjustment, how much of a fade there is between the adjusted and non-adjusted area.
Radial adjustments are good for either highlighting one area or protecting one area from adjustments. It is also good if the area you want is somewhat circular.

The Gradient Adjustment

The gradient adjustment effects an area drawn down or across by a gradient. The gradient has three lines that are always evenly spaced; this shows where the adjustment will fade, from the top to the bottom. The larger this area the smoother the transition and smaller the area the more obvious the transition is.
Many tout that since we have the Gradient Adjustment we no longer need to use glass gradient filters when taking pictures. This I disagree with, you can reduce the exposure of the sky with a gradient adjustment yet you won’t be able to create the same long exposure shots with blurred skies or more contrasted skies that you can get with a glass filter.

Brush Adjustments

The brush adjustments allow you to selectively choose an area to adjust. With the brush you also have the option of feathering, the soft transition between the adjusted and non-adjusted area. You can also change the size of the brush, the flow (the rate at which the adjustment is applies) and the density (how transparent the adjustment is).

For me the local adjustments are like dodging and burning in the darkroom and my process for using them is the same. First I will make my global adjustments to an image and then look at the picture to see what can be darkened and lightened selectively. On landscapes it could be using two gradients one at the top and bottom, with a still life it may be a radial adjustment to isolate the subject and I use a brush adjustment here and there.

With the more adjustments you add the more processing the computer has to do, it is better to use a gradient or radial adjustment in a large area and then a few brush adjustments.

The best way to demonstrate the use of local adjustments is to show some examples.

I first created a cross processed tone to this image. The tulips were originally white and now had a creamer tone. The font tulip was getting lost; I added two adjustment brushes, the first to brighten the tulip (on the left) and the second reducing the highlights and shadows and increasing the clarity to boost details in the petals. I also added yellow to the brush to make the petals stand out more than the others.

This image I converted to black and white first and then used the adjustment brush to soften the background, I used the brush for this large area because neither the gradient or radial adjustment would have been less precise. I first went around with auto mask on to have a clean selection on the hard edges and then painted the rest free hand. The second adjustment was on the frog itself painting in the gold colour that existed in the original. I also made two adjustment brushes one to brighten the shadow under the frog and one to darken the bright area on the frog’s head.

This image I used a radial adjustment to protect the figure in the window from the other adjustments I was going to make. I wanted to add more midtone contrast to the bricks to emphasise the texture. If I added the same adjustment to the figure, the figure would have looked a bit strange. I added a radial adjustment with invert not checked, so the adjustment happened outside of the circle, protecting the subject.

This picture originally had the sand well exposed but the meerkat was very dark. I used a radial adjustment, inverted, to brighten the shadows, add clarity and saturation. All this helps bring the focus onto the Meerkat as well as correcting my exposure.

With this picture I used all three adjustments to help develop it. The global adjustment was a conversion to black and white reducing the luminance in the blues to create a faux red filter look.
I added a gradient in the sky to darken and add contrast. I added a radial adjustment at the bottom to have the adjustments only affect the mountain top; brightening the shadows and increasing the exposure. I finally added brush adjustments to the brighter rock area to brighten and reduce the highlights in the cloud on the right.

The background of this shot is bright and I wanted to add a vignette to darken the edges. Using the vignette in the effects panel didn’t give me the look I wanted. I used four gradient adjustments on the edges to burn them in creating a custom vignette.

Benefits of Camera Raw


The magenta area shows the gradient applied with the chimney stacks removed using the brush.

Camera Raw has one benefit at the moment over Lightroom. Both the Gradient and Radial adjustment have a brush tool that allows you to remove the adjustment or add it to more areas of the picture. This is really great when you are using a Gradient to darken a cities sky and the buildings are in the way. Now you can remove the adjustment from them using the brush. Why is this in Camera Raw and not Lightroom? Because Photoshop CC keeps getting updates and camera raw is part of Photoshop and gets these updates as well, Lightroom however is not part of the CC family and doesn’t get the same kind of progressive updates. This feature will possibly be in future editions of Lightroom.

When to use Local Adjustments?

You use Local adjustments whenever there is an area of the picture that needs to be lightened, darkened, have more contrast or sharpness added or removed from it. Which adjustment to use, depends on the area. Gradients are great for large areas that you wish to naturally fade, radial for more circular areas and can be used to create areas of focus, and the brush for smaller areas that are more custom in shape
However you use them remember, although you can lighten or darken an area this doesn’t mean that everything can be fixed, it is better to get as much right in camera as possible.

If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

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7 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Local Adjustments Lightroom and Camera Raw

  1. This is a great informative post. I have a lot to learn about PS & LR and I appreciate your taking the time to share. These adjustments sound extremely useful. A lot of times I want to adjust some parts of an image, not all, but haven’t learned how to do so yet so thanks. 🙂

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