A Super Simple Way to Make Landscape Photos POP Using Lightroom

A Super Simple Way to Make Landscape Photos POP Using Lightroom

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It seems like virtually all outdoor or landscape photographs suffer from the same illness when they come out of the camera. The symptoms are:

  • An overly bright sky
  • Foreground that is too dark
  • A general lack of color and contrast.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately, there is a cure for this ailment. Actually, as anyone who has worked with post-processing software for any length of time knows, there are a lot of different cures. But I want to show you a super simple way to fix pictures with these problems. I performed these fixes in Lightroom, but you can also do them on the Adobe Camera Raw screens of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

Colorado road photo with Lightroom adjustments

The quick-fix shown here will involve nothing more than moving six sliders, each of which is in the Basic panel of Lightroom’s Develop module. The edits will take less than 30 seconds of your time. I performed these edits – and only these edits – to the pictures you see throughout this article to show you the effects.

The Steps

Let’s not dally with a lot of explanation just yet. Here are the steps to perform a quick-fix of landscape photos. The first three steps are the most important, where you will see about 90% of the changes to your pictures. After walking you through these steps I will explain the process in a little more detail.

  1. Decrease the Highlights: Just pull the highlights slider to the left as much as is needed to add more detail to your sky.
  2. Increase the Shadows:  Pull the Shadows slider to the right to brighten the foreground. Don’t worry if it looks a bit washed-out after this step.
  3. Reduce the Blacks: Pull the Blacks slider to the left. This will add contrast back to the picture, and will fix the washed-out look that might have crept into your picture after the last step.
  4. Increase Vibrance: Pull the Vibrance slider to the right a bit to add more color to the picture.
  5. Increase Contrast: Pull the Contrast slider to the right a little bit to increase overall contrast. Don’t go too far, or it might start to undo the changes you just made above.
  6. Increase Clarity: Pull the Clarity slider to the right to add some clarity (edge contrast) to your photo and make it appear less soft.

That’s it. Just move these six sliders and you should see a vast improvement in your landscape pictures. This might seem more complicated than it actually is, because there are six steps. But after a while you will be able to do all of it in a matter of seconds.

Bass Harbor photo with Lightroom adjustments

What’s Going on Here

Now that I’ve shown you the steps and a few examples, let’s talk about this process.

What you are doing first is reducing the tones in the sky by using the Highlights slider. The sky is typically the brightest part of landscape photos. The Highlights slider will ONLY affect the brightest tones in the image, so decreasing it should tone down your sky but not touch the darker portions of your picture. Decreasing the highlights will not only keep the sky from being too bright, but will also add detail and texture to the clouds.

After the change to the sky, step 2 is to increase the brightness of the foreground. The foreground is almost always too dark in outdoor photos, and you need to brighten it up and add detail there. As you pull the Shadows slider to the right, you should see your foreground brighten up. The sky, which is not among the shadows of your photo, should remain largely unaffected. Your photo should be looking a lot better at this point.

Many times, when you make the change to the foreground in step 2, that area starts to look a little bit washed-out. Therefore, step 3 is the pull the Blacks slider to the left. Whereas the previous step brightened the shadows, we are now taking the very darkest tones in the photo and bringing them closer to black. The shadows were made brighter in the last step, and now the blacks are made even blacker. That adds more contrast to the foreground and eliminates that washed-out look. It often adds a little bit more contrast to your sky as well.

Note: For a handy tip on using sliders, read The Magic Alt Key article here. 

At this point, your photo should be looking pretty good. In fact, about 90% of the effect is applied to your photo after step 3. Now you will just clean up by making the photo a little clearer, and more colorful.

Texas field photo with Lightroom adjustments

In step 4, we will just increase the vibrance of the photo to add more color to the scene. The Vibrance slider is just below the sliders you have been working with.  Pull it to the right to add more color to the picture. You can adjust this slider however you want, but don’t overdo it.

You might wonder why you should use the Vibrance slider instead of the Saturation slider. The answer is that vibrance is designed to have a higher impact on less saturated colors. Saturation adjustments apply to all colors equally, so an increase in saturation can make certain highly saturated colors look garish. Vibrance, by focusing on colors that are less saturated, lets you increase the overall saturation of your colors without overdoing any colors.

Next, you add a little contrast. Pull the Contrast slider to the right a little bit. You have to be careful here because essentially what you did in the first three moves of this process was reduce overall contrast (making the bright sky darker and the dark foreground lighter). If you crank the contrast up now using the Contrast slider, you will be working against the moves you previously made. A small or moderate increase in contrast, however, can add more texture to the photo, so I recommend you do that.

Finally, a small to moderate increase in Clarity usually makes the photo look sharper and clearer. Don’t overdo this, as clarity is a powerful tool. Just add a little bit by pulling the Clarity slider to the right, and this final step can really make your photos pop.

After having gone through this process, there is nothing stopping you from continuing with additional editing, if you wish.  You can take your photo into Photoshop and make a lot of other changes, or you can use the plug-in of your choice. But even if you decide to do additional editing, the process I have described in this article can still be a good starting point for your landscape photos. It also works really well when you are in a hurry or you’d like to process a lot of photos at once.

Head Harbor Lighthouse photo with Lightroom adjustments

Bonus Tip

I want to keep this process as simple as possible and not confuse it with a bunch of other things, but there is just one more tip I want to pass along in this article. It is a way to add more contrast to your skies in Lightroom (or in ACR in Photoshop).

Scroll down to the HSL/Color/B&W panel in Lightroom’s Develop module, where you will see sliders for eight different colors. Go to the Blue slider and make sure the Luminance tab is selected just above the colors. Decrease the luminance of the blues in your picture by pulling the Blue slider to the left. This will make the color in your sky a deeper, richer blue.

Recall that Step 1 of the process above was to decrease the highlights in an effort to tone down and add detail to your sky. If you decrease the luminance of the blues, you might find that you don’t need to do Step 1 (or at least that you do not need to pull down the highlights as much). In fact, keeping the highlights nice and bright, while decreasing the luminance of your blues, can really add some nice contrast to your skies.

Colorado National Monument photo with Lightroom adjustments

Conclusion

This is one simple way to make super fast changes to your landscape photos. After you have done it a few times, you can make these changes in mere seconds. I know we are all sensitive to falling into ruts and doing the same thing over and over again, so you don’t want to do this process all the time. But it is great when you just want high impact in a short amount of time, or as a quick baseline for further changes.

Note: if you don’t yet have Lightroom check out this special deal Adobe currently have for dPS readers.

Read more from our Post Production category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

  • keepntch

    Thank you, this is a really helpful article, the pictures of before/after with the shots of the sliders will make this very easy to follow. Probably the best LR5 instruction yet because I can use it at my own speed.

  • Great, I’m glad you.like it. I’m interested to see any before and after photos from this process.

  • Johan

    As the Contrast slider affects both the highlights and the shadows, it’s better to use that first. Start by adjusting the contrast, then tune the highlights/whites and the shadows/blacks as needed.

  • @guayogalindez

    you need to consider the whites

  • Linda Bon

    Thanks for this article, Jim. I kept thinking I was just shooting wrong with too bright of an exposure. Even when I try to correct all these things, I still get a slightly washed- out photo. I am quite new to photography; so, of course, I assumed the fault was with my techniques. It seemed I had to do some editing to almost all my landscapes. For the most part, I do what you suggest; so it appears I’m on the right track. A bit more fine tuning after reading your article again will help!

  • Great. I’m glad this is helping. Keep at it!

  • I agree. But, after considering them, I usually decide not to adjust them, so I didn’t list that as a necessary step in this article. Do you find that you typically adjust the whites when dealing with this problem? If so, let me know which way you typically adjust. I find that the adjustment either way does not help.

  • I can see the point. I like to see how my highlights and shadows look beforehand though.

  • Joel Wexler

    Decrease the luminance of the blues – that works great(and couldn’t be easier), and never would’ve thought of that. Thanks. Haven’t tried yet, but I bet it makes BW conversions look good, too.

  • Very useful article, but for the future, please: it’s BEFORE, then AFTER. For a second I was like (on some of them): wait, but BEFORE looks so much better. Duh!

  • Nice article Jim. I also often move the white slider to the right until I notice some clipping in the histogram (or by pressing the Alt key on Mac) and then move the slider a step back. I Also use the graduated filter to darken the sky and sometimes to lighten the foreground. Here is an example:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpmiss/16114802980/

  • limmh4988

    Since it’s winter now, for photos with lots of snows and looks a bit of grayish, I adjust whites to the right to fix it, up to the point that I do not lose details or from the histogram.

  • Great article, you pretty much described my entire process for basic editing. I do start with a “Step Zero” by moving the exposure slider to generally fix overall exposure if needed, then start with the highlights and shadows. I also usually up the saturation just a touch, and use clarity a bit more than you do, ending up with the sliders going diagonally from clarity, to vibrance, to saturation, but all in the positive. Here is an example from a recent batch of images of the Poconos.

    https://flic.kr/p/pZY36X

  • Beautiful. Really very nice.

  • That’s a good point about exposure. If it isn’t right, it needs to be fixed right away. And that is a very nice image.

  • Yes, it does. And with B&W you can step things up a notch as well.

  • You’re right – I mixed up the order on you. Glad you sorted it out before trashing the process.

  • Thanks. If I have time tomorrow I will post the unprocessed RAW file for the before/after.

  • Shilpi Srivastava

    Jim, Can we have similar instructions for Photoshop also? I don’t have LR, and I feel seriously handicapped because most if the articles just keep telling me how easy it is in LR. I looked for similar actions in CS5 but realized Highlights/Shadow etc are already at 0 ( in split toning). Opened the image in camera raw

  • Thanks a lot Jim! Here is the unprocessed RAW file exported as jpeg with te before and after settings and histograms. In this case I didn’t really pushed the white slider very far since there is already some clipping in the brighter area. As I mentioned above, I also used Graduated Filters to darken the sky and lighten the foreground.

  • mary opatz

    I rely heavily on my photos of landscapes for my landscape paintings. How can I improve the quality of the print from my printer?

  • Howard

    Works beautifully, thank you! I used it on a ho-hum shot I took of an Alpine Lake from a trip last year, and the results were great!

  • Great article!

  • John Gray

    This was one of the best articles I have read on making adjustments in Lightroom. The explanations of the sliders and how they impact the photos will help me with my basic adjustments.

  • Thank you very much! That was incredibly helpful!

  • Anurag

    I think the examples the “before following the after” had inherently higher contrast elements on the left half of the image which the made the post-processing seem even more effective – thus proving the point more effectively – and hence the “before following the after”.
    Same for the “after following the before” – the inherently higher contrast elements on the right half of the image. A clever trick, I guess, but no issues!
    Personally, I feel anyone who’s ever worked seriously with Lightoom for even a small amount of time will realize that his/her basic adjustments follow this pattern 90% of the time. But yeah, to a beginner or to someone who wants to create their own presets, this is a good tutorial – short, focused and effective.

  • This should work in ACR in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. All of the sliders at issue are on the Basic tab. Take a look again and let me know if I am missing something.

  • Excellent. I’m glad it is working for you.

  • Great to hear. Yes, hopefully the explanations show you how this all works, so this is just the beginning for you.

  • Oh, you are right. Looking back, it appears I picked whichever side would show the changes the best and made it the “after” side. I just wanted to make sure the effectiveness was communicated. Glad you thought it was good.

  • rishwinder grewal

    Great picture

  • Shilps

    Not exactly. The very first 2 steps are not possible in ACR as shadows & highlights are available only in split toning, both as hue and saturation AND they both are at 0- which means I cannot reduce them further. There is one slider as balance which can be changed. I followed the remaining steps but there was hardly change/improvement in the snaps. I changed the balance slider to both the extremes but the colour of the sky didn’t change, which is what I wanted to do.

  • lyle

    Just sharing that you can set the white, black, shadow and highlight entries by using SHIFT-Double-Click on each of those words in the basic panel. I crop first, then do those and go from there.. it’s usually pretty good as a starting point to get you in the tone-window.

    Nice tutorial Jim. (I used to live in Allen and was in Southlake a lot)

  • Smarter than Your Average Bear

    1. laser printer
    2. set the DPI (dots per inch) to a minimum of 300.

    When you export a picture from your camera it is generally set to 72 DPI as DPI is irrelevant for on-screen images and a lower DPI uses less disk space.

  • I’m really glad you liked it.

  • Thanks for the info. Hey yeah, sounds like we were very close in proximity, although I’m guessing by the past tense that you’re gone from the DFW area. Thanks!.

  • lyle

    Yeah, once Allen starting beating Southlake Carroll for championships, I figured my work was done. lol 😉

  • Ha! You’ve got me there. You did some fine work on that, as they’ve been pretty well unstoppable. Although you might have to come back and help them with their stadium (apparently $60 million wasn’t enough)..

  • lyle

    There’s only so much one guy can do, y’know ? 🙂 I left 3 years ago… Hopefully they’ll be able to make it completely safe and usable, you hate to see something with so much community interest have problems no matter who or where it is – taxpayer dollars being what they are…

  • lyle

    If you’re on a PC, you can download qimage on a trial and see if that gets you the improvement you’re looking for. It’s about $60 otherwise – plus it has a feature that will allow you to nest many different photos on a page effortlessly…

  • MartinHughHarvey

    Personally how about:

    – Crop first if you plan to
    – If there’s one area that needs special attention (e.g. washed out sky) then apply a graduated filter – likely using the “steps”

  • Susie in Sarasota

    I absolutely LOVED the “What’s Going On Here?” section. Over time, I have managed to stumble upon how to adjust my landscapes in LR, but wasn’t sure WHY one slider worked better than another. Most tutorials just tell you to move the sliders without explaining why or what each slider actually affects.

    Do you have a tutorial that provides that information for all the Develop sliders, or can you point me to one that does?

    Thank you so much for this excellent tutorial!

  • Great article… I was doing most of what you are explaining but you definitely clarified a few things as well! Thanks!

  • Chris

    A few of these image still look underexposed. Maybe it’s just me.

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