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How to Create a Luminous Look for Your Photographs

Today let’s talk about one of the final processes of creating an artful image. Let’s talk about THE LOOK. This refers to the overall feeling your images projects to a viewer. This look is often created during post-production here in the digital age, or it can be created in camera. Either way, the final look and feel of your image are just as important as all the technical requirements that went into the initial exposure.

Create a Luminous Look - tide on the beach

In this case, a soft focus was added in post-processing to help lighten the image.

There are lots of different looks that you can create with your images, everything from a bleached look to something with super rich colors. There’s also the hyper-realistic style where you process your work to create a gritty look. Today though we’re going to focus on the luminous look.

Defining the Luminous Look

To fully understand the luminous look lets start with a full understanding of the characteristics of a photograph that looks and feels luminous. Dictionary.com defines the word luminous in the following way:


  1. Radiating or reflecting light; shining; bright.
  2. Lighted up or illuminated; well-lighted: the luminous ballroom.
  3. Brilliant intellectually; enlightened or enlightening, as a writer or a writer’s works: a luminous concept; luminous prose.

This means one of the main focuses when creating a luminous photograph is to consider the feeling the light will create in the image.

Luminous could mean the image glows. This means it feels like the light seeps from the image out towards the viewer. The best way to achieve this look is to shoot towards the light source. The goal is to make the light central to the look and feel of the image.

You will notice that there are still dark areas that contrast with all of the light. This is important. The goal is not to wash out the image but to create that feeling of all-around soft bright light.


Let’s study the following images to understand how one creates a glowing, luminous look and feel within a photograph. Below is the initial photograph, unprocessed. The RAW image was shot in a local forest. I was attracted to the soft light coming through the forest that illuminated this tiny spring flower.

spring flower - Create a Luminous Look

This was shot at 1/80th, f/5.6, ISO 1000.

In post-processing, several elements were slightly adjusted. In the image below the highlights were enhanced and the exposure was raised a little. The tones were also warmed. All adjustments were completed in Lightroom. The goal was to make it feel as if the light permeated the scene with warmth.

Create a Luminous Look - spring flower with warmer tones

After processing – notice how much lighter and airier the image is now.

The second image was edited using the Nik Efex software from Google. I love their analog looks. I chose a preset then made some adjustments to the image, controlling the brightness and the amount of vignette in the image. A matte feel was also added to this second version.

Create a Luminous Look

Processing using Nik Efex.

The essential concept when creating an image that has a luminous glowing feeling is to ensure that the light softly reaches all corners of the image.

Using Fog and Mist

Another way to create a luminous look is to take advantage of fog and mist. Photographs shot in their natural conditions won’t glow in the same way but the luminous look can be achieved when shooting in foggy conditions. The fog softens the view and can make the viewer feel as if the scene is still filled with light.

In the case of the image below, the fog and the mist completely obscured our view of the countryside. The entire top of the mountain, however, glowed with a diffused light. The 2km hike straight up the side of the mountain was still worth it for the ghostly quiet we experienced while standing on one of the highest peaks in Wales.

Create a Luminous Look - mountain top in the fog

Pen-y-Fan is one of the highest mountains in Wales and the view from the top is supposed to be spectacular. Our grueling hike to the top did not reveal expansive views but rather this eerily silence. It was still worth the effort.

The Miky Look

A third way to create a luminous look is to process an image so that it feels milky in nature. These means that post-processing produces a softer feeling image that doesn’t necessarily contain brightness or dark contrasts but rather one that feels soft and light but muted.

Here’s the original unedited image. The soft muted colors and the fog are elements that will help to achieve the milky look. Strong contrasts and bright bold colors do not lend themselves to creating this style.

ocean waves - Create a Luminous Look

The deserted beaches around Borth, Wales were a perfect spot for shooting images with soft gentle tones.

To process the image and complete the milky look I used warmer tones, adjusted the vignette, and lightened the corners of the image. I used a faded film preset and gave the whole image a light greenish tone. Then, I adjusted the haze slider in Lightroom. I wanted the whole image to feel very light but also very soft.

Create a Luminous Look

Processed for a milky, almost retro look.

Using Lens Flare

One final technique to consider is the use of lens flare to help create images that look and feel luminous. Lens flare is one of my favorite techniques to use in experiments. I love the effect of so much light permeating the image and also the unique shapes created as the light refracts in your camera.

The following images are all floral in nature but the light is refracted in each image in different ways. In some cases, it’s the shape of the bokeh in other cases it’s lens flare.

yellow tulip - Create a Luminous Look

Perhaps this image is more about the bokeh in the background. Beautiful circular spots of light softly illuminate the flower.

There wasn’t much editing that went into the photograph of the tulip above. A touch of vibrancy was added to heighten the colors and the exposure was adjusted slightly. The focus is also a little soft which helps lend itself to the soft bright feel of this image.

Create a Luminous Look

You might be able to classify this image as having a glowing look but the sunlight is obscured by the flowers and the majority of the image is not in sharp focus. The light and the shallow depth of field bring this flower image into the realm of luminous abstract.

Image: Here is an example of the classic lens flare. This image, while the same subject matter as ab...

Here is an example of the classic lens flare. This image, while the same subject matter as above, was processed with more blue tones and a different depth of field. The goal was to include that star-shaped flare of light.

The Look is About Creative Interpretation

Creating a look and feel for your images is an important part of the creative process. These days the majority of our efforts are focused on creating a look in post-processing. That doesn’t have to be the case, it is possible to create a look in camera as well.

The luminous look is just one of many different creative styles you can utilize in your work. Choosing a look is about deciding how you want the image to be presented to the viewer. It’s also about the message you wish to communicate. Finally, creating a look is about your artistic interpretation of a scene. Wanting to take something like a dreary rainy day and make it feel bright and airy is just as valid as capture the reality you see before you.

So it’s time to experiment with different looks. Give the luminous look a try and show off your best work in the comments below.

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Erin Fitzgibbon
Erin Fitzgibbon

is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

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