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How to Create Simulated Light Leaks Using Lightroom

Recently, we discussed how easy (and cool) it can be to reproduce the basic looks of vintage film stocks with our digital photographs. Sure, this style is not for everyone, but it’s undeniable that the “film look” has made a resurgence in recent years. There’s an especially organic feel to a photograph that has muted tones and funky contrasts which carries an inherent interest that makes people look twice. To go a step further, if you truly want to push the envelope of your digital vintage film simulations, you can go as far as to introduce something which is generally considered to be the sworn enemy of photographers everywhere: light leaks. I know, I know…the horror, right?

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Light leaks

Light leaks are less of a problem in digital photography and seldom occur. Still, it can happen. Unwanted light rays can weasel their way into your photos through damaged camera bodies or poor lens fitment in digital and analog cameras alike.

However, when shooting with film the incidence of light leaks skyrocket. Causes range from accidental openings of the camera back to damaged film canisters and general mishandling of the film either before or during processing.

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Why make an intentional mistake?

Now, you might be wondering ‘why, oh why, might we want to simulate light leaks in our digital photographs if they are so loathed and avoided in general photography?’ The answer to that lies in the very nature of light leaks themselves; they add uniqueness.

While technically flawed, light leaks can impart a vibe of beautiful realism to a photograph. Because the chances of light leaks increase with the age of a film, it makes perfect sense to learn how to introduce them alongside your digital vintage film simulations in Adobe Lightroom Classic CC.

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Don’t get me wrong; light leaks are not practical or even warranted for every one of your vintage film simulations. That said, a judicially placed light leak on the right photo can boost it’s aesthetic appeal tremendously. What’s more, being able to create digital light leaks at will is a handy skill to have in your mental post-processing tool kit.

How to make a Light Leak

The cause of light leaks is the intrusion of light of various intensities interacting with the film. To reproduce this effect digitally in Lightroom we’ll make use of some cleverly simple local adjustments. The graduated and radial filters are the primary local adjustment tools we’ll use for our light leak simulations.

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We’ll also use the local adjustment brush – but not in the way you might think. I’ll show you what I mean in just a second.

To get started, we’ll use a photo I have already processed using some of my vintage film presets. It has a faded vibe and a mellow tone. This should work well with our light leak simulations. It’s always a good practice to add your light leaks AFTER you have completed processing your photo.

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1. Deciding where to place your light leaks

There are no rules when it comes to creating your light leak simulations but if you’re going for realism remember that your light leaks should look as if they are – well – caused by light leaking onto the film.

Consider where the light might be intruding from when determining where they appear. Is there a crack in the camera housing? Was there a pinhole in the film canister? Perhaps the dark slide accidentally slid back just a tiny bit in the film holder?

For our particular example, we’ll be going for a sort of “first frame” light leak. This simulates a 35mm frame having been exposed to light on one of the first sections of the film while being loaded into the camera. Virtually all 35mm cameras wind the film from the spool to the spindle from left to right, so the light leak will always appear at the right side of the frame. So, that’s exactly where we’re going to put our digital light leak simulation.

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2. The Graduated Filter

We’ll use a single graduated filter to produce the light leak. Create the filter and make it wide enough to rotate easily.

It doesn’t matter where it is created on the photo because we will re-position it after we’ve added the adjustments.

For most photos, the core effect is caused but the Exposure and Whites sliders. Begin by increasing the Exposure slider considerably until you lose detail in the highlight areas of the image.

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Depending on the overall brightness of your photo even +100 exposure increase might not be adequate. If this is the case, make use of the Whites slider to increase the intensity of the leak. We can always dial back the brightness after the next step.

3. Placing and feathering the Graduated Filter

Now it’s time to re-position the graduated filter and compress it to the appropriate feathering.

Grab the center point and pull the filter to the right of the photo. A good rule of thumb is to place the far edge of the filter even with the edge of the frame.

Next, click and drag the left side of the filter to reduce the feathering. This is when the light leak will begin to really look like a light leak.

The feathering is important in reproducing the circumstances of the particular light leak effect you’re after.

In our case, the light would have interacted with our film up to the point where it was shielded by the film canister. Modern 35mm canisters feature felt lining on the mouth of the canister where the film enters. This will produce a very slight feathering effect in the light leak. So we will reflect this minute amount of feathering with our simulation.

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4. Adding fine adjustments

With our light leak placed we can now go to work applying some fine adjustments. Anything is possible! Adjust the intensity of the leak by increasing or decreasing the Exposure and Whites sliders or amplify the color (or take it away) using the Saturation slider. You can even add in custom colors using the color swatch selector. For our example, we’ll add in some yellow.

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What a beautiful mistake we’ve made! But we’re not finished yet.

5. The Adjustment Brush

You’ll recall earlier I mentioned we would use the adjustment brush tool but not actually to create the leaks. Instead, we will make use of the Adjustment Brush to ERASE areas of our light leaks. That way, we can selectively control how they appear with more precision.

In our example, we’ll dial back the light in the area of the sky to make it flow more naturally with the rest of the adjustment.

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Now that we’ve placed our primary light leak let’s kick things up a notch by adding in some additional ones. Remember that less is usually more when it comes to light leaks. But since we’re having fun, let’s pretend our camera was having a terrible day.

6. Adding extra light leaks with the Radial Filter

Our next light leak will simulate an intrusion at one of the ends of our film canister. Leaks of this type generally manifest themselves at the edges of the film around the sprocket holes. Depending on the severity, the leak bleeds down towards the midline of the film. We’ll pull off this effect using the radial filter tool with the same slider adjustments we used earlier. Again, create the filter anywhere you please in the beginning and then re-position.

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Drag the center point of the filter to the top edge of the photo being careful to leave the point itself within reach for easier re-positioning. Once you roughly position the filter, pull the bottom of it downward (or upward depending on position) until it reaches the desired location.

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Since this type of leak usually occurs very close to the film, they will exhibit more clearly defined edges which means we’ll use less feathering of the filter.

Of course, this is entirely a judgment call so feel free to adjust the feathering to suit your taste. Add in more radial filters to complete the effect by right-clicking the center point and selecting ‘Duplicate.’

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Congratulations! We’re finished making our light leak simulations and we did it all right inside of Lightroom Classic CC using a few simple tools that anyone can use.

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But wait, there’s more….

Saving your light leaks as Local Adjustment Presets

As you’ve seen, most light leaks are incredibly easy to make once you understand the basic concepts involved with the effect. Still, it’s a good idea to save yourself some time by saving your favorite light leak simulations as Local Adjustment Presets. That way, you don’t need to create each one anew every time you’re feeling like adding in a leak or two.

Saving your light leaks as presets is as simple as a couple of mouse clicks.

First, select the control point of the filter you wish to save as a preset. Once the filter is active, click the ‘Custom’ drop-down arrow at the top of the filter adjustment section.

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Next, select ‘Save Current Settings as New Preset’ from the bottom of the menu.

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It’s a good idea to name your preset something that will help you know exactly what effect it produces. In our case, I’ll name this one “Tina”.

Just kidding.

We’ll go with “35mm Canister Leak-Yellow”.

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Your new light leak preset will then be available from the local adjustment presets list.

Final thoughts on Leaking Light…

When you think about it, introducing simulated light leaks to your photos is a very funny thing to do. We are purposefully introducing problems to a photograph. With that being said, sometimes beauty can in fact lie within the very flaws we might otherwise avoid. Depending on the type of photograph and the final aesthetic you’re going for, adding in some judicious light leak simulations to your digital photographs can go a long way to enhance their “vintage feel”.

Have you tried your hand at simulating your own light leaks? Feel free to share your work in the comments!

And if you want to learn more about how to add a vintage film look to your photos be sure to check out my other article The Basics of Simulating Vintage Film in Lightroom.

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Adam Welch
Adam Welch

is a full-time photomaker, author and adventurer. Find him over at aphotographist.com
and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!