RAW Processing for a Poppy High Contrast Look - Weekly Lightroom Edit Episode 1

RAW Processing for a Poppy High Contrast Look – Weekly Lightroom Edit Episode 1


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This is the written article for our Weekly Lightroom Edit – Episode 1 that was released on November 18, 2011 on SLR Lounge. To view this tutorial in video form, click here.

The nice thing about doing written tutorials is that I get to include a bit more explanation as to why we are going to do certain things. Without further adieu, let’s get started.

RAW Processing Software

RAW processing doesn’t mean that you are using any specific program. In fact, you can pretty much use any of the following software titles and get the exact same results.

Lightroom, ACR (Adobe Camera RAW), Bridge, Aperture, Capture One, ACDSee Pro, etc.

Each RAW processor will have virtually the same set of controls, with slight variations when it comes to the details. There are arguments as to which RAW processor creates the best conversion. Some of the elite professionals prefer Capture One because they feel it gives them better tone conversion. However, believe me when I say that each software is not without its strengths and weaknesses. The standard is probably Lightroom, and that is what we use in our studio as well. So, we are going to do this tutorial in Lightroom, however the same methods can be used to get the same results in any RAW conversion software.

Download the Exercise File

First thing, let’s download and take a look out our zeroed out RAW file. Download the exercise file by clicking here. (Note: This image is provided by Lin and Jirsa Photography for educational purposes for DPS and SLR Lounge users only)

Here is our zeroed out RAW file, meaning all default processing values have been reset.

Default Develop Settings

While the image was correctly exposed for the subjects skin, it appears very flat prior to any processing. Now, when you bring this file into Lightroom or any other RAW editing program, that program will apply default settings.

Lightrooms default settings are the following:

Blacks +5
Brightness +50
Contrast +25
Tone Curve – Point Curve: Medium Contrast
Sharpening Amount +25, Radius 1, Detail +25

These default settings get you to an image that should look like what you see below.


RAW Workflow Tips

While the image above looks much better, it is still just a starting point. So, let’s proceed in finishing the image.

Now, whenever I am teaching editing workshops or lecturing online, I always start by saying, “start with your largest adjustments first.” This means that if an image is heavily under exposed, don’t adjust the White Balance prior to adjusting the Exposure/Brightness. Why? Because making smaller changes prior to broader ones will waste your time. In the afformentioned situation, if you were to adjust White Balance prior to adjusting your Exposure, then you will have to readjust the White Balance once again once the proper exposure value is set as the tones will look different with a brighter Exposure setting.

So, this is the general workflow process I follow when editing RAW files.

1. Brightness/Exposure
2. Temperature/Tint
3. Recovery/Fill Light
4. Blacks/Contrast
5. Clarity
6. Vibrance/Saturation
7. Lens Corrections
8. Sharpening

While I may still make minor adjustments here and there, correcting in this order prevents me from having to constantly make major adjustments and redo work.

Starting with a Vision

Before starting our adjustments, I always have a vision of what type of style I think would look best for a particular image. Vintage, Black and White, Poppy High Contrast, Vibrant, etc. Editing an image without an idea of what you want it to look like is like getting on the road without knowing where you are going. So, as stated in this article, we are going to make this image pop, so we are going to produce it to be a nice vibrant high contrast image. Though it would work well as really anything you like.

Making the Adjustments

So, let’s start with Exposure/Brightness.

Brightness +80 – This image is already heavy in highlights. For that reason, I don’t want to adjust my Exposure up as it is highlight biased. So, instead I am going to bring Brightness up to +80 to brighten all of the image tones.

Temperature 4400/Tint -16 – The default Temperature as shot is 4650 with a Tint of -1. At this setting, I see too much red in my skin tones. While I like the warmth of the image, I don’t want to see so much red, particularly in the shadowy areas of the skin. So, what I am going to do is slide my Tint down towards the green side to -16. Afterwards, your image is going to be too green/yellow, so we need to then pull the Temperature down to adjust. This image was shot during sunset, and I love the warmth in the shot, so I don’t want to kill it by taking the Temperature too low. So I am going to leave the Temperature at 4400 to leave that nice moody warm tone in the image.

Recovery +25 – Recovery is great for balancing out and pulling back highlight tones. However, be extremely careful. One of the most common color correction mistakes is over using Recovery. When Recovery is over used it will not only flatten and kill image contrast, it can also cause posterization where you will see unnatural color graduations. Remember, in every poppy high contrast image you want to have some true blacks and some true whites. Use Recovery moderately to balance and reduce some of the strong highlights particularly on skin, but don’t over do it. For this image, +25 recovery is fine.

Fill Light – If Recovery is the brother of common color correction mistakes, then Fill Light is the sister. Fill Light is being used far too heavily these days to create faux-HDR style effects. Large amounts of Fill Light will not only make images look fake and surreal, it also kills image quality by pumping up noise in the shadows, as well as causing edge fringing. I typically use Fill Light in the range of 0 to +15. Rarely do I go higher.

Blacks +12/Contrast +35 – I always adjust Blacks and Contrast together starting with the Blacks. My goal with every high contrast image is to add blacks until I have some true shadows in the image, areas that are completely clipped. Not a lot mind you, but a little. I want to be careful to preserve hair detail, particularly with those that have dark brown or black hair as it will be the first to go. So, what I will typically do, is adjust my Blacks to this level, then if I still need additional contrast, I will add a small amount of Contrast as needed. Be careful with adding too much Contrast as it will only strengthen highlights and colors over skin tones which can really look unflattering. For this image, Blacks at +12 and Contrast at +35 gives me a nice pop without being overpowering.

Clarity + 20 – Clarity is great for increasing mid tone contrast which has a sort of “detail enhancing” type of effect. You want to be careful that you don’t take clarity up too high as it will cause edge fringing in high contrast areas, such as where the rocks meet the highlights of the horizon in this image.

Vibrance -10/Saturation 0 – Once again, these are two sliders I am always adjusting together starting with Vibrance and almost never touching Saturation. Vibrance is going to increase/decrease image saturation while attempting to preserve skin tones. Thus, it is much more subtle than its overpowering gorilla of a cousin Saturation. Saturation will adjust every color in the image equally. This makes it very easy to overuse. Generally, I use vibrance in the range of -20 to +20 while saturation I leave around – 5 to +5. For this image, I want to pull a little bit of the color out and just leave that nice warmth and tone. So I am going to take my Vibrance down to -10 and leave everything else.

We are done with our Basic corrections, the last thing I want to adjust is my Lens Vignetting prior to moving on to sharpening.

Lens Vignetting (NOT POST CROP) Amount +36/Midpoint 20 – I have two styles when it comes to vignetting. I either like to have a very subtle darkening vignette when edge and background details are distracting. By very subtle, I literally mean very subtle. I don’t like people to be able to see any vignetting, but rather just a slight darkening of colors. For this reason I use Lens Vignetting in the Lens Corrections panel as opposed to the Post Crop Vignetting in the Effects panel.

The second style of vignetting I use is a reverse vignette to brighten edges when I like the edge detail and I want the image to be bright from the center to the edge. For this image, either would work actually. But, I like the edge detail and the rocks, so I am going to choose to go with a reverse vignette and set my Amount to +36 and my Midpoint to 20 to pull in the edge brightening effect into the center of the image a bit more.

At this point, we are done with our basic corrections and you should have an image that looks like this.


Sharpening Amount 70, Radius 1.5, Detail 30 – From here, all we have left is to sharpen our image. I always get questions on what amount of sharpening is enough? Well, here is the rule of thumb. Take the image, and zoom into 100% by mouse clicking on the image in the workspace. Move over the faces so you can see the faces at 100% size. From here, adjust your sharpening until your edges are defined to your liking. I like my images slightly on the sharper side, so for this image I am going to take my sharpening Amount to 70 with a Radius of 1.5 and Detail of 30.

Now, you should see the final image below. We now have a nice sharp image that pops by simply making a few RAW corrections. Hope you all enjoyed! As always, let me know what you think below!

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Post Production Pye I hate speaking of myself in the third person, haha. I am a Partner and professional photographer with Lin and Jirsa Los Angeles Wedding Photography, and the Senior Editor for SLR Lounge Photography Tutorials. I am passionate about photography as an art as well as my part as an educator in the industry. Subscribe to our YouTube Channel and feel free to hit me up with questions anytime on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Jon M January 9, 2012 09:01 am

    @ JC Dill:

    I'm just starting to learn Lightroom and post-processing RAW files and I have to say I do like your version better. The whites are certainly whiter, blacks blacker (check out the barnacles on the rocks behind the couple) and their tattoos are more clearly visible with higher contrast. The haze/flare from the sun in yours is a little softer and I prefer the original for this but I think as this light progresses through her hair, it gains more in yours.

    Thanks for your alternate version. Lots to learn for me!

  • JC Dill December 24, 2011 05:21 pm

    Your LR edit workflow is interesting, but I go about it an entirely different way.

    I do lens correction (correcting for distortion) first, before anything else.

    Then I ask LR what it thinks should be done (using the Auto exposure button) and I see if it looks like a good starting point. I liked what LR suggested, then I went from there.

    I bumped the Clarity +20 and Vibrance +20
    I Lowered the Tint to -4 and Temp to 4400 (white balance settings).

    I DROPPED the contrast. I pulled it way down, to -3. Not because I don't like the contrast in the image, but because I want to bring it back up another way.

    I boosted the Recovery to 39, and Fill to 16. At this point I'm getting what I want in the highlights and midrange, but the shadows are all washed out. Now I bring up the Black until I get some pure black (black blinkies) and like the saturation and depth in the dark tones. This bring Black to 15.

    I want it a tad brighter, I bring Brightness up from the auto setting (+64) to +70. This washes out my blacks a bit, so I boost the Black a bit more, to 20

    This process tends to bring out a bit too much of the yellows and reds. I go into the HSL panel and drop the saturation on Red -20, Orange -20, Yellow -20

    Final settings:

    Temp 4400
    Tint -4
    Exposure 0.00
    Recovery 39
    Fill 16
    Black 20
    Brightness +70
    Contrast +3
    Clarity +20
    Vibrance +20

    Red -20
    Orange -20
    Yellow -20

    Lens Correction set to the auto profile for this lens.
    Detail set to the Auto settings.

    Here's a screenshot, with your jpeg on the right, my adjustments from the raw file on the left:


    What I like better about my version is that her dress is more white instead of gray, we can see more detail in his shirt, the light is brighter on their bodies and faces, while still retaining the warm glow of the sunset golden hour, and there's just a bit more "pop" in the sharpness and shadows. As always, YMMV.

  • peterbuchanan December 17, 2011 11:05 am

    Well thank you for walking us through that. I am still on my 30 day trail of lightroom and am trying to learn any tips I can using it. Thank you for taking the time to educate me on this. Do u have any other tips that would be helpful to really utilize lightroom so I can see what it truly offers. Lastly , is lightroom in your opinion a good start for me (new to editing) thanks for your tme.

  • Matthew Saville December 7, 2011 07:45 am

    Wow, there are so many elitists on here. Is nothing ever good enough?

    1.) Digital photographs, like it or not, are still just like any film negative- As Ansel Adams says, there is the sheet music, and then the performance. Both are very different things, but it is always the final product that matters. Unless you like to shoot Velvia 50 for portraits, chances are that even your film images needed a little bump to the exposure and contrast, maybe a little boost to the warmth or saturation. In my opinion, purists need to get over this and move on.

    2.) I'm a purist myself, sometimes. I love to capture that perfect frame that looks stunning right out of the camera. I have a handful of blog posts dedicated to this; just google "what does SOOC mean" and I think my blog comes up. So don't get me wrong, I do appreciate the art of the capture. I just think that there is a time and place for such purist philosophy, and for me that is a hobby, not a job.

    3.) This image, and the ones in Pye's other posts, look pretty awesome to me. Maybe I'm biased because I know Pye personally, but I just don't see why certain people seem so bent on ripping apart the tutorials on this site. If they're so terrible, why haven't you made a better one? ;-)

    Take care,

  • Robin December 7, 2011 04:26 am

    Thank You! I reek of newbie with PP, and am looking for more of exactly this. Step by step, this is how you do this, etc, etc, etc. Looking forward to learning more about Lr with this series!

  • susan December 5, 2011 01:28 pm

    too right Chris, it's the pot calling the kettle black if one is using a digital camera at all. and good point about the purists and filters too. PP is the way of the future, gotta be in it to win if you can improve on what has already been captured, i mean ... manipulated.

  • rick stephens December 4, 2011 04:42 am

    thanks for this how-to primer. i have a question on your general workflow process. in the opening paragraph of this article, you mention not adjusting the white balance before the exposure/brightness adjustment. looking at your workflow, i do not see where you adjust the white balance. where in the process should that adjustment be done?

  • Chris December 3, 2011 07:11 am

    Nice job - to the point and effective.

    I agree that post processing is not all evil - it's just one of the many tools we have available to us. Very few good photos haven't been manipulated in some way. I have never understood why something like putting a filter on a lens is somehow legit while adjusting it on the back end isn't. The whole point of today's cameras is to manipulate light, otherwise we would be shooting with a box with a hole in it.

  • KSW December 3, 2011 04:01 am

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate these new ways of thinking about PP. This post opened my eyes to some new approaches, new techniques, and the image was a great one to choose b/c of its more challenging exposure. Thanks also for the tip to not WB straight away.

  • charles taylor December 2, 2011 08:39 pm

    Hi Pye
    Thank you for the article - it was very helpful.
    In the article you wrote: "Before starting our adjustments, I always have a vision of what type of style I think would look best for a particular image. Vintage, Black and White, Poppy High Contrast, Vibrant, etc." I am somewhat of a novice about these things and I wonder if you have ever written anything about types of styles (hopefully with examples) because your quoted statement was a revelation to me. I just never thought about 'style' before, I just edited to try to make my images better than they were initially. I would really appreciate it if you could point me towards some educational articles on the subject.

  • Post Production Pye November 30, 2011 08:40 am

    Tone Curves are awesome, however I typically use them differently in Lightroom than in Photoshop. In Lightroom I am using the tone curve to make minor polishing adjustments (which I will show in future tutorials). Photoshop's Tone Curves are much more powerful and effective for large sweeping adjustments. So, often I use strictly the Tone Curve to correct the image exposure and contrast simultaneously.

  • Rebecca Kowalsky November 29, 2011 08:19 pm

    this was brief VERY informative and instructional and to the point - i learned a lot form this and i have been using LIghtroom for quite a while. thank you

  • Vilhelm November 29, 2011 07:55 am

    Hello Pye. Great tutorial with a nice and simple workflow scheme. Adjusting the black point in a flat image is crucial. However, instead of only exploring the BASIC tools of Lightroom, I often prefer for flat images to adjust using the TONE CURVE tool. Any advice on the best use of a combination of BASIC and TONE CURVE adjustments in Lightroom?

  • Salomanuel November 28, 2011 08:52 pm

    open in photoshop, open curves, set black threshold over the black spots in the woman's hair, set the gray ones over the armpit-shadow
    add +80 vibrance
    and DONE! in less than two minutes

    the article is really overcomplicating things, that's not so necessary
    here is my simple edit

  • Josar Zulu November 27, 2011 08:42 pm

    Very nice tutorial Pye!

    It's nice to learn about other people's workflow and points of view.

  • Dennis Mitchell November 27, 2011 06:37 am

    First up, I use Lightroom. One thing I have started using the vibrance slider for in landscape and old farm structure shots is to get a more subtle desaturation, keeping some reds and greens in the image. Then bring the image closer to a sepia tone using the split tone sliders. I have learned that you can certainly add a lot of noise to you images by applying too much of these processing effects.

  • Derek November 26, 2011 10:10 pm

    Have only recently started shooting in Raw and I'm a convert. For giving a seasonal edge to an Autum shoot you can't beat it. I now use very small adjustments compared to when i had my camera set to jpeg, and like an earlier poster said, you can't always have your lighting gear with you. The whole digital photographer ethos surely is so that you apply post production that wasn't really available in the old days lol

  • Yande November 26, 2011 06:02 am

    Love your article, so detail. If people can do it on Photoshop, than why should you spend your money on photohraphy gear.

  • Warren Bodnaruk November 26, 2011 02:20 am

    Great article & step-by-step workflow! One step I would have liked to have seen mentioned (even though it doesn't necessarily apply to this photo) is cropping. Cropping the image is usually one of the first thing I do and I think it's a good thing to keep top of mind when considering the final 'vision' of the image.

  • Geff November 26, 2011 12:19 am

    I don't normally post comments on this site, but in this circumstance I feel driven too.

    I have a question for peter; what exactly is your dislike with post processing? Is the final result a better picture than the original file, yes or no? The answer is clear; it's a yes, it has more appealing contrast levels, is sharper and is better exposed. You can always argue that the photograph could have been taken better in the first place but that simply is not always the case. Unless you're entire memory card is filled only with A-grade pictures (and I'd like evidence if it is) then the chances of there being a really nice photo, but one that requires some post production to improve it is almost 100% likely. This guide was produced for that reason, to assist people who didn't know how to improve their photos with some post processing. Your comment is simply unnecessary.

  • Jason Teale November 25, 2011 03:14 pm

    Of Course the proper way to get the effect is to use proper light but I think that the purpose of this tutorial is to show how to achieve the same look inside camera raw in case you didn't have your flash with you or simply the lighting didn't turn out the way you wanted.

    All in all the client or whoever sees the shot is not going to care if you did it in photoshop or with the proper lighting as long as it looks good.

  • Scott MC November 25, 2011 03:07 pm

    After converting to jpg and leveling-up for over a year now, this looks kinda interesting....

    This info would be good for saving those 'marginal' shots that are composed well but exposed oddly.

    But I agree with Peter getting it right at the shot saves a whole lot of complications later on.

  • Steve November 25, 2011 01:56 pm

    This file isn't working with Aperture. Anyone else using Aperture that is/isn't having luck?

    Unsupported Image Format

  • Steve November 25, 2011 01:52 pm

    Yeah Pete. Lighten up. But not too much ;)

  • pippyh November 25, 2011 01:17 pm

    Thought it was all about demonstrating a variety of techniques that the less expert of us could use in various circumstances rather than just about the example photo.

    Thanks for this, there's some great information and some things I want to try.

  • Peggy November 25, 2011 01:00 pm

    Thanks do much for the great tips!! These are very helpful. I have a question about the order of your post processing... The one thing I noticed was that wasn't mentioned was changing the image to black & white. Do you have a different workflow for the images that are charged to b&w? Do you change them before or after you make your other changes? I'd love to know your thoughts! Thanks!!

  • Kaylene November 25, 2011 11:20 am

    Peter you are such a downer. Lighten up, this is a great tip for people who actually care to learn about it. Take your soapbox elsewhere.

  • Willam J Dochertaigh November 25, 2011 06:24 am

    A very good and very useful article. The techniques and process can be utilized in many applications, not just on a golden hour pp. I especially liked the way the steps were explained as examples or guidelines, not a strict recipe to be followed exactly. That will get folks with less experience into finding their own style thru their own developed techniques
    I am a PS Elements owner, though ACD Pro has been my daily 'go to' program for cataloging, PP, conversion, raw edit, etc - i was glad to see it including on here as it is often overlooked. My ACD history goes back many years, but i'm not stuck in that rut by habit, it provides me with a smooth workflow process.

  • Alignm2 November 25, 2011 06:16 am

    I have to go along with Dok (although less pejoratively); we always don't have the whole package with us when we get a good grab opportunity. Post production definitely has a place in today's digital world. As for the Golden Hour ... great shots when the opportunity is there, but sometimes clouds and life gets in the way of my lighting.

  • Peter November 25, 2011 05:01 am


    No I do not, but if I wanted high contrast photos then I would not take them during the golden hour.
    People go all out to get soft light during the golden hour, so why ruin them in post production.
    The photographer could have upped the contrast with the use of flash. Not the whle arsenal there.

  • Mark C November 25, 2011 04:44 am

    Great article, not really shot much in raw

  • dok November 25, 2011 04:34 am

    Yeah right Peter, do you who always carry your whole photographic arsenal with you ?

  • Peter November 25, 2011 03:22 am

    If you want a Poppy High Contrast Look then use Poppy High Contrat Lighting.
    Don't fake it in post production.