The Dave Hill Look in Lightroom

The Dave Hill Look in Lightroom

Dave Hill is a genius. Period. I could look at his images all day long and his behind the scenes videos are strangely addictive. Naturally, thousands want to create his hyper-real, painterly, utterly hypnotising look on their images.

The first observation one can make about his method is the painstaking attention to lighting during the shoot. In the final product, the lighting and contrast make the images what they are. This can’t be done without interesting lighting.

Of course after being engrossed in his work for far too long, I said, “I MUST know how he does that?!” I didn’t find anything from him personally, but there are plenty of photographers out there tearing the method apart and sharing their findings. The first tutorial I ran across was for PS using high pass filters. I got stuck at the end with the masking layer since I’m still only using PSE.

But have no fear PSE users! I found a really great method for creating the Dave Hill look in Lightroom from, who else, Scott Kelby. The following suggestions are his. My additions are in italics.


  • Recovery = 100
  • Fill Light = 100 this doesn’t always work at 100 it depends on the image – you’ll have to experiment
  • Blacks = Drag this slider to the right until photo looks balanced again, because setting the Fill Light at 100 will wash the photo out big time. In our example, I dragged it to 24. I haven’t been able to get the blacks all the way up to 24. In the example image, I went only to 17
  • Contrast = 100
  • Clarity = 100
  • Vibrance = 100
  • Saturation = -81 (basically what I do here is drag the saturation all the way to the left, to -100 (which removes all color, making it a black and white image), and then I slowly drag back to the right until some of the color starts to return to the image. In my image, I took it down to -61, leaving it a bit more colourful than suggested. I just love the red of the pushchair.


Once you get the look the way you want it, head over to the adjustment brush. In Dave’s work, the models always have silky smooth skin, even the blokes. You can use to pre-set ‘soften skin’ brush. When you’ve done the skin, click ‘new’ and do another soften skin brush. In this image, I used 5 or 6 new skin softening brushes before his skin was smooth enough. Even then, it probably could have used more:

Once it’s finished in LR, I headed into PS and did a simple duplicate layer > soft light > very low percent (around 10%) just to add to the contrast. You could even add a gaussian blur to the top layer to soften the image a tad bit more.

I don’t remember if Scott mentioned this or not, but a vignette can be excellent, especially in the case of intentional barrel distortion as in the image above.

One thing I’ve found with this method in LR is the problem of severe fringing of some of the more contrasty edges as seen here:

No matter what I do to alter the sliders, this does not go away. A biproduct of doing this method in LR, you’re better off finding ways to do it in PS if you have the resource. If not, you can just pretend it doesn’t exist like I do. I really should try harder to be a perfectionist!

Are there other photographers whose skills you totally covet and try to harness for yourself?

Read more from our Post Production category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Chris March 24, 2010 10:10 am

    Nice work, not quite there but definitely interesting and wow, some of you folks are really critical. Quite an homage to an artist to be referenced and imitated.

  • andy the photographer March 23, 2010 01:51 pm

    Interesting technique. Thanks for sharing

  • angie March 20, 2010 08:46 am

    I also don't think that the examples are close to Dave Hill. They rather seem to show a lot of the post production overkill. Especially the vignetting. Wasn't that so 1999?

  • Mauricio Miret March 18, 2010 10:37 pm

    I really don't like Dave Hill look. I think the photos you posted here are better than Dave's. Good work!! and great tips.

  • Rick Farmer March 15, 2010 11:33 pm

    Great tutorial except you left out how to use the soften brush tool in Lightroom. Found a tutorial here...

  • enrolled agent exam March 13, 2010 05:31 am

    I guess I need to check out "Dave Hill".

  • Steve A March 12, 2010 08:33 pm


    I have never ever seen anyone successfully recreate "the dave hill look" and after reading this "tutorial" i have to say that I still have never ever seen anyone successfully recreate "the dave hill look"

    for a web site with such high readership I would have thought that darren rowse would have had a slightly better quality filter on the articles that get posted here, given how many people are going to read this bad information.

    providing specific settings that you happened to use on one or a few photos is not a tutorial.
    you mention "painstaking attention to lighting" - i wondered what painstaking lengths you went to when you shot your examples? They are both taken in diffuse light and have very little contrast. The one of the kid is underexposed too. Dave hills portraits seem to center more around the use of hard light and contrast.


  • Colin Cubitt March 12, 2010 09:36 am

    Interesting article and comments.
    Regarding the severe fringing.. it can be minimized by keeping the "clarity" slider as low as possible for the image in question.

  • Nick Grove March 12, 2010 04:55 am

    Very nice! I'm going to try that.

  • Stuart Little March 12, 2010 04:28 am

    This is nowhere near the Dave Hill look and Dave Hill must be sick of everyone trying to emulate what is mostly great lighting, great photography and a bit of post. If you check out his latest work, you will see he has moved away from the "Dave Hill" look that everyone seems to chase like the Holy Grail.

  • Whalebone March 10, 2010 06:46 am

    A great article, thanks!
    There was a tutorial in a magazine on how to create a similar effect as that acheived by Saul Leiter. He used to use cheap, out-of-date film, which gave fascinating colours and contrast. His pictures are awsome.

    Unfortunately I cannot find the magazine, so if anyone knows the method, please share.

  • hfng March 8, 2010 08:51 pm

    Love the effect! Congrats on your glacier cake ... and not being pregnant ;)

  • e.n. March 8, 2010 06:09 pm

    I don't think the Dave Hill effect can be achieved with a filter, or some simple settings in Photoshop/Lightroom.
    My approach to this (it's still not the Dave Hill effect, but I think it's closer than what is in this tutorial) is this:
    You have to create for each object in the scene a new layer (you select that object with the color selection tool).

    So here is:
    1. Duplicate the base layer
    2. Select an object with color selection tool
    3. Create from this a mask
    4. Add some gaussian blur to this mask
    5. Create on this a curves layer and change this to clipping mask (right click menu on the layer)
    6. Now you can adjust the contrast only for that portion of the scene you selected
    7. Do this for all elements on the scene

    The best way to increase the contrast for a selected object is to check first the average luminosity for that object and to use that luminosity point as the center of the S curve in the curves layer. This is different usually and this is the reason you cant do a global contrast to the scene (actually this is a local contrast technique).

    Actually the tutorial described on this page is also a local contrast technique but you don't get that magazine type look as you see on Dave Hill photos.

  • Darren March 8, 2010 08:49 am

    I cannot get this to work right. I adjust the {settings} and it looks whacked. Is there a 'Dave Hill' preset available?

  • Blaze Jaffe March 8, 2010 01:58 am

    Thanks for the article! I am a new age photographer, while I don't like heavy photo shoping it DOES have its place in the industry. Especially in advertising, which is where most of Dave Hill's "processed" work is done.

    I love his work, it's edgy and modern and it's what a lot of clients want. And if you want to succeed you better give the paying clients what they want! haha!

    I love photography in any shape or form, the various methods and styles are what make such a great art form! If you dont like someones art, there is no need to bash on it or talk down about it.

    Most important on that note I think everyone should remember is that someone somewhere doesn't like your images either...

  • Kevin Halliburton March 8, 2010 12:58 am

    Thank you for putting so much work into sharing your methods. Very generous of you.

    Another photographer worth checking out for his hyper realistic imagery is Tim Tadder (aka: the Lighting Gangster). They are both powerful story tellers which I believe is the supreme skill worth mastering.

  • Jon McGovern March 7, 2010 09:43 pm

    Although I agree that the Dave Hill "look" relies strongly on lighting, for photographers without six studio lights, this is the best way I've come across to get the "look". Thanks for posting :-)

  • F.C. March 7, 2010 09:13 pm

    I have to say... no, it's not, really.

    It's a nice effect, but unfortunately all that can be done without so many adjustments and any resulting artifacting.

    It looks to me like he's using something similar to an unsharp masking tool.

  • James March 7, 2010 07:58 pm

    Very cool ideas, maybe not quite the "Dave Hill" look, but very nice results, just tried it in aperture 3, and can even save it as an adjustment preset.

  • Karen Stuebing March 7, 2010 07:48 pm

    It's a very nice effect even if people don't think it's the Dave Hill look.

    We learn by emulating photographers we like and trying new things with post processing. JMO.

    I always try out the workflows I read about here on DPS. Sometimes, they work. Sometimes, they don't. But when trying them, I usually pick something up I didn't know and file it away for further reference..

    I think the results look better than the original so you do have a nice action there.

  • LCS March 7, 2010 02:44 pm

    there is no Dave Hill filter. sorry. stop searching for one.

  • Pablo March 7, 2010 02:34 pm

    This is more or less just a few adjustments with increased contrast. You cannot achieve the "Dave Hill Look" in post-production, so why belittle your readers by pretending they can?

  • OsmosisStudios March 7, 2010 01:12 pm

    This isn't the Dave Hill look. At all.

  • geoff March 7, 2010 12:49 pm

    this is kind of fun to watch though:

  • Mikel Daniel March 7, 2010 12:00 pm

    That is a name I had hope I'd never see ever again. Spawned far too many absolutely horrible knockoffs. These examples aren't quite the Dave Hill look. As Alastair said, a lot of it has to do with his lighting which is often a very harsh off camera light used to accentuate the edges, followed up by some heavy Photoshop post processing.

  • thekevinmonster March 7, 2010 11:56 am

    You can actually mask in PSE.

    I've used it before and it works! It let me implement a selective orton effect very easily and effectively.

  • almostinfocus March 7, 2010 10:00 am

    I can appreciate what Dave Hill does, although I can't say I really like it. And I'm going to have to agree that neither of the examples look much like Dave Hill's work. His work looks like it was achieved through careful lighting and HDR. These examples look like exaggerated mid-tones, like a compact camera set on "vivid" or something similar. Which isn't to say that that look can't be effective (or affective), but it's not similar to the "Dave Hill look".

  • malinda julien March 7, 2010 09:53 am

    where is this "skin softening" preset brush under "brush adjustments"?

  • steve schmidt March 7, 2010 09:35 am

    I quite like the processing in these examples. However, Dave Hill's work looks way too digital and artificial to me...

  • Jesper Revald March 7, 2010 08:47 am

    I must agree with Alastair. I have succeeded in creating something that looks a little Dave Hill like by special attention to the lighting. Other times I've failed miserably. :) I find that you need strong "kicker lights" i.e. lights from the sides to make it work better, not too soft but rather hard edged light. Like it says in the article - it's all about the contrast. As Elizabeth also mentions, you can easily screw things up in Lightroom, so if you can do it in PS, then by all means - do that!

    Examples where it worked fairly ok for me (without even using the soften skin process):

    A side note: This look, interesting as it may be, is on a fast track to becoming "so last year". Too many people use it these days and much like HDR, it's unfortunately too easy to overdo. No doubt that 10 years from now, you can look at one of these photos and say "hey, that one was most likely shot in 2009 " :-)

  • scott March 7, 2010 08:40 am

    I agree with Alastair. You have something interesting, but I would not be calling it the Dave Hill look.

  • Alastair Moore March 7, 2010 07:59 am

    To be honest, the examples above don't really have the "Dave Hill" look at all. I think much of the Dave Hill look is about the lighting and unless you start with that, you'll never get the "Dave Hill look". That said, I do like the processing you've done on these photos.

  • Jesse Kaufman March 7, 2010 06:40 am

    love this look! thanks for the Lightroom settings ... now, to translate them to Aperture 3 ..............

  • Dan B March 7, 2010 06:05 am

    Great tutorial! Thanks, Elizabeth!