The Lightroom vignette tool is like adding a bit of spice to your favorite meal. Without a bit (but not too much) garlic, basil, thyme, or other even salt, your food might taste bland. Add too much, and it can ruin the whole thing. In a way, the vignette effect does the same job. It adds a bit of spice, flavor, and panache, to give your photos that little extra push over the cliff. It turns them from mediocre to magnificent. If you want to unlock its full potential, it’s important to understand what it does and see how, when applied to different pictures, it can dramatically affect the final output.
Vignette effects are nothing new to photography. The word itself has French origins. It refers to the wavy lines that would appear like vines (or in French, Vignes) drawn around page edges marking the beginning or end of a book chapter. Over time the word was adopted by artists and photographers to refer to the gradual fade or darkening of an image near its edges.
While vignettes can be distracting if implemented poorly, they can result in a pleasing artistic effect when applied like spices when cooking. The outcome is akin to laying a reverse darkened oval across an image so that the corners and edges of the picture are a little darker. This method also serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the center. You’re basically trying to achieve the Goldilocks balance where it’s not too much and not too little, but just right.
Understanding the Vignette Options
The first step in using Vignette is simply locating it. You’ll find it in the Effects panel on the right-hand side of the Lightroom Develop module. You’re presented with an option to choose a particular style along with five sliders that help you fine-tune the vignette to taste. All of this happens after your image cropping has been applied, so if you use a vignette and then re-crop your image the vignette changes to suit your new crop.
There are three options for the Style of vignette:
- Highlight Priority – Ensures that the bright areas of the image blend more smoothly with the darker areas. The downside here is it can make areas of the image with a lot of colors appear a little strange.
- Color Priority – The opposite of Highlight Priority, this style makes sure that color is preserved across the vignette. However, it can make the bright areas have some jarring shifts.
- Paint Overlay – This is a blunt instrument. It just darkens the image where the vignette is applied, with no attention paid to highlights or colors.
If you’re not sure which of these to use, I recommend sticking with Highlight Priority. Both that and Color Priority produce similar results which are not unlike the Burn option in Photoshop (which itself mimics the process of selectively over-exposing parts of an image when developing film in a darkroom). These two also let you use the Highlights slider at the bottom which helps you recover some of the brighter portions of the image that are darkened with a vignette, whereas Paint Overlay disables the Highlights slider entirely.
In addition to the style of vignette, you have additional options that allow you to precisely control how the effect is implemented.
- Amount – How much vignette is applied. Moving this to the left adds a dark vignette while sliding it to the right adds a white vignette.
- Midpoint – The degree to which the vignette reaches the middle of the image. All the way to the left results in much more of the vignette reaching the center, whereas all the way to the right keeps the vignette at the most extreme edges and corners. If you’re not sure what to do, just leave this in the middle.
- Roundness – All the way to the left makes the vignette into more of a rectangle. Leave it in the middle for an oval-shaped vignette. Slide it all the way to the right to make your vignette a circle.
- Feather – How smoothly the dark areas blend with the light areas. All the way to the left results in a harsh edge and all the way to the right gives you a nice smooth blend.
If you don’t want to over-complicate things you can leave all these sliders at their default values and you’ll be fine. However, they are fun to experiment with over time to get just the right look you are going for.
This tool is easy to explore on your own but looking at how it affects a black and white grid may give you a better understanding of what is happening. I used the Paint Overlay instead of Highlight or Color Priority because in a simple black-and-white grid Paint Overlay gives the clearest visual representation of how the vignette is applied. The left side of each is the original un-edited grid while the right side is the same image with a vignette applied. The settings used for each one are described in the caption.
Notice how the vignette gradually fades from dark to light, with the center portion of the image on the right being the exact same brightness as the grid on the left with no vignette applied.
With the midpoint set all the way to 0, the unaffected portion of the vignette is concentrated in the middle with the edges and corners being uniformly dark. This highlights the center portion alone but there is very little fade-out between that and the vignette.
The midpoint here remains the same but there is now a more gradual fade-out to the darkened portions thanks to an increase in feathering.
Reducing the feathering to 0 makes the vignette clearly visible with virtually no gradation in how it is applied. I would never use this on an actual photo, but it is useful to understand how the vignette function operates.
Setting the roundness to +100 gives you a vignette that is a perfect circle instead of a more oval shape. It’s important to remember that vignettes are applied after cropping, so if you start with a square image then you will have a circular vignette even with the roundness value set to its default value of +50.
Hopefully, these graphics give you a better understanding of how the vignette effect works. However, to really see it in action, it helps to look at what happens when it’s applied to actual photographs instead of just a blank grid.
Almost any photo-editing app will let you apply a vignette, but with the extensive tools available in Lightroom you can customize your vignette to do precisely what you want and shape your viewers’ perception of an image in a very specific way. If you control parameters like midpoint and feathering, in addition to the amount, you can create vignettes that impart certain overtones and even emotions and transform your humble images in to works of art.
The above image looks fine on its own, and the viewer’s attention is meant to be drawn to the droplet of water right in the middle, but there are other portions of the image competing for attention. Adding a vignette completely changes the mood of the scene and makes the viewer feel like they are in a much more intimate setting. Notice how, with the darkened corners, your eye gets immediately drawn to the center and not to the edges at all.
Vignettes can be used to eliminate distractions in the edges of the frame as well, and in doing so draw the viewer’s attention to the subject in the center. In this image below, there is a fence on the top-right and a black climbing rope on the top-left. They don’t really add much substance to the image and instead can take your attention away from the rabbit in the middle.
One way to solve this is by adding a vignette. Through some tweaking of the parameters, the end result is an image that still contains the fence and the rope but makes them far less prominent while focusing your attention squarely on the bunny.
I do a lot of family pictures for clients in my city, and one of the final touches I’ll add to most of my pictures is a simple vignette. It’s often very subtle, usually only -10 or -15, but depending on the Style (Highlight or Color Priority), I might need to add more and then tweak it with the sliders. Below is an image with no vignette applied. While it’s fine on its own, the subjects are competing with the bright edges and corners for your attention.
A Color Priority vignette helps maintain the integrity of the colors while darkening them a little, and then I brought back some of the highlights particularly in the top-right corner by adjusting the Highlights slider to 10.
One thing I didn’t mention in this article is positive Amount values, which make the edges of the frame brighter instead of darker. In my years as a photographer, I can’t think of a single instance in which I have used this option, and I don’t know anyone else who uses it on a regular basis either (editor’s note: it may be used it in high-key photography). You may find instances in which you want to make the outer portions of your image brighter instead of darker and, if so, then positive Amount values would do the trick. Just know that it’s easy to overdo it and the results can sometimes come across as a little cheesy and forced.
These examples and explanations are designed to give you a better understanding of what the vignette effect does and how it impacts an image. I encourage you to try it out for yourself. Use the different sliders and style options and notice how they affect the vignette which, in turn, can have a profound impact on your image as a whole. Just remember the cooking analogy: you don’t want too much vignette, nor do you want too little. Strive to get it just right, and your pictures could take on a whole new life.
Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.