The Oldest Trick in the Book

Why does this image seem to "pop" off the background? I used the oldest trick in the book!

My main mission here at Luminescence of Nature is to educate photographers. To that end, there’s always lots of discussion about camera settings, RAW converters, and software settings. But even though we live in the digital age, there are some old tricks that just work. The difference is knowing how to apply the effect in your software of choice.

The effect I’m talking about is corner shading, or vignetting. This was the old darkroom trick of “burning”  or “dodging” the edges of the frame to draw attention to the center of the image. This technique can be applied via a variety of tools in your digital darkroom, but the concept is simple. Your eye is subconsciously drawn to bright, colorful, contrasty areas, and conversely avoids dark, low-contrast, low-color areas in a scene. What’s great about this effect is that it need not be applied so strong as to be obvious, and yet it still delivers a powerful impact. Let’s take a look at three different ways to apply a vignette effect in post-processing.

Method #1: Traditional Vignette Effect

The traditional vignette effect is a darkening or lightening of the image borders, often in a particular shape (circular or rectangular). When applied, this effect is often quite noticeable, and it’s a popular technique for making “vintage” or “antique” style images.

Depending on the software you use, you might have a built-in vignette tool, like Lightroom’s “Post-Crop Vignetting,” or the ability to use selection masks to darken or lighten the image boundaries. Alternatively, you might consider using a plug-in, like Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4 or Silver Efex Pro 2, to produce the vignette effect automatically. Either way, you’ll end up with something like this:

The original image, with no effects applied. Note the distracting background elements.
Vignette applied with Color Efex Pro 4. Note the obvious oval shape.

Method #2: Subtle Vignette Effect

The subtle vignette effect is effectively a variant of the traditional effect described above, but in this example, the shape of the effect is not so strong as to be noticeable. In fact, this trick works well when you combine it with a brightening of the center of your image (or main subject area). In Photoshop, you can get this effect by applying a curves adjustment locally using an adjustment layer and brush. The effect works best if you use Luminosity blending mode on your adjustment layer so that you won’t get odd color shifts in your image. Alternatively, I like to use the Darken/Lighten Center filter in Color Efex Pro 4 to easily apply this effect.

I used the "Darken/Lighten Center" filter in Color Efex Pro 4 to create a more refined look.

Method #3: Local Contrast & Color Adjustments with Control Points

If you use Nikon’s Capture NX2 or have Nik’s Viveza 2 plug-in, you can easily modify local brightness, contrast, and color with Control Points. Simply place a Control Point on the area you wish to enhance, and slightly increase the brightness, contrast, and (depending on the scene) saturation sliders. Conversely, apply Control Points to the area(s) you wish to diminish, and dial down the brightness, contrast and saturation. You’ll often find that you don’t need to make strong adjustments to get a noticeable effect. This method also works great in images where you have a distracting object in the foreground or background. Just place a Control Point on the offending object, dial down its brightness, contrast, and saturation a tad, and it will immediately become less distracting.

I used Control Points in Capture NX 2.3 to diminish the appearance of the background elements without creating a "shaped" vignette.

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7 thoughts on “The Oldest Trick in the Book”

  1. Hey, “OLD” darkroom trick? Are you calling me old? I learned that technique back in the days of black and white film. You’ve heard of that, right? :-)

  2. You are spot on, Jason. I use vignettes all the time to remove distracting background elements. One of the great tricks if you don’t own fast glass ;-)

  3. I achieve my vignettes using a straightforward and effective 3-step approach:
    Add a new soft-light layer and fill with black
    Using a huge soft brush, in turn erase from each corner to just past the centre of its long edge.
    Drop the layer’s opacity to 50% or so.
    This will lave a nice “hole” in the centre but you can vary the size of the eraser, its opacity and the strokes you use to suit particular circumstances.

    Try it :)

  4. I’ve used similar techniques to great success using the “Colorize” tool in Capture NX2. Set blending mode to “multiply” and use a very soft brush and feather it out.

  5. @Jason: great tip about using luminosity blending mode to avoid color shifts!

    @Highton: filling with black also avoids a color shift, nice.

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