Enhancing a night scene in Lightroom

Now that we are in the digital age I still hear that mantra repeated time and again. Unfortunately it's usually followed with some reference to not needing to do any post processing or some other such nonsense. That should tell you my feelings on that.

To prove it, I have decided to show you some post processing on an image that was done right in the camera. I normally start off showing the finished product first, but in this case I'll start with the before image. You can see that it's a pretty decent shot. Exposure is good, composition is nice, we have a nice light trail leading into our frame; a simple, quiet scene of a neighborhood bar on a corner. This is how it looks like with no editing.

As with all your edits it should start with an analysis of the obvious. In this example there really is very little, but very little doesn't mean none. Again, I want to remind you that this is my interpretation for this image. You may or may not agree with some of my choices, that's up to you and how you see things. Hopefully by following what I do here you'll get some insight into the tools.

So, what do I see wrong? For one, the colors are a bit muted. From experience, most images can benefit from a bump up to the blacks. Personally I always add some clarity (+40) and vibrancy (+20) to almost all my images.

Since this little tweak alters the blacks and the color saturation I prefer to do this step first before adjusting anything else. I do this automatically with a preset. I also use a preset to correct any lens corrections. I feel one of the greatest attributes about Lightroom is its ability to create and use presets just about everywhere in the program. After using Lightroom for a while you will begin to see some repetitive actions in your editing. This is when you should make a preset. Let Lightroom take over the hard work.

Because this is a night shot I want to really emphasize the atmosphere. My next step is to cool the colors down by shifting the temperature into the blue. Since the reds look pretty good I opt not to touch the tint slider.

From here I work on normalizing my exposure. I check both my black andwhite clipping and adjust the sliders appropriately. My preferred method is to use the ALT (CMD on Mac) key in conjunction with the black and white sliders. This shows your clipping mask and makes adjusting easier. Another way is to activate the blinkies by clicking on the two triangles in the upper left and right of the histogram. All that's left is for a slight adjustment on the shadow and highlights sliders. Remember the goal is to maintain and enhance the feeling of night.

The image is already looking so much better. The blue evening sky is more vibrant, the red of the tail lights really come forth and the car has lost some of its transparency. Even the roadway pops out a bit more, which may be a problem. Remember that global changes affect the entire image. In this case I was looking to affect the sky and the lights. Because they are global changes it also affected the road, the trees, the building and everything else. That's okay too because we want the entire image to have a consistent look to it. Let's continue.

To add to the feeling of night and also enhance the fact that were are looking at a location that's inhabited by people enjoying their night life I felt that the bar entrance was too dark and uninviting. Keeping in mind that our eye goes to bright areas first I thought it appropriate to brighten up the entrance and awning of the corner bar.

Using a broad brush I paint the area of the entryway and the front of the lit awning. I then adjust the exposure slider until I find a brightness that looks natural. Don't worry about your feathered edges too much. Light spills all over so brightening the top of the vehicle in front of the building isn't going to appear off. Just make sure you get all the areas you want brightened. In darkroom speak this is called dodging.

Now we're looking pretty good. The only thing that bothers me is the large expanse of roadway in the lower left part of the frame. It's picking up and reflecting a lot of the ambient light. All that open expanse is crowding the right side of the frame too.

For broad areas the gradient tool tends to work well. In this case a gradient from the lower left corner pulled into the center of the image works best with a reduction in exposure. Think of it like adding a vignette just into this one corner. It helps pull the eye out of the corner and back to our restaurant.

At this point I could call it quits and be happy. I like the star burst effect of the lights but I'm wondering if the street light behind the traffic light is too much. Since everything done in Lightroom is non-destructive I can experiment and not worry about making mistakes.

I am also still not happy with all that road in the foreground. As I mentioned before, it makes it look all squashed up into the right part of the image. I decide to try a crop. If I don't like it, I can always remove it.

I open up the crop tool and pull my frame in from the left until the light pole with the questionable light is removed from view. Looking at the final composition I think I like the cropped version. All that's left is to export the final image.

Overall you can see that not a lot was done to the original. What was done was also very subtle and in keeping with the goal of the image which was to express a warm inviting look to a neighborhood tavern at night.

The original image was shot on a tripod at 100 ISO with an aperture of f/22. The small aperture is what gives the lights that star burst effect. Don't forget to leave your comments below. Hope you enjoyed.