Sunday, November 23, 2014

Editing a Night Photo in Lightroom

In this post I am going to step you through how I edited a photo I took last night to arrive at the photo above. As I mentioned before, I use Adobe Lightroom 5 (affiliate link). By no means is this the only way to edit a night photo, nor is this the "right" order to process images. Try your own way! OK, here we go.

I took this photo last night at Waverley Street in Winnipeg. It was a little after 7 PM and definitely dark outside, although there was a lot of ambient light from city lights and a nearby billboard.  These are the camera settings I used to take the photo:
Note that I locked the ISO to 400. If I had left it at AUTO my camera would have used ISO 1600 and the noise would have been terrible. I always override the ISO at night or low light, and with my T1i I find the noise is too much at ISO 800+ so I keep it at 400. I chose 1/80s for the shutter speed to strike a balance between sharpness and light. I probably could have gone down to 1/30s as I do have steady hands.

Here's how it looked in Lightroom when I first imported the RAW file. I always shoot in RAW format rather than JPG format as there is a lot more detail in a RAW file, which is especially important in night photography.

Here's a couple of things to note about the interface. On the left there is a section called "History" where Lightroom documents every change you make to the image. This is one great benefit of Lightroom - changes are non-destructive and you can always go back. On the right are the various sliders and controls used to edit the image. So far all I've done is import it.

First, we apply the lens profile.

It didn't do much - you'll see the corners are a bit brighter and it corrected for lens distortion a bit. I was using my Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens as that is the most light-sensitive lens I have. The f/1.8 indicates the aperture will open up as much as 50/1.8=27.78 mm. If it was, say, f/4 then the lens would open up only to 12.5 mm in diameter, which means a lot less light would come in to the sensor. Low f numbers are better for low light and night photography.

I always apply the lens profile and you should too. You'll really see a difference when using a wide angle lens, especially a cheap kit lens like my 18-55mm lens, because there is a lot of distortion when shooting at 18mm. The horizon lines are not straight until you apply the profile!

Anyway, the next step is to adjust the exposure.

I brought it up quite a bit to get it reasonably bright. You can't keep cranking the exposure because the noise of the photo really starts to show. Click on any image to view them larger to really see the noise.

You might notice that the colours are a little "off". A very important step is to apply the right white balance.

Here I clicked on that eye-dropper highlighted at right and clicked on the white stripe on the engine just to the right of the number. You're telling Lightroom "this is white" and then Lightroom will adjust the rest of the image. At night your camera has a really hard time determining what "white" is so the white balance is often wrong. You'll see this with winter scenes too because the expanse of snow fools the sensor and you end up with very dull, gray photos until you adjust the white balance. This is not something new with digital cameras - your camera processor (or you in the darkroom) would adjust the development based on the ambient lighting.

Now it's time to crop and straighten. Here I am in the middle of leveling the image.

In the next screen capture, you'll see I cropped out the truck and post and fiddled with it for a while to get it level.

Next I worked on the shadows.

This was a subtle edit. You'll see a bit more detail in the trucks and underside of the locomotive.

Next I adjusted the vibrance.

In Lightroom you have two options to change the intensity of colour in the photo, vibrance and saturation. I almost always use vibrance. The difference is that saturation adjusts all of the colours while vibrance tries to preserve skin tones. I find that boosting the vibrance makes a photo more vivid without looking unrealistic.

Now we have to deal with the noise. Here I opened the Detail pane and you can see how much grain / noise is present in the image.

The luminance slider is what I use for noise reduction. I fiddled with a couple of settings, as you'll see.

That's the finished image. You can crank the noise reduction higher but what you'll find is that it looks too plastic and you lose a lot of detail. If you ever see selfies where the person looks very plastic, that's too much "skin smoothing" which is basically the same thing, averaging pixels to try to remove dots and imperfections.

I hope you enjoyed this little romp through my photo editing workflow!


Unknown said...

Excellent post Steve. Just what I was looking for after trying to move from Aperture to Lightroom. Needless to say it didn't go to well. I was attempting to import Aperture into Lightroom and I think I ended up in Lightroom mobile??? I started out with the 30 day free trial. Course by default all my photos end up in iPhoto to start.

What do you charge for one on one tutoring.?
I think your post generated more questions than answers for me, anyways.

So when you are using Lightroom or Aperture or whatever imaging software, do you always by default move from top down in altering the image. In other words, you would start with white balance, exposure and then highlights and shadows?
And do you necessarily stop at each adjustment and fiddle with it? I realize a lot of the adjustments are subjective, and each person sees a photo in his or her own eyes. Guess I'll have to go back to the ;)
As I mentioned from the outset...great post. I think you need to include some more "How To's" for us newbies to photo post editing.

Thanks Steve

Glen ( Busman )

Canadian Train Geek said...

Hi Glen, I think Adobe is trying to get everyone to sign up for LR Mobile. I'll probably sign up at some point but I haven't yet.

I'll get back to you about tutoring.

Usually I do move from top to bottom and I think that's how Adobe intended it. I don't touch every setting - I rarely touch White and Black, for example - but I do touch most of them. I have a preset (a set of settings, if you will) that I use for most images to give them a starting tweak and then I work from there.

I agree that photos are subjective and it all depends on what you are trying to achieve in the end. There's quite a difference in adjustments between trying to represent precisely what you saw and trying for a particular "look" like a spectacular sunset.

I'll keep posting the editing tips. I've found that is the area that I needed the most improvement - after I took the photo.

Unknown said...

Hey Steve,

Managed to "re enter" Lightroom, after getting stuck in Lightroom mobile. How in the heck I managed to stumble down that worm hole, Lord knows.
Anyways, I took a few more pics and attempted once again to adjust and tweak some imbalances and I somehow managed to find my way thru that maze...though I'm not entirely sure I could find my way back again. Should have left a trail of bread crumbs I suppose.
On my Nikon D7000, I have 2 slots for memory cards. And I have 2 cards in place. Right now I have my settings set to, RAW + Jpeg fine...RAW in slot 1 and Jpeg(fine) in slot 2. Burn thru lots of memory in a hurry.
Right now I need to figure or reconfigure how the photos get uploaded into Lightroom directly as opposed to going thru iPhoto and Aperture. The answer is out there somewhere.
Keep the tips and tricks coming Steve.
You can be my