Golden Girl: A Lightroom Tutorial on Making Your Own Golden Hour


While out hiking this weekend a little before noon, I managed to snag a few shots of my daughter. At two, she’s not into posing, and she REFUSES to look at me when I have the camera pointed her way. Probably more importantly, we never make it out during those beautiful golden hours after sunrise and before sunset, and I never carry reflectors on hikes. So when I get a photo of her where she wasn’t running away and not making a crazy face (actually I keep the crazy faced ones too!), I decided to work on it a bit in Lightroom to see where I could take it.

This was my starting point:


Yeah, those are bones on her sweatshirt, and yes, the lighting was terrible.

The first things I played with were the exposure, white balance, tone, and color settings. I went with a cooler white balance because I liked how it made her skin look and then desaturated the greens and blues. I also increased the luminance of the oranges and reds to really get her skin to pop.


Next up was adding some split-toning and vignetting. I chose a peachy-yellow highlight. The split-toning itself adds a lot of gold to the photo, but it’s hard to control. I would have preferred to stay away from vignetting in this photo, but at the time I was just trying to minimize the glaring bones on the sweatshirt, so I went with as minimal a vignette as I could get away with.


This is a marked improvement over the original, I’d say, and if I were in Lightroom version 2, this is where my edits would have ended. But thankfully we now have the brush tool!

The first step was to deal with the face. The photo itself was quite underexposed as shot, and I wanted to really get a summery, bright vibe, so I used the brush to increase the exposure of just the face by almost 2 full stops. I also increased the contrast, decreased the highlights, upped the shadows to show detail and added a peachy color cast:


Those changes got me here:


Her eyes were showing the effects of both the split-toning and that peachy color cast from the last step, so I used a brush to specifically desaturate the whites of her eyes and to increase the highlights (the new brush is the white circle with the black circle inside; the open circle denotes the brush used in the step above):


Afterwards, her eyes looked like this:


With her face brightened and whitened, I wanted to take care of the background next. I shot this at f/2.8 with a 100mm lens, but the background wasn’t the prettiest, so I decided to play around with the clarity slider and de-clarify the background as much as possible. Clarity is probably the most abused slider in my repertoire, but it can really make for some gritty, lively photos when used judiciously, and I almost always only increase clarity. But as I said, I was playing around and decided to do the opposite to this background. However, painting the brush too close to her hair made it glow like a halo, so I had to carefully paint in broad strokes with lots of feathering around her head, so that hopefully there would be no noticeable effect on her hair.


The effect wasn’t dramatic, but it did soften some of the sticks and straight lines in the background:


Next I wanted to add that golden glow, and for it to be uniform across the background, I had to use a new brush that allowed me to get right up the hair outline. So I used a new brush that changed the temperature of the affected areas (which can help make some elements pop out), decreased the contrast (the way it’d be if this had really been shot at 5pm vs. noon), decreased the highlights so I wouldn’t overpower the center of attention – the face, increased the shadows to give it more of a flat look, and added a goldeny-peach color cast.


This resulted in what would pretty much be the final version:


All that was left was to remove an annoying dark spot over her ear and to try to mitigate the presence of those bones. I used a new brush for both jobs. And I ended up with this: