Downton Penelope

When it comes to photographing a toddler, you (hopefully) end up with photos like these…





…but you will SURELY end up with photos like these:

downton_funny-3 downton_funny-2 downton_funny

Last Leaf: From Original to Finished Product

Before & After

Once I decided to process this photo, I went through a few variations to arrive to the final version. All I can really show here is the settings that I ended up with, but between applying the preset and exporting the photo, there are many, many tweaks between. I’ll adjust the white balance to make it a little cooler, then adjust the blue color calibration to make certain parts of the leaf pop, then go back to the white balance because I didn’t like what the calibration did to the background, then go to the luminance slider of the blue channel to tweak further. Repeat ad nauseum until suddenly everything seems to work. Then I step away and revisit it a little while later. Hopefully it still looks complete. If it doesn’t, I make a copy of the photo where I left off and work on the new copy.

So, those settings! I ended up with a slightly cooler white balance. Overall vibrance was set to +41 and saturation to +49. Then I desaturated all the colors except yellow (the color of the leaf), which I set to -73. I increased all the luminances of the other colors to +100 except yellow, which I set to +52.

Last Leaf - White Balance, Color, and Calibration

Here are the specific settings for camera calibration. I find that calibration is one of the most powerful tools that Lightroom has to really make certain parts of a photo pop the way I want them to.


A super-steep tone curve and maximum lens vignetting takes the photo to here:

Last Leaf: WB, color, calibration, tone, and vignetting

Some mild split-toning in the shadows gives some color back into the background:

Last Leaf: Split-Toning

My apologies for not going linearly down the processing window of Lightroom, but I saved the “Basic Tone” – exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks for now, because these settings are where this photo really came to life for me. I decreased this already dark photo by over 3 stops and adjusted the other settings to get what you see below (and no, your screen isn’t broken):


I then proceeded to use brushes and gradient filters to bring back the parts I wanted to be bright. One brush did most of the work:


That one brush resulted in this:


I used quite a few other brushes to pinpoint areas I wanted to either brighten (some of the background, the bottom part of the leaf) or darken (the top part of the leaf). Almost always, I use maximum feathering of the brush and very low opacity. This part is really more like painting. Each red dot indicates a brush used:


And that pretty much does it!

Last Leaf: The Process of Development

Last weekend, I had a spare hour around noon, so the family headed out to Prairie Creek Park in Richardson, Texas. On paper, it looked like a good park. In reality, it was one trail that crisscrossed over a small creek; no matter what direction you looked, you could always see houses. I prefer to get further off the beaten path, but I decided to take what I could get.

Nothing besides the daffodils were blooming, there was a wind advisory in effect, and the cloudless blue sky didn’t bode well, but I was determined to come home with something. When I spotted a branch with a solitary leaf that was catching the light of the sun, I snapped two photos. In both, the wind was blowing, so I just had to fire when the leaf itself came in focus. In the first, the background was far too busy, and I couldn’t see how I could mitigate that while staying in portrait orientation, so I switched to landscape and took one more shot.

Take #1:

Last Leaf: Take #1

Take #2:

Last Leaf: Take #2

I felt like I could work with the second one, so I started the process of developing it in Lightroom. For me, that mostly entails scrolling through the presets I’ve already made and watching the preview screen in the top left. When I see something I like, I apply those settings and use that as a jumping off point.

Many times, I’ll reach a certain point and feel like it might be done, but that I might be able to take it in another direction. In that case, I make a copy of the file and keep working. I still have the other version right next to it to refer to, and sometimes the first version turns out to be the better version. Sometimes the changes are so minute that a week later, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the differences just by looking. Sometimes they’re radical changes. Most often, they’re just the difference between a black-and-white and color version.

In the case of this leaf, I found a color preset I liked, worked on it for a minute or two, and then I immediately decided it would work best as black-and-white. So I used the color version to start a black-and-white process. After I reached a point where I was very happy with the outcome, I had to see what it would look like in color with those same settings. I wish that the process were as easy as just moving the saturation slider from 0, but unfortunately, I usually get a strong black-and-white by adjusting the white balance to a garish blue-tone and then changing the calibration to suit my whims.  The luminance of each color is fine-tuned so that the right colors “pop” (even in black-and-white!), so those all had to be re-adjusted to suit a color version.

I ended up with a few different versions:

Last Leaf: 3 Iterations

Last Leaf: More Iterations

The first you see above is the original. The second is the one with a preset applied, and then some changes to work with this individual photo. The third used the second as a starting point, but with MANY changes to get it to a black-and-white that I liked. I almost stopped there, but then I had to see a color version. The fourth ended up too bright, somehow, so the fifth toned things down but was too dark. The sixth actually hit the mark and ended up as the one I went with (despite that three-star rating!), and the seventh was a black-and-white version that started from a totally different place than all the others.

In the next post, I’ll show the steps that took it from its original form to the finished product.