Boston Photographer's Notebook: Retouching To Correct Lighting Issues

Posted by Tim Llewellyn: Boston Photographer on Jul 1, 2015 9:05:58 AM

There are times when shooting on location that you can't control the light as much as you would like. I put this video together to walk you through the steps to use retouching to help correct unavoidable lighting issues. In this case, I was photographing at a Boston area school's graduation and needed to produce images that would be ready for advertisements, a viewbook or the school's website.

The lighting conditions were difficult. Very low light all around mixed with some harsh directional lights from above. And, given the proceedings, any supplemental light from an on or off camera flash would have been very disruptive. The light was tough, but the moments were great - so I want to show how Photoshop can help take a nice photograph to the next level.

I have provided a transcript of the video below. And, several times in this video I mention the amazing retouching tutorials over at, so I wanted to make sure to provide that link: Phlearn.

And, if you are interested in the Wacom tablet that I use: Intuos Pro

I also wanted to show this quick overview of my photography here in Boston.


Boston Photographer Notebook

Boston Photographer's Notebook: Retouching To Correct Lighting Issues

I just recently did a shoot for a school here in Boston, for their advertising, and for their review book, and we were shooting at graduation. So the opportunity to light it was not really available to us. We could have used an off-camera flash, but it would have been pretty disruptive to the event, so we were able to do a work around by using the Nikon D3S which has incredible low light capabilities, and this photo here that I am going to show you today, was actually shot at ISO 10,000 which is pretty remarkable.

So, I am going to show the full work through of how I would go about taking a photo like this and making it ready for review book or an advertisement. I will show you all the steps from Lightroom, and through retouching that will help counteract the weird light that was in the space. So, I've brought the photo here into Lightroom to get started, and I think it's a great shot, but these overhead lights you can see up here at the top are casting strange shadows down on the student's face, and that's, it's not great. Let me just start off by showing the kind of low level of grain, which is pretty impressive considering it's 10,000 ISO, and actually, we can even do a little bit better than that by using Lightroom. So, let's get started. The first thing you're going to want to do is a take out that grain by going to noise reduction here, and it's incredibly powerful tool in Lightroom, and I want to bring up enough that it gets rid of enough of the grain so it looks better, but without smoothing it too much.

If you take it up too far, it just looks totally fake, and out of focus, and not great. So, somewhere happily in the middle, maybe 40 is a good spot to be. You can still see a little bit of it, but it's that doesn't bother me. The next thing you're going to want to do is take a little bit of a color balance, and that's actually, this sure is a nice white color, and we can use that as a color balance.

This is actually cooler than I would like for a shot like this. I actually preferred the original color of the hall. So, I was thinking maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle again, like there somewhere. That's 2,900 Kelvin, which I think makes her look good, and it doesn't look crazy warm. So from here, I'm going to export this file, and I will put it right on the desktop for us to pull into Photoshop.

So, that's actually all I'm going to do here in Lightroom. I'm going to now bring it into Photoshop, and do some retouching that I think is really going to help. So, a great place to get started with something like this is Aaron Nace over there has some amazing tutorials on how to use a Wacom Tablet, and how to retouch skin in a way that doesn't look terribly fake, and I'm actually going to be using some of his techniques today. So, if you want to learn more about this, definitely go over to and check it out, because that guy is a genius.

So the first step will be to clean up the light on her face a little bit. The first thing you're going to want to do is select the brush tool, and this is a custom brush that I've made, and you can learn how to do that also on I'm going to go ahead and make a new layer. And using the brush tool, I'm going to sample the layer under it, and paint right on top.

So now, we're just retouching to kind of smooth, the shadows and t,he highlight areas here in the photo. I don't want to make it fake, it's definitely not what I'm trying to do. I just want to make it look like we have a little bit more control over the light than we did in reality. And if you make a mistake like I just did, you can just take the eraser tool and erase away the part that you don't like, then you can switch back to the brush tool, and just paint back on.

You can kind of see this harsh shadow here, you can take that down a little bit by blending these two colors in, and this looks extreme, it does, I realize that, but it will not in the end. So, bear with me here, and you will be surprised in the end, I hope. So, some of these shadows are heavier than I would have liked. We can knock them down a little bit, that'd be great.

Smoothing out these shadows a little bit. I'm just selecting near where I want to paint over it to make sure that the color is realistic. It's accumulative process, so while it looks like we're not doing a tremendous amount as you go, when you take a look back at what you've done, it's pretty shocking actually.

So again, just knocking down the shadows, I am not going to do too much more on this just because I imagine it's pretty, it's watching me, paint over, and over, and over, and it will give you a sense of what is possible. If I could have, it would have been great to light this, and get a little bit more clean light right from the beginning.

But sometimes that's just not possible. So, now you can see what we've done by turning this layer on and off. That change there could have been achieved with proper lighting, we didn't change too much about the photo, but just, it really improves the overall look. So the next step is to duplicate the background layer and put it on top of this, and desaturate it, and turn it into a clipping mask, and so now we'll see just where we painted on.

If you want to switch it from normal here to overlay, and then go to other under filter, go from other to high pass, and find a balance here. You see, the more we go to the right, the less effect it has. The more we go to the left, we go all the way to the left, that's full force. Somewhere in between where it takes care of the problem light, but doesn't look crazy.

Let's try that. So now we can group these two layers and you can see the difference of what we did. There's still a little bit natural shadow and highlight. In this shadow here, for example, it makes sense with the overall photo, it doesn't look out of place, but it just looks nice with the nap, and the nice thing about grouping these as layers is, you can then take the opacity of the whole thing, and tone down the effect or keep it on full.

So the next thing you can do here is, add a lens flare from one of these two lights to give, just kind of soften this back area to take the effect away from it a little bit, and the best way to do that would be to create a stamp visible layer, and this is another Aaron Nace's trick, I'm sure that it is pretty brilliant, and you can render a lens flare, and you're going to make sure the lens flare's kind of stick with reality a little bit.

I think this light probably has more of a chance of flaring, and you can make that flare as big or small as you want, maybe somewhere in here for now,and we can work with it, we go a little bigger. So that's the flare, but the problem with that is, it's pretty sharp and these edges, I don't like this edge, it looks fake, just looks fake.

So, what you do is, now that you've placed it and made it the size that you want, you can then go back to before the stamp visible layer, make a new layer, fill it with black, rasterize the shape, and add the flare back to that layer, just by going up to filter and flare, sorry, I'm clipping off the top of the window there.

Now from here, you can go from filter to blur, and blur that out, that's the only way you can blur out a lens flare, it's kind of cool. You can also adjust the color of this, but before we do that, let's take this from normal to screen which will knock back all the black and just leave the flare. So now you have a nice out of focus flare.

But the color temperature seems really wrong for the scene, so we can put a level on here, and we can create a clipping masks so it only affects this layer here. You can warm that up a little bit, so it feels, so the light feels right for the scene, and then, we can add a layer mask. Taking the pen tool, we can just paint away the area inside the layer mask that we don't want a flare to affect.

So, the more I paint on here, where I paint heavily, where I paint heavily, the flare does not show through. Has to have been a better way to say that, that's the one I could think of. So we paint away where we don't want the flare hitting, and again, because it's a layer mask, we can undo areas if we paint outside the lines like I just did up by her cap.

So, here we just switch the color from black to white. Let's go and paint her, make this brush smaller, and we can just clean out the mess just by painting white back on to the layer mask. And we can feather that edge a little bit by using the tablet, and not pressing very hard. You can reverse that color again and clean up the other way.

So, once you have the flare only affecting the parts that were bothering you, you can group these two layers, and turn that off and on. You can see what effect that's had, but you can also see where you missed. So, here for example in her hair, I'd like to see that knocked back a little more. So, we're going to go back to my layer mask and make sure that I have the layer masks selected and not this flare over here.

We can paint this in in black, and now you can take a look again. So, I don't mind this rim here, because it feels like that's how the light is naturally falling, we can take it down a bit, but I don't want to get rid of it completely. That looks nice. And the next thing again, with this group here that we've put together is you can, if you want to take the amount down, you can with your opacity because it's a separate adjustment layer, and actually I think we should a little bit.

So that's looking better. We can also, so now if we make stamp visible layer, we can make more adjustments to the image. For example, we can use this blur tool to kind of pull the focus back a little bit around them, and if you wanted to put a little bit of a vignette on, or to darken the areas around, you can do that with a burning tool.

So, now that you've burnt in the vignette, you can take a look at everything together by grouping all the layers that you've worked on, and you can toggle them on and off, and you can see the changes that you made, and not only does the Photoshop work help the lighting on her face, but it also can sets this to into the foreground by adding that flare that softened out the background, and gave a little bit more sense of perspective.

So, I hope you've enjoyed watching this, and I hope you've learned something. Again, I can't say it enough, I've said it probably six times so far, but go check out to learn more from Aaron Nace. He is, again, a genius. If you have any questions for me about this process or if I skipped any steps that seemed obvious to me at the time, but very important, go ahead and shoot me an email, and if you want to learn more about my work in general, check out for a look at my education, and healthcare, and corporate photography.