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Photography has a lot of elements that go into making the perfect photo but, in this article, I’ll show you five key steps that will make any photo spectacular. You’ve probably seen all of these techniques before, but if you follow them in the order in which I explain them, it will give you a fail-proof workflow, as well as a lot of space for you to create any look that you want. So let’s get started! 


The best way to get the right exposure in-camera is to expose for the highlights, because you don’t want your whites burned out, leaving you with no information to recover in those areas. So, you always want to slightly underexpose your photo; that way you’ll be able to have a high-quality RAW file. 

To develop your file in Lightroom, you can open up the Shadows to +100, bring down the Highlight to –100, and then set the white point (Whites) and the black points (Blacks). A trick for the white points is to press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key while dragging the Whites slider. The image will turn completely black; stop dragging as soon as you see colored pixels start to appear. This works for the Blacks slider, as well, except your image will turn white. 

Another trick is to Shift-double-click the Whites and Blacks sliders, and Lightroom will automatically set the white and black points for you.


Getting the right white balance is key when you want to establish your scene. For example, you can’t have a plain, desaturated-looking sky if you want to have a stunning sunset. So you can either play with the Temp and Tint sliders in the Basic panel until you get a natural look, or select one of the presets in the White Balance drop-down menu within Lightroom. In this example, we’re adding some magenta by moving the Tint to 30 and warming up the overall photo with the Temp at 4,882. 


The key turning point in your processing is finding the correct colors for the scene and for the time of day. You can’t have a pink sky in the middle of the night or a green tint on your overall photo for a sunrise. The trick to make your photo look natural, but dramatic, is to find the right color for the limit of human experience. You can’t have a sky that’s bloody red like you’d probably find on Mars. In this step, you can use the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance tabs in the HSL/Color panel. 

This photo doesn’t need much, so let’s start with Hue. First, grab the Targeted Adjustment tool (TAT). It’s the little circle with arrows above and below it near the top left of the HSL/Color panel. Then, click on a color in your image, like blue the sky, and drag up or down to see how it affects the color. 

In this example, we clicked-and-dragged a little on the sky to add some magenta, and then dragged down on the gold on the carousel to make it redder. Play with the sliders in the Saturation tab to enhance specific colors in your image! 


This is a technique used by Ansel Adams for many years. The key is that a partially lit object is more interesting than the same object with plain, even lighting. So adding complexity to the lighting in your photo is truly key when it comes to relighting a scene. You can use Linear Gradients, Radial Gradients, and Brushes in the Masking tools to really highlight parts of the photo. In this example, we added a Radial Gradient in the center of the image and boosted the Exposure (1.02). We also used Linear Gradients in the top-right and bottom-left corners to darken those areas of the image. All these edits drive the eyes of the viewer into the photo. 


Sharpening is key when you want to finalize your retouch. If you’re going to print the image, sharpening is vital. My secret recipe is this: Noise Reduction + Sharpening = 100. For example, if you set the Luminance Noise Reduction to 10, then set your Sharpening Amount at 90. (The sum of these two values equals 100.) You can play around with the Masking slider to smooth out the overall photo. 

To add the final touches to your image, it’s best to leave your computer and then, a little later, go back to your photo. Let’s say, for example, you went overboard on the colors or dodging and burning. You’ll be able to see those mistakes with a fresh eye so you can correct them. Now is also a good time to play with contrast and saturation.