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From Boring to Fine Art

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While recently in Paris, I was trying to capture monuments with a new camera at new angles. Because I’ve seen and captured these so many times, it’s always nice to approach them with a new perspective and to find different ways to process the images. So, in this article, I’ll show you how to go from a very basic boring photo to a fine-art photo ready for a gallery. I’ll be using different tools in Lightroom Classic and Photoshop to achieve the final effect, so let’s get to it! 

STEP ONE: As always, because we’re working with a super high-resolution RAW file, it’s good to start with some basic development to get a good idea of what we’re working with. Here we can open up the Shadows to +67, bring down the Highlights to –60, set the black points (Blacks) to –47 and the white points (Whites) to +14. We’ll also add some Texture (+19) and Clarity (+18). Tip: You should only add Clarity to the overall photo when you don’t have any clouds in your sky; otherwise, it can create an unpleasant effect! 

STEP TWO: To do justice to the photo, we’ll go to the Transform panel and click on Auto to remove any distortions. 

STEP THREE: This step is optional and depends on your photo, but for the black-and-white dramatic look that we want to achieve with this photo, we could use a more dramatic sky. To do that, we need to jump over to Photoshop, so go to Photo>Edit In>Edit In Adobe Photoshop 2021. In Photoshop, go to Edit>Sky Replacement and select a nice sky in the Sky Replacement dialog. You can use one of the skies that comes with Photoshop or use one of your own, but try to find a sky that matches the time of day your photo was taken to make it more natural (because we’re eventually going to black-and-white with our photo, this doesn’t matter as much). Click OK and you’ll see a new layer group with a few layers in your Layers panel for your new sky. Save your document, close it, and return to Lightroom where you’ll see a new version of your file with the new sky.

[For an in-depth look at the Sky Replacement feature in Photoshop check out “Sky Replacement, Part 1” and “Sky Replacement, Part 2” in the December 2020 and January 2021 issues of Photoshop User.—Ed.

STEP FOUR: Now we can start working on a selective black-and-white treatment. Our goal here is to keep the flag in color but convert the rest of the photo to black-and-white. In the HSL panel, we’ll select the Saturation tab, and lower all the colors that aren’t affecting the flag: Yellow, Green, Aqua, Blue, Purple, and Magenta are all set to –100. We set Orange to –39, as it’s affecting the flag a little.

STEP FIVE: The next step is to remove any remaining colors outside the flag, which are mainly in our new sky. For that, you can use the Adjustment Brush (K). Set its Feather, Flow, and Density at 100% (which we normally never do). Double-click the word “Effect” at the top left of the tool’s panel to reset all its settings to 0 and then lower the Saturation slider to –100. 

With that brush in hand, brush over all the areas where there’s any color you want to remove. In this instance, when painting close to the flag, we activated Auto Mask so that only the center of the Adjustment Brush was active and not the border. That way we can paint very close to the flag without affecting it. 

STEP SIX: Mission accomplished: The photo is now fully black and white except for the flag! Some photographers may find this look a bit dated or cheesy, but it still works great and people love this style of photo. 

Let’s add some drama to the photo to make it more fine art. The first tool we’ll use is the Graduated Filter (M). We’ll set one gradient that starts near the top of the photo and goes almost to the center, lowering its Exposure to –0.74. Then, we’ll set another one at the very top of the photo a bit darker at –1.17 of Exposure. You can use the Range Mask option set to Luminance to make sure the filter isn’t affecting your subject too much (here we set the Range to 8/100). To finish and “close up” your photo, add a Graduated Filter at the bottom with –1.17 of Exposure as well. 

STEP SEVEN: To create an even more dramatic look, you can do some clair-obscur, which is a fancy French way of saying dodge and burn. To start, go to the Basic panel and lower the overall Exposure of your photo to –0.65 and add a lot of Contrast (+66). It looks scary right now but don’t worry. 

STEP EIGHT: We’re going to relight the scene using Radial Gradients (Shift-M). Double-click on the word “Effect” to make sure all of the tool’s settings are at 0, and then boost the Exposure to 0.85, set the Feather to 100%, and check on Invert. Now you can place various Radial Gradients around the photo and play around with the Exposure for each; for example, on one area of the clouds, we set the Exposure at 0.50. After you draw your first circle, you can easily duplicate it by Right-clicking its edit pin and selecting Duplicate. Note: Regarding the Exposure, try not to go over 0.90, which is a little overboard. 

STEP NINE: As a double development, you can also use the Adjustment Brush to relight the photo. Boost the Exposure to 0.90 (not more), and set the Flow and Density at around 80. Now paint over areas of the photo to make the overall lighting more complex and interesting! 

STEP 10: We’re getting close to the final result. The overall photo is very dark now, so we’re going to bring back some Whites (+37) and boost the Exposure a little (from where we had it at –0.65) to –0.40 so that we have a more balanced contrast. 

This is the final look for our image. You can tweak your images as you want; from this point it’s more of an artistic decision, so you can brighten the whole photo or darken it, whichever you feel is right! 

I hope you enjoyed using these tools and that you learned some new techniques. The steps are quite simple, but the effect really transforms your photo from okay to spectacular—always my goal! You can also try this with a boring daylight photo if you’re too impatient to wait and capture that perfect sunset!

ALL IMAGES BY SERGE RAMELLI