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Color Isolation in Lightroom

There are times when I will take a photo without any clear idea of what I am going to do with it. It could be that something in the subject doesn't spark my creativity or I may have hurried through the process. Whatever the case, I will often take a photo just to document a location or event. We all do this.

Such was the case with Motif No.1 located at Bradley Wharf in the harbor town of Rockport, Massachusetts earlier this year. You can see my version of the location here. Diane and I had gone there with a bunch of friends from a local camera group to photograph the various points of interest. Motif No.1 is a fairly famous attraction having been made famous by local artists including Lester Hornby and John Buckley.

In this tutorial I am going to show you one process to take a ho-hum image and add a little pizzas to it. Several techniques are utilized that can be adapted and applied to your own work and I'll point those out. Overall, this is a very simple process to achieve in Lightroom. In the interim, I will share my decisions for the choices I made to get this look. Remember, I did not have this look in mind when I first started.

I want you to compare the after product above to the before shot showing here. If you analyse it enough you can probably point out a lot of things that are wrong with this image. To save you some time I'll list some of the major ones here;
  • Crooked verticals (hence crooked horizon)
  • Very busy background on the left (those yellow lobster cages bother me)
  • Bland sky (lousy weather)
  • Lacks impact (colors are washed out)
The saving grace to this is the sky was heavily overcast creating a beautiful light on everything. As a rule of thumb, if you don't like your sky, don't photograph it, or at the very least, minimize it. However, there are times when the subject doesn't allow it.

The busy background at left was another problem I could do little about from this angle. Typically a change in shooting angle or a shift left or right can correct minor flaws. I was on the edge of a pier so my movement was limited. There is also the occasional, "that looks ugly back there, let me just move it out of the shot." There is no moving those houses. The photo is what it is.

So off to Lightroom to see what can be done with it.

Anyone who has taken my Lightroom classes know that, with the exception of black and white conversion, I generally go down the line of tools as laid out by Adobe. They did a great job at putting the basic tools at the top and more advance tools at the bottom. My students also know to attack the obvious problems first then go back and refine.

In the case of our ugly shot here, the first line of attack is the crooked horizon, which throw off the lines of our building. I love the level tool for this. Click on the tool icon and draw a line across your horizon (or building edge) and a line appears. Adjust that line so it follows the lopsided edge and your image magically snaps straight.

The second thing I do, and this is usually done fairly early in my edits, is to crop for my finished presentation. In this case it is for an 8x10 landscape. I prefer 8x10 over the newer 8.5x11 since I currently do not print my own images and I am stuck in the past in terms of the standard perspectives.

You can see in the resulting image how much better the Motif looks already. The crop brings the building to the forefront, gets rid of a lot of junk on the left and cuts a bit of the sky out. And... I straightened the verticals. All my physical corrections are done.

The next two tools, spot and red eye, are not needed for this image so I skip them.

Now I sit back and analyze the image. The first thing that strikes out at me are those yellow lobster cages on the pier behind our subject. The bright yellow just stands out too much and scream, "look at me!"

Decision time... I could alter the color of the yellow, desaturate the yellow a bit (or a lot) or... This is when I started playing around with a more radical idea. The red of the building is striking. It's what draws artists and photographers to this area. Why not capitalize on it. I decided I would desaturate everything but the building.

For the sake of this tutorial, there are several methods to do this; brushing the saturation, desaturating individual color channels or using gradients. Of course in Photo Shop you can use layers for this, but then this is not a PS tutorial. While all three give you the same results not all of these are the best choice. I will dismiss the first, explain the second one then give my reason for not doing either one.

Brushing the saturation in is relatively easy in theory. Grab your adjustment brush tool, set saturation to zero (0) and start brushing in around the building. The problem with this is that it takes up a lot of resources. LR has to track all those brush strokes and after 10 minutes or so you will be waiting for your computer to catch up.

The second method is to use the desaturation slider method. In the HSL / Color / B&W tool set you can select HSL and click on the saturation tab to pull up a series of color sliders. Each of these eight sliders affect specific areas of the color spectrum. The problem with these sliders is that they affect the image globally, so any change you make in these sliders affect the building as well.

"That's okay," you tell yourself, "we just want to keep the red of the building. We'll just slide all but the red." As soon as you start moving sliders you quickly realize that there are casts of other colors in the building. It has a lot of orange and a hint of magenta. Moving these sliders alters the building significantly.

There are other problem areas of the image such as the reflection in the water. That's red too. Let's not forget the myriad of colors hanging from the barn wall. The blues, greens and yellows of the buoys quickly turn to mush by changing these sliders.

By now  you can understand why I dismissed this process. Not to say it doesn't have it's uses in your repertoire of techniques, it's just not for this need.

That leaves only our last option, use gradient filters to do our grunt work and finesse the rest with our adjustment brush tool.

The great thing about gradients in Lightroom is that you can assign so many functions to a single tool. Click on the gradient icon under the histogram and you can see all the sliders available for that gradient. You can keep it as a single function, such in our case, or apply as many as you want. At the top of the drop down panel is a list of preset effects available straight out of the box.

As with most of Lightroom's tools, you can create custom presets. Some custom presets you can create for a gradient are gradient density filters that replicate their real world models and sunset gradients to add drama to an otherwise boring skyline.

The trick with gradients is getting used to the interface. The tool is created with a central control point, the same as the adjustment brush tool, and three lines that extend across the image. The central line denotes the mid point of the gradient and also controls rotation. The gradient will rotate on the control point and you can move that point where ever you need it. For best control of the rotation use the outer area of the line further from the control point.

The other two lines represent the gradient width. Gradients are applied by clicking on the image and dragging the tool across the image. The gradient tool is applied at the first point of contact and gradually fades off in the direction you dragged the tool. In our example above, the gradient starts from the lower left corner and travels upward to the lower edge of the building. I have a very narrow fall off because I do not want a gradual desaturation of color. That is why you see all three lines so close together.

In order for me to desaturate a majority of this image I need to do all sides of the building. I am showing you the bottom here but I also did the right side, the top and the left side.

The left side provided me with a challenge because of the protruding hoist bar. I actually placed that gradient at an angle from hoist end to the peak of the roof line. If you have been paying attention you will note that the gradients leave little triangles of color in the areas the gradient tool can't reach. This is where the adjustment brush tool comes into play.

Earlier I mentioned that extensive use of the adjustment brush takes up resources. Since the majority of the work was done with gradients, the brush now has very little work to do. I simply go in and desaturate the areas missed by the gradient tool and I am done.

This process allows me to keep all the colors of the building, the buoys, the windows and the roof while desaturating the rest of my image.

The final big step was to add the white vignette. I opted for white as I wanted to give this image more of a painting or watercolor feel. Adding a dark vignette would have created too dark a mood and ruin the effect. Of course I discovered this because I was able to play around with the sliders and test out various looks quickly.

Personally, I love vignettes. If used properly and subtly, the effect helps draw the viewer to the central part of the image.

Once I applied the white fade to the corners I realized that the overall look of the barn was rather dark. I revisited the Basic module and played with my exposure slider. Just a slight touch to brighten it up was all it took.

While there are often several ways to accomplish a task or obtain a look, understanding the tools can take a long menial task and simplify it to save both time and resources.

Hope you enjoyed this tutorial. If you have any tricks that might benefit this tutorial feel free to share them in the comments area.

Go forth and create art!


  1. Nice job, you should do a 2 day class about lightroom editing techniques.

    1. You went to my two day intensive. Is this a hint of sorts? :-)


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