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How to use a vignette – editing photos

How to use a vignette when editing your photos

It really is worth spending a little time editing your best photos. With just a few tweaks, a good photo can become a really good image. One simple tool that you can use is a vignette. This is an effect that often naturally occurs within images anyway, especially when using certain lenses or filter. Quite simply, it normally means that the image is slightly darker at the edges than it is in the middle. Natural vignetting is usually quite a soft, gradual darkening from the centre to the corners of the image. We can choose to emphasise this effect even further in post production by using a vignette tool in a photo editor.

I tend to use Lightroom to edit the majority of my images, but you will also find a vignette tool in other editing programmes. The tool creates a circle or ellipse outside of which the image is darkened. You should be able to choose the size and rough shape of the circle/ellipse and also the transition between the light and dark areas. This can be either a very soft, barely visible transition or so extreme as to look like you’ve cut a hole in a piece of black card. Sometimes, the degree of soft/hard transition is referred to as “feathering”. You may also find that your programme allows you not only to add a darkening vignette but also offers the possibility of lightening the edges instead. This may be used to correct natural vignetting from your lens or it may also be used creatively to add an effect. Below you can see some examples of vignettes from very dark through to extremely light applied to a portrait image.

Portrait with extreme vignette Portrait without vignettePortrait with lightening vignettePortrait with extreme light vignette

The central image has no vignette added. The 2nd image in from each side has some vignetting added, whilst the outer images show the extremes of what is going on. Generally speaking, you want the effect to be reasonably subtle, so you would feather the transition between the brighter middle part of the image and the darker (or lighter) edges. A darkening vignette tends to have the effect of drawing the eye towards the centre of the image. We naturally find ourselves looking towards the brighter parts of photos, so a vignette can help to highlight the subject and ensure our viewers look where we want them to. Some programmes such as Lightroom have an additional tool called a “radial filter”. You can use this to create a vignette when your subject is not in or near the middle of the frame. The lightening of the edges softens the image a little and sometimes works well with portrait photos of women, such as bridal wedding portraits. It can give a soft, gentle, elegant feel, but you can’t assume it will work on every image. It also depends on the setting and background. Experimentation will help you discover what works well and what doesn’t.

Vignettes are not just for portraits, they can be applied to any sort of image. For example, here is a landscape image with a darkening vignette on the left and a lightening one on the right:

Landscape with darkening vignetteLandscape without vignette Landscape with lightening vignette

In the case of this landscape, the mood can be changed from more gloomy and ominous to more gentle simple through the amount and type of vignette added. The nuances that this tool  can add to your image can help to elevate it that little bit more, polishing it further and helping you to get that step closer to what you have envisioned. On its own, a vignette will not create an incredible image, but it can be one ingredient in your editing process that enhances a good image, moving it along the way to becoming a great image. You might like to try experimenting with different degrees of darkening or lightening of your images to see if a vignette might improve them. Sometimes you may not wish to use it at all; you don’t have to use a tool just because it is there. An alternative if you don’t have a vignette or radial filter tool is to darken areas manually using an adjustment brush or adjustment layer. See what works for you.

© Joe Lenton, October 2014

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