Photography is as much about what you show in your photos as what you hide. Too much detail can overwhelm the viewer. You can already be selective about what you include in an image when you capture it. There are also several techniques that help you simplify a photo in post-processing. One way to do this is to introduce a darker mood and wrap less important areas in darkness.
The photo editing techniques I show below work best for images taken on cloudy and rainy days. The soft light you get then provides the basis for applying a dark treatment to your images. Photos taken on sunnier days can also benefit from these techniques to some extent. But I will refrain from making every image look dark and try to show different atmospheres in your photos.
Now let’s look at the before and after comparison for a photo I took at 25 Fontes in Madeira. The starting material has already been processed in Lightroom to provide an even distribution of detail and light. Focus stacking and exposure blending have also been applied. Although the photo captures some of the atmosphere of the day, it still looks pretty flat. This often happens on overcast days when you don’t have directional light to work with.
To add dimension and depth to a photo while hiding some less important details, several techniques can be applied.
In the overview video, you can follow along as I apply the dark treatment to the photo of 25 Fontes. My tool of choice for this is the Camera Raw filter. This allows me to change many different settings in one step instead of having to rely on multiple adjustment layers in Photoshop:
- Create a Smart Object from your current edit. Select all the layers in your layer stack, right click on one of them and press Convert to smart object.
- With the Smart Object active, navigate to Filter – Camera Raw Filter… or press Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + A. This will open the Camera Raw window.
- Here you can work with as many Camera Raw settings as needed to create a darker version of the photo. I generally lower the exposure and reduce the Dehaze. These two sliders combined make the image already much darker. You can prevent your darks from being clipped with the Shadows and Blacks sliders. As the photo becomes softer overall, there is room to add texture, contrast, and a touch of clarity. Be creative. If the image becomes too saturated, reduce the vibrance.
- These settings are applied to the entire image after pressing OK. Since you created a smart object, you already have a mask linked to the filter. Invert it by clicking on it and pressing Ctrl/Cmd+I. Then, reveal the effect in the areas you want to fade by painting over the mask with a soft, white brush.
In the example photo, I applied this technique mainly to the exterior areas to direct the viewer to the water flow in the foreground and then to the waterfall in the background.
In addition to darkening a photo, you can also add atmosphere. Especially with waterfall photos, this can help introduce more depth. Typically, there will already be spray near a waterfall. If so, you can improve it with the techniques I show in the video below. If there is no spray to work with, you can completely make it up. Don’t overdo the editing. Try to stay realistic.
My favorite way to create atmosphere is to use the Clouds filter. To begin, preparation is necessary:
Create a new empty layer in Photoshop.
Use the rectangular marquee tool and make a small selection in the center of the layer.
Apply the Clouds filter below Filter – Render to selection.
Hurry Ctrl/Cmd+T to activate the free transform tool and extend the selection to the entire frame. You can increase the size of the rectangle beyond the image area if needed. Stop once you feel the structures start to look like sea spray.
Go to Image – Adjustments – Levels… or press Ctrl/Cmd+L and make the blacks appear in the Levels slider. It reduces the contrast in the cloud pattern.
Apply a slight Gaussian blur to the clouds to reduce detail.
In the Channels panel Ctrl/Cmd + left mouse click on the RGB channel. It loads the cloud model as a selection.
Delete the current cloud layer and create a new empty layer.
Apply a mask to this new layer with the selection active.
You can add atmosphere by drawing in the layer with a soft brush in different shades of gray. Use a low opacity between 10-20% and gradually increase the effect. The cloud mask will instantly apply structure to it and make it look more realistic.
Mild light bleeding
After making the image darker and adding atmosphere, it helps bring in light. You can achieve this by applying the light bleed technique I show in the following video.
Here it is important to practice restraint and not add too much shine. Ask yourself: if this light had been present in reality, would it have introduced harsh shadows? If the answer is yes, reduce the opacity of the effect. The goal is to create a soft light source.
Again, work with a smart object and use the Camera Raw filter. The increase in temperature and vibrance combined with a reduction in runout usually does the trick. As with dark ambience, apply the effect selectively to areas where you want light to enter the frame. In my photo 25 Fontes you can see how I applied it to the top of the frame. A viewer’s gaze can drift across the photo, starting with the darkest areas at the bottom, then following the stream to the waterfall and light in the background.
There are many adjustments you can use to give your photos a dark look. And as usual with Photoshop, there are different ways to get to the end result. But the underlying principles are the same: darken less important areas of the photo while preventing blacks from being clipped, add atmosphere to introduce depth, and apply a soft glow to draw in the viewer and add dimension. . The extent to which you apply such processing depends solely on your preferences.
Finally, I would like to point out that for dark photo editing, you have to work on a calibrated monitor. Photographers who aim for a very dark look in their images will generally work in a relatively dark room, and the darker the room, the darker the photos will be. For good results, it is useful to create a selection of images as a reference. When you’re working on a new photo, check those photos regularly to calibrate your eyes and get a good idea of where you’re headed.