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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

Using vignettes to emphasise a subject

What is a vignette?

There is more than one meaning for the word vignette in photography; first is the unintentional darkening in the corners of an image caused by the lens or the use of filters. Second (and the subject of this email) is the intentional use of darkening (usually of the corners) in post processing in order to guide the viewers eye in a photo, often to emphasise the main subject. This can easily be done in many post processing software packages (including commonly used mobile phone ones) but in this email we will look at how it's done using Adobe Lightroom.  

When should you use a vignette?

Vignettes should be used sparingly, and generally only when you feel it's important to help guide the viewer eye. Examples of when to consider using a vignette include:

- When you want to ensure that the viewer focusses on the main subject e.g. on the person in a portrait image, or a small focal point / main subject in a landscape image

- When you want to draw the viewers eye away from distractions such as visually strong objects around the frame, or leading lines leading out of the frame 

- When you want to subtly emphasise certain parts of an image

When should you not use a vignette?

There are many occasions where vignettes are not needed, and may actually be detrimental to the overall look of an image. Examples include: 

- Images without a strong subject, where you want the viewer to roam across the whole scene

- Architecture photography where there is no definite focal point

- Images which have multiple subjects, such as groups of people

The other main guideline is that vignettes should usually be used subtly, rather than starkly. With vignettes, generally less is more is a good think - often to the point where the vignette is not obvious to the viewer, but instead inperceptibly guides them to where you want them to look.

How do you use a vignette?

In this example, Adobe Lightroom Classic is used. This is available in the Adobe Photography Plan for £9.98 per month, or £119 per year (Amazon sometimes has a discounted annual plan for around £90 per year).

Below we will look at a few examples of how to use vignettes effectively (and how not to!)

Example 1: Misty bluebell wood

In this bluebell photo, there is a fairly obvious journey through the photo provided by the path through the wood, however, as there is so much going on around the edges of the photo, it's likely that the viewer's attention could be overly taken by the detail around the edges. So, in this case I decided to use a dark vignette around the corners to help focus the viewer on the path and the lovely light in the centre of the images. Below are three versions of the photo; first with no vignette, second with my preferred vignette which is enough to gently nudge the viewer towards the centre of the image, and third where the vignette has been overcooked and detracts from the overall look of the image.  

The final image at the bottom shows where you can find the vignette controls in Lightroom (in the Develop module, under the 'Effects' tab. The -28 Amount and 42 midpoint settings are the ones used in the middle photo (my preferred vignette on this image). 

Example 2: Aurora over the Kennick Reservoir

In this second example; an image taken during last week's amazing display of aurora over the Kennick Reservoir on Dartmoor, I have chosen not to apply a vignette, since this is an image where I want the viewer to explore all of the image, and the beautiful colours provided by nature; there is no need to try and force the viewer in any particular direction, other than via the basic composition. In the right hand image below I have shown what a vignette would do to this image; although it works fine, I really don't think it's necessary in the same way that it was in example 1, in particular because it partially obscures some of the beautiful sky colours.  

Alternative method; using a radial gradient

The vignette control allows you to just darken the corners of an image. A more flexible approach is available if you use the radial gradient under the masking tab in the Develop module (the circle underneath the histogram in the first image below). 

Selecting the 'Radial Gradient' tool allows you to draw an ellipse on the image where you want to create a vignette. In the case shown in the second photo, I have decided to emphasise the headland by drawing an ellipse around it, and ticking the 'Invert' box (so that I can make changes to the surrounding area rather than the headland). The red shaded areas show where I am now going to make changes, by slightly reducing the exposure (using the exposure control on the right hand menu. The resulting image is shown in the third image below - here I have darkened everything except the headland, in order to emphasise it. Is this better than the original image or not in this case? I will leave you to decide!

In essence, using the radial gradient tool gives you more flexibility in where to apply the vignette than the vignette tool which can only apply it to the corners of the image.

Want to improve your photography skills?

Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses for Devon based folks. If you're not nearby then I also  offer residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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