Selective De-saturation with Lightroom

by Michael Clark

A recent trend in photography is the de-saturated image. You see them everywhere now. With the acceptance of digital photography there seems to be a backlash against the saturated film colors of Velvia - instead of super saturated colors you see highly de-saturated images. And it isn't just in still photography that you see it. The recent movies "300" and "Flags of our Fathers" as well as many others are shot entirely with a de-saturated color palette and with good reason - it looks pretty stinking cool.

There are a lot of ways to de-saturate an image and many different looks that can be achieved. Here I will give a few examples of some images I worked up in Lightroom and the details of how I created the final image. Lightroom's HSL panel gives us a lot of creative options for de-saturating an image without having to go into Photoshop and use complex layer masks or selections. One thing to keep in mind though is that the adjustments made in the HSL panel are global - for local color adjustments we'd have to use Photoshop or another software application like Nikon Capture NX.

In the image below, I thought it might be interesting to isolate the color of the lips and the skin to create a duo-tone image that looks like it was hand painted. The top image is the original and the bottom is the final image created using the Saturation and Luminance sliders in the HSL panel. All other settings were the same.



For the bottom image I adjusted the sliders as pictured below.


Basically I dropped the saturation in the blue jacket and scarf to -100, and then worked with the other colors to drop them out almost completely, leaving a little color in the skin tones and cranking up the red saturation to accentuate the lips. And because the blue colors were fully de-saturated I could use the Luminance slider to adjust the brightness of the now black and white scarf and jacket. This is an example of what I call selective de-saturation.

All in all this is a very simple example but it shows how powerful Lightroom can be for these types of images. Of course, before I started tweaking the image I created a virtual copy of it so I could output both the full color version and the selectively de-saturated version.

In another example, I recently photographed a good friend of mine, ocean explorer and scuba diver, Celine Cousteau. The image as shot is shown below while still being developed in Lightroom. The final image is shown just below it. As you can see the original image is interesting but it doesn't have much zip to it. I used a similar technique as outlined above to de-saturate the skin tones slightly and then added some vignetting to move the viewers eye toward her face.



Once I exported the image from Lightroom as a 16-bit ProPhoto RGB file, I felt like I could take it a bit farther in Photoshop. I used a very simple Unsharp Mask technique where you reverse the sliders to increase contrast and add a little sharpening as well. For this image the Unsharp mask settings I used to build more contrast were: Amount 20-25, Radius 250, and a Threshold of 0. This is a really powerful technique that is used a lot. You'll have to play around with the Amount and radius to get it just like you want but it certainly adds a lot of snap to an image.

Once I added the contrast I went back in and did a fine adjustment on the skin color, de-saturating it a little more with Photoshop's Hue/Saturation tools. And to really make it zing I drew a quick egg shaped selection around her face with the feather set to 50, inverted that selection and darkened the rest of the image with levels to really drive the viewer to look at her eyes.

While the above Photoshop adjustments may seem complex in reality they were very simple adjustments. I would really recommend playing with the HSL sliders in Lightroom and see what is possible. Break the rules, let go of any pre-conceived expectations and see what you can create. It's a lot of fun!

That's it for this Monday. I look forward to hearing your comments...

Adios, Michael Clark

All images Copyright © Michael Clark Photography.


Alex Atfield
2007-04-27 16:13:09
I've made good use of selective desaturation with lighroom's colour sliders but have also run into some frustrations. It seems that lightroom processes the RAW image data through the left panel modules in the order that they appear (top to bottom).

As a result of this, if you strongly desaturate an image using the individual saturation sliders to achieve a near-monotone image, the later processes like vignetting can re-introduce colours that you'd already removed.

I experienced this lately with the image found on the front page of my website. I chose to omit some artificial vignetting because it created colour banding in the darker areas of the deep blue sky.

Vignetting produces this problem even in images where the main saturation slider is set to minus 100, but not in images manipulated in greyscale mode.