How to make your photos look bright and luminous

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A couple of years into teaching myself photography, I began to wonder how other photographers made their photos so bright and luminous. I love luminous, light filled images but I just couldn’t seem to get my photos to pop with light the way other photographers did. I knew it wasn’t my camera. Browsing the camera pages on Flickr I could see that other photographers with the same camera as me could achieve the effect I so desired, but for me it remained illusive until I learned three pieces of technique. In this tutorial, I’m going to take the guess work out of it and share all I know about making your photos look bright, light filled and luminous.

I have already written a lengthy post all about how to make your digital photos look like film. When people say that they want their photos to look like film, what they often mean is they want their photos to be light, airy, soft and filled with emotion. Key to making your digital photos look like they were taken on film is mastering the exposure triangle and shooting ‘to the right’ of the histogram. If you’re new to this idea and confused, go and read my original post as I explain the concept in lots of detail with beginners in mind.


How to make your digital photos look bright and luminous

So, step 1 of achieving bright, luminous photos comes down to how you set up your camera before you even press the shutter release. You can only push a digital negative so far in post-production so don’t short-change yourself.

There is a caveat here though, and that is that you can’t expect to take bright, luminous photos in bad light. Spring and summer will always be better suited for the creation of luminous photographs than autumn and winter, and the same goes for photographs taken outside in natural light over indoors in a suburban living room. Furthermore, no amount of post-production magic will make your photos taken in an industrial British town in mid-winter look like they were taken in a Greek village in high summer! The landscapes are simply coloured differently. Greek villages are painted in white which reflects lots of light while British towns favour a palette of deep red and grey and don’t bounce much light around.

Step 2 involves post-production. I use Lightroom for all of my photo editing, and it goes without saying that I shoot in RAW. You don’t have to pay for Lightroom (you could use Darktable which is free and works in Windows, Linux and MacOS environments) but if your camera allows you to, then you should be shooting in RAW as you’ll get the best results that way. The two tools you will need to use in order to give your photos a boost in luminance are curves and radial filters.

Tone curves

In Adobe Lightroom you will find curves under ‘Tone Curve’ in develop mode. Scroll down, find the correct panel, and make sure that you have ‘RGB’ selected. Simply click in the middle of the line and drag it up and to the left a little as shown in the diagram below.

Feathered radial filters

The next piece of the puzzle is radial filters. If you’re new to Lightroom you might not be aware of this feature, but it is a fantastic tool. Radial filters allow you to selectively apply a change to a specific area of your photo. You can use radial filters to create vignettes, saturate a single area of the image, sharpen text on a street sign, and even to alter the hue of a specific colour in one area of your image but not in others. There are so many uses for radial filters, but my favourite way to use them is for selective brightening.

In the example image above you can see that my violin is in shadow as I have my back to the window. If I were to increase the exposure across the frame, then the sheet music on the piano and the piano keys themselves would become too bright. Instead, I used a radial filter. I typically set my radial filters to bump the exposure by 0.5 but in this case I pushed it up to 1.0 for a more dramatic boost in brightness.

Always feather your radial filters! Set feathering to 100% (see the image above, you can click to enlarge it). This creates a seamless transition into and out of the radial filter.

For portrait photography and weddings, I place radial filters on the subject’s face or hands, or other point of focus. For still life photography I place radial filters on the subject I want to emphasise. For landscape photos, I tend to put a single but large and oval radial filter in the centre of the image.

For more tips on creating bright, luminous photos, I recommend the book ‘The Luminous Portrait’ by Elizabeth Messina. It’s a beautiful book filled with good instruction and advice. Although the photographer shoots a lot of film, the tips are applicable to digital too.

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