Strong Primary Subjects with Lightroom’s New Radial Tool

A good photograph usually exhibits a strong, recognizable main subject that is supported by less noticeable, secondary subject matter. The goal of the initial composition is to use subject placement, lenses and camera positioning to obtain this relationship. Sometimes, however, no matter how hard we try, our backgrounds or secondary subjects can tend to overpower our primary subject. This is where Lightroom’s new Radial Tool can be of some assistance.

While many aspects of the subject will contribute to its strength in the photo, there are a few important features that strengthen the main subject:

  • Brightness
  • Contrast
  • Sharpness
  • Saturation

I call these features Attractions & Distractions. If your main subject is bright, contrasty sharp and colorful, it has a good chance of being dominant. If the background is darker, lower in contrast, less colorful and sharp, it will not compete with the main subject. I always consider these four factors while composing and shooting in the field. It’s also critical to think of them when post processing in Lightroom and Photoshop. Early versions of Lightroom had the Post Crop Vignette Tool (Effects Panel) that allowed you to darken your edges and corners.

RadialToolWhile helpful, this tool lacked complete control. The latest version of Lightroom (5) added a new tool called the Radial Filter (circled in red). This tool can do everything the Post-Crop Vignette tool did, plus so much more. In addition to darkening the edges and corners it can also de-sharpen, lower contrast, and lower saturation. It also allows you to control where the vignette will take place. This tool works in much the same way as Lighroom’s Graduated Filter and Adjustment Brush-draw an overlay, adjust the area behind the overlay. The only difference here is that with the Radial Tool you are actually drawing the area you do not want to adjust.



Here are the basic steps:

1. Click on the Radial Tool to reveal the options below.
2. Place your cursor over the center of the area that you don’t want affected. Drag outward to define the radius overlay.
3. Adjust the sliders in the Radial Tool Box to darken, de-sharpen and lower contrast outside of the radius.
4. Click on the tool (circled in red) again to exit and adjustment

A recent visit with family allowed me to take some photographs of niece and nephew. In the picture of my nephew Carter, you can see how I placed my cursor in the in the center of his face and dragged down and to the right. Once you unclick the Overlay is drawn. In this case, the overlay has gone outside of the image window which is perfectly fine. Once the overlay was drawn out, I adjusted the sliders to downplay the background.


I lowered the Exposure to -92, the Contrast -45, and the Sharpness to -100. I also dropped the feather to 81. The feather controls how the affect of the sliders will fade into the center. A higher feather means a more subtle fade. A lower fader will cause a sharper delineation between the affected areas. You can practice with the feather by dropping your exposure to -100 and then adjusting your feather slider. You will immediately see where the slider works best.


The above adjustments help downplay the background while keeping Carters face bright and sharp. When the background and corners of the frame are darkened in this way, the viewer will immediately explore the face and pay less attention to the rest of the frame. The images below show the before and after view of the image. The adjustments used here were kept intentionally subtle. Use a light touch. When a vignette such as this becomes too dark it begins to call attention to itself. Ultimately a heavy-handed approach ends up competing with the main subject-exactly what you don’t want.


CooperTim_Emmy-2I used a similar approach with my niece Emmy. In this case I used two Radial Overlays. The first was used to darken, lower contrast and reduce sharpness as seen in the adjustment panel to the right. This was a great start but the I was looking to for a little less sharpness on the corners and edges. By creating another Radial Overlay and again reducing the Sharpness to -100 I was able to defocus the outer image even more.



You can create a second overlay by clicking on the New button at the top of the Radial Tool Panel (circled in red). Once again, click inside of the image and drag outwards to draw the new overlay. When finished you will notice that each overlay has a “pin” in the center. The pin with the black dot in the center is the active pin. All sliders in the panel will now make adjustments to this overlay. At any time you can activate the other overlay by clicking on it’s pin. In this way, you can go back and forth between your overlays to fine tune your adjustments.

While I have used portraits as examples here, the Radial Tool is a great way to create controllable vignettes in for all types of imagery. Give it a try. Experiment. Most images will benefit from a small amount of edge vignetting!


The before and after:



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