How to edit a photo in Lightroom creating atmosphere

The Cape Peninsula, the area south of Cape Town, has many things to offer. One of the less visited places is the Slangkop lighthouse. One cloudy evening we went to photograph this tower that is probably still very useful for all the ships that round the Cape. What is now called Cape of Good Hope was named Cape of Storms by the Portuguese and for a good reason. So even though there’s GPS and everything, seeing the intermittent light of a lighthouse must be comforting when at sea.

Close encounter

Just a little anecdote when I was searching for a good composition. I wanted to get closer to the waterline and stepping from one rounded rock to another. These are quite big and I needed to be careful where to place my feet. I was so concentrated on not losing my equilibrium that I noticed it only when a was less than 5 meters away. The was a sea lion laying on the rocks just in front of me! It must have been sleeping deeply because normally it’s difficult to get so close without them leaving. I took a step back as I was very surprised and so was s/he… It hopped quickly to the water, jumped in and then looked back to give me a look that seemed to say: Why did you do that? Couldn’t you just leave me there in peace? Then it disappeared under water. I would have stayed further away of course, but I hadn’t spotted it…

Sunset after the sea lion disappeared in the cold water

Anyway, I took this photo of the sunset just before it dipped into the ocean. I like the movement of the water, although I’m not entirely happy with the composition. I would have liked the swirl in the lower right corner to be a bit more to the center, so it would have been more prominent. But now the sun is in the middle, so I’m happy with it.

Adding atmosphere to a photo

Of course I took a photo of the lighthouse and I would like to show how I edited it. That will show how you can change the mood of the photo. This was one of the first photos I took this evening and the colour in the sky was not what I hoped for. But one can always add a little colour here and there. Let’s see how it’s done. Let’s get into Lightroom!

Let’s start with the original image.

Raw file without editing expect for lens profile correction

The first thing I do is the white balance correction. With the eye drop tool I selected a medium grey part of the sky and the image already looks a lot warmer. I also reduced overall exposure to make it seems like the sun was already lower.

Changing the white balance makes the photo already a lot warmer

Now we create a graduated filter on the sky. With the brush we remove the selection from the lighthouse, so it will be applied only to the sky. I have increased the whites and reduced exposure, so the sky become darker, but the lighter spots become lighter.

The graduated filter for the sky

I want to add some colour to the patches of sky where the light seems to break through. We can use a brush for this. I have increased the colour temperature and added magenta as well as more highlights and whites. This makes these parts of the sky pop out.

Remember to keep the flow and density of the brush low, so the effect won’t be too harsh

The sea is a bit too yellow for my taste, so I want to get some blue back. So we create a new brush and select the sea. I have reduced the colour temperature and made the water a bit darker.

Brush selection of the sea

Now it’s time for the lighthouse. This is the main subject of the photo, so we need to take care of that. Let’s create a brush to make it darker and cooler and create a bit more contrast by increasing the whites and decreasing the blacks. We also add some texture which works as a selective sharpener.

The selection of the lighthouse

I have created another two selections on the lighthouse, one on the right and one on the left side, to brighten the right side and darken the left side. This way there is a little more depth in the lighthouse. I won’t show these selections here, but you will see the end effect.

The first eye-catcher in the photo is the bush with the yellow flowers in the foreground. They have gotten quite dark due to the overall adjustments, and I want them to be noticed without making it seem like being lit by a torch. I have used a very small brush and selected only the yellow flowers. The flowers have been brighten and the yellow made much cooler.

The selection of the flowers. Note the size of the brush which is very small for more accurate selection

Before to move on the the next step, I changed the colour profile from Adobe Color to Camera Landscape. Adobe Color is default and often it is fine, but I often have a look if there’s another profile I like better. As you will see in the next photo, colours are even warmer and a bit more saturated. I like this better…for this photo.

Now you can see in the original that the light of the lighthouse was not working yet, but when it started the sky lost all its colours… So we can pretend it was working by creating a radial filter where the light would be.

Radial filter in the lighthouse to turn the light on

One last local adjustment to brighten up the foreground just a little bit. We create another radial filter where we brighten the shadows, so we can distinguish more detail in the foreground.

Radial filter in the foreground

Now the photo is almost finished. We add some sharpening and vignetting and the image is done. Now we can have a discussion if this is still realistic and how far one can go with editing a photo, but I hope we all agree the final photo has a lot more atmosphere or mood than the original photo.

The end result!

I hope you liked the edit of this photo and that you found this useful. Let me know in the comments. If you want to visit Cape Town and surroundings and take photos like this, we have a tour for you that can be personalized to your wishes. Have a look here. We can show you these beautiful locations, take photos and help you with photo editing as well. It’s up to you!

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