LCE: Add Some OOMPH to Your Nature Photos

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 16 Comments

Have you ever processed your photos and just came up short when trying to add some “pop” and “oomph” to them?

Have you fiddled around in Photoshop and come up short when trying to zest up that special shot?

I’m not talking about psychedelic HDR vibes…just that “Wow” factor that brings the photo to life and makes the viewer stare a few seconds longer (regardless of content – I’m just talking about clarity and quality).

Well, today I am going to reveal one way to do that. It’s not the only way, and it is certainly not the “best” way (who knows what is the best way to do anything in Photoshop, right?). I will ask you to make sure you’ve studied Mark Dumbleton‘s previous tutorial in depth, because it will make things a bit easier in this one.

I will refer to masking and selective sharpening here too.

Unsharp Mask

The Unsharp Mask tool is a favourite of many photographers for final sharpening of their images. It’s the traditional tool in Photoshop for sharpening. In recent editions of Photoshop (starting with CS3, I think) there has been another sharpening tool called “Smart Sharpen”, which is the one I prefer to use for final sharpening.

I do still use “Unsharp Mask”…but I use it for a different function.

It’s called LOCAL CONTRAST ENHANCEMENT.

Fancy name, yes, but the name and the action I owe to a good online friend and mentor called Robert Amoruso.

I’m not going to go into fancy Photoshop jargon, but suffice it to say that if used in a certain way (with certain parameters), the “Unsharp Mask” tool can add amazing impact to an image by enhancing midtone contrast and local contrast on important edges and features of the image on a pixel-level.  From here on out I will refer to the “Unsharp Mask” tool as USM.

Deal with it! 😉

Local Contrast Enhancement

Take note upfront that this technique won’t work equally well on every single photo, and oftentimes it may be necessary to adjust the parameters to make it work for that particular photo, or even to refrain from using it altogether.

Here’s my first example photo. Before LCE on top, and after LCE at the bottom.

You’ll have to look twice and long, as the key to good application of LCE is subtle differences, which don’t show up well when looking at first glance and at face value.

test1d

I’ve found it works well for wildlife photos that had low natural contrast – as LCE tends to overdo contrast on scenes where there was direct sunlight on your subject.

The LCE action also works very well for landscapes that need a little punch – as in the following example.

test2c

 The How To

Let’s assume you’re working on a full resolution file.

You can find the Unsharp Mask tool in the following path in Photoshop:

FILTER  >> SHARPEN  >>  UNSHARP MASK

LCE_screen4

Normally, assuming you are working on the full resolution file, your sharpening settings for the USM tool would look something like this:

LCE_screen1

You’ll notice the above workflow is based on a high percentage and a low pixel radius. For LCE, we flip it around…thus aim for a low percentage effect application, but a high pixel radius of application, like this:

LCE_screen2

Immediate oomph!

Remember, I was working on the full resolution image. I generally like to apply LCE before any final sharpening is applied (see Mark’s tutorial for that) – because LCE can augment any previous sharpening applied and I’ve found it works best if applied earlier in the workflow.

Depending on the intended use for the file, I might choose to downsample for posting on the web, and then apply LCE on the downsized file.

If you apply the same settings as above, you’ll see it beginning to look funky (think about it, you’re using the same pixel radius but on a much smaller image). Here’s my recommended setup for a typical 1024px wide or 800px high photo:

LCE_screen3

You’ll notice that I only reduced the pixel radius.

The “Amount” is also yours to play with – I merely settle on 20-25% most of the time. LCE is a fickle mistress and you need to apply it with discretion. One of my favourite ways to control the outcome is through masking.

Sometimes you really want it to be even more subtle than this setting. You can either play with the radius and amount, or simply duplicate your base layer, apply LCE, add a mask and then paint through the mask with a black brush to hide areas/parts of the image where you don’t want the LCE to be applied to.

Mark did a fine job of showing a quick way to get to a duplicate masked layer, so again, I refer you to his post. In the photo of the lioness above, I’d typically want to minimise or remove the effect of the LCE on the surrounding plains, and focus it on the lioness alone.  Again I want to emphasise – subtlety is key.  I’d rather do two passes of a light application of this tweak, than do one heavy application.

You may think that this sounds like a helluva lotta work to add simple contrast.  I cannot convince you with mere eloquence of speech.

Take an image.

Apply these steps.

Save the result.

Take the same image.

Apply normal “brightness/contrast” in Photoshop.

Save the result. Compare.

Draw your own conclusions.

I’ve found LCE to do a much better job in adding effective contrast subtly (if applied correctly).

I hope I’ve been clear and succinct. Please do drop me a comment underneath this post with any questions you might have.

Happy processing!

Keep your eyes on the Wild Eye website as we’re soon to announce some dates for my specialised workshop focusing on many techniques like this: “Advanced Processing for Wildlife Photography“.

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 16

  1. Charmaine Joubert

    Thanks for the tip, has come in very handy, used it on some of my December KTP photos and I like the end result. Quick question do you ever use the sharpening tool in Photoshop Raw I’m trying it out but not to sure what settings to use for wildlife.

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Charmaine. Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you’ve applied it successfully.

      I do use the RAW sharpening tool (though I use it in Lightroom as I do RAW adjustments in LR and then export to PS for final adjustments).

      Remember that the sharpening slider/tool in LR or Adobe Camera Raw is used to apply light sharpening to the high resolution RAW file. Even from there I will still apply specialised sharpening in Photoshop depending on the use (either for large prints or for web posting). Remember that if you downsize your image at all you will always need to apply sharpening again as downsampling results in an apparent softness to the image.

      When using the RAW sharpening slider, I normally leave the first amounts on default (I think the strength is 25 and the radius is 1 pixel). Then you need to hold down the ALT key and slide the sharpening amount slider (bottom one) to the right. You will see the screen turn black with all the hard edges on your photo displaying white (you need to keep holding down ALT). As you slide to the right you will see the subject appear as the program removes sharpening from the out-of-focus areas. Slide until you get the desired result (release ALT to see the effect on the actual photo).

      Hope this helps?

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  2. Lois Bryan

    Looks like a great technique … can’t wait to try it out!!! I generally just give an image a quick High Pass layer … but there are times when a bit more ooomph is welcome!!! Thank you!!!

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Glad you found it helpful, Lois. I prefer not to use high-pass sharpening but each to his/her own. I prefer “smart sharpen” for final sharpening, and “unsharp mask” for this technique.

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    1. Gerry

      Hi Fred. Yes, you can get a similar effect in LR although the workflow is a bit different. By playing with different combinations of Clarity and Sharpness – both as global and local adjustments – you can get the same effect. Working on a series of videos for next year so hopefully these will help as well.

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