Who doesn't love a good vignette?  One can really enhance the mood, composition, and feel of a photo.  However, the key is that it needs to be done properly.  Not enough and it wont add any mood to the photo at all, too much and you can lose detail or a natural look to your photo.  Now in this I wont be saying what is the proper way or amount to use.  All this will be is showing the technique I use which offers a large amount of control.  Giving you the ability to essentially create any vignette style that you please.

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The above photo is the one I will be using for this example.  Took list while exploring some caves in my home state of Washington.  Came around the corner of the cave to find a crack in the top of the cave and this scene in front of me.  I wont get into shooting the scene however, so lets get back to the matter at hand.  This is the edited RAW file.  Nothing has be done but general lighting and color enhancements.  This will be our starting point for comparison as we go through the steps and examples.

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So here is the first example.  This is a generic circular vignette. In most basic terms, most programs have a vignette slider that essentially darkens corners and moves inwards and the vignette intensifies.  Now this example was done a different way but in a manner to create a similar effect.  And we will build on this method as we go along.  So lets look at this basic vignette further.  In general it creates the basic desired effect, dimming the outer regions and drawing the focus into the center and particular the rays of light. This was achieved with a simple curves layer. Simply reducing the main exposure and then creating a mask to focus the effects to the outer regions.  Below you can see the settings I used.


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Here you see the settings. As I said a very basic curves layer to reduce exposure and then ad a mask to focus the effects on the outer regions of the photo.  This is very easily done by creating a mask then using the brush tool to deselect the inner portions of the mask, focusing the effects to the outer regions.  You can see on the right is the settings of the mask itself.  Those, particularly the feather slider will become key later.  As we saw, this vignette and its settings do create the basic desired effect.  but it does have some draw backs.  For one it looks unnatural.  As you look closely you can see a fairly defined dark circle around the edge of the photo.  Not only that, but while darkening the corners, you lose a lot of details.  Finally, while you do draw interest to the rays, because its a pure circle, you somewhat lose the top and bottom of the rays.  So, what can be done to avoid this? Well part of that can be answered in the next step.....shaping the vignette.


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So...here is the next step, shaping the the vignette.  Above you can see the progression, from initial, to basic to shaped vignette. Notice how in the third photo while there is some darkening in the corners, it is far more subtle.  Not only that the rocks in the lower middle are far lighter than in the very basic vignette photo. Even the corners while darker, do retain a far more detail and creates a much more realistic blend of the vignette.  By taking a look at the settings of the new vignette you can see first, still a basic curve with just a darkening effect.  But its the mask where the difference lies.  The mask is in an almost tear drop shape.  Essentially after making the circle mask, I shaped it to make sure the effects were more targeted to the areas I  wanted. Basically targeting the vignette rather than just generically applying it as a slider would.  The other major change you should see is the feather.   The feather of the mask is far higher than the simple circle vignette.  this was done first to exaggerate the effect of the feather but also to soften the effects of the vignette.  Essentially by increasing the feather, it basically made a gradient and made the effect of the vignette more natural.  So now, we have targeted our vignette and softened its effect to make it more natural. Must be done right? Nope, 2 more things we will do next. Double it, and reverse it.

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What does that even mean? How can you double a vignette and not over darken the corners like in the first basic vignette?  And reverse it?! Wouldn't that make the center dark and the outsides light?!  Well actually no, so lets go into that final shot a bit deeper.


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So here is a deeper look at the actual final vignette style that I use.  Yes there is essentially 2 vignettes and there is also one that is reversed. Here is how it works.  In the first vignettes we talked about how while it created the effect we wanted we lost a lot of detail in the outer regions. to avoid that, look at how my curve level has changed. While it may have been darkened, it is targeted in the shadows and the highlights were increased.  You will also see that like in earlier examples the feather has be even more increased. The effect this does is while darkening the outer regions I am preserving the details.  Notice how highlights still stand out even in what should be darkened areas like the cave walls. By adding the feather and making a more contrast curve rather than a darken curve it again makes an even more natural and subtle vignette.  As for the double,  essentially it is about doing the reverse to the center of the photo.  I reverse the mask and reduce its size in order to target it to more the center or subject of the photo and increase the exposure.  By doing this, even though I have used a softer outer vignette, using a brightening vignette I still create a stronger contrast to drive the viewer to the area I want them to focus.  The whole point of this process though is to give you control of your vignette.  No longer will you be subject to a single slider.  No longer will you have to settle for a simple circle. You can now control where to focus, how to focus, and the intensity of your focus. Like I said, there is now exact right way to vignette a photo, but these techniques  give YOU the control to make whatever vignette you think is right.  

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