Photographing fall colors is an exciting time for nature and landscape photographers. Fall foliage adds bright and captivating colors to photograph throughout the day, not just at sunrise or sunset. However, fall photography images can often fall flat when you see them on your computer screen compared to what you experienced in person. Yet, there are easy and effective post-processing tools to make your autumn colors realistically pop in your images. When editing your fall photos, the key is understanding how and when to use saturation, vibrance, contrast, texture, clarity, and dehaze.
The Importance of Focus & Shutter Speeds in Fall Photography
With fall photography images, we often focus on the leaves. It makes sense that leaves take the spotlight, but that flurry of foliage has the potential to result in unwanted blur. It takes just a small breeze to have leaves waving to the camera when you press the shutter and not realized it happened until you return home.
Therefore, before we jump into the post-processing tips, it is important to be mindful of shutter speeds in the field. Make a conscious choice and decide if the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze any potential movement. Typically, I find that 1/250 of a second works for basic breezes. If not, you can wait until the wind dies down or perhaps take one image to freeze the leaves and another to slow any water movement and combine the images later with Lightroom or Photoshop. Alternatively, you can decide if you want a blurred effect on the leaves.
After taking your image, zoom in on your camera’s LCD screen and review the small details as well as the edges of the composition for sharpness. Editing sharpness into a blurry image isn’t an option. I have more advice on photographing stunning fall foliage in this article. But for this one, we’re moving on to the post-processing of your autumn photography images!
The Difference Between Saturation and Vibrance in Lightroom
One of my first steps in post-processing is to make global adjustments, changes that impact the image as a whole. In the Basic Panel of Adobe Lightroom, the Saturation and Vibrance sliders will apply global changes to your photo, but it is critical to understand the difference between them.
Saturation Adjustment in Lightroom
The Saturation slider is a uniform global adjustment tool. It impacts the saturation of all colors in your image. It will saturate every color in your photo equally, no matter if it is a highlight, shadow, or midtone, even if some colors are more intense than others straight out of the camera. With fall photography, this choice is not typically the best route. For example, if a photo starts with only a strong and intense red color, the saturation slider may be too strong of an effect. The reason being is that it may push the red to an unrealistic result even though it brings the muted colors to life.
Vibrance adjustment in Lightroom
The Vibrance slider is a discriminatory global adjustment tool. It impacts only the midtones of the image. Therefore, it will apply more saturation to the subdued or muted colors. Unlike the Saturation slider, the Vibrance slider essentially will ignore already intense colors provided you don’t push that slider to the extreme limit. In the beginning, it pays to experiment with both sliders to see how the colors change and which aesthetic you prefer for your editing style.
In the example below, I did push things to the extreme limit but to illustrate the point The image on the left has the saturation at 0 and the vibrance slider pushed +75 whereas the image on the right has the saturation slider pushed +75 and the vibrance at 0. Slide back and forth and notice the changes in the reds and orange colors throughout the image. Both images have been pushed way too far. However, the vibrance is handling that extreme push much better in terms of foliage because it only impacts the midtones.
How to Understand the HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom
Once you have applied any desired global changes to the image through the saturation or variance sliders, the next step is to decide if you want to alter specific colors. A quick and straightforward method to perform targeted color adjustments in your fall images is through the HSL/Color panel in Lightroom. HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, and Luminance.
Often, people use the terms hue and color interchangeably. Changing the hue is shifting or changing color. If we consider foliage as an example, you can take the green colors and shift the hue toward yellow. In addition, you can shift the yellows toward more of an orange, thus giving the overall photo a feeling of fall.
Saturation is the intensity of a color in the image. More muted colors technically will have more grey within the color value. While saturation can make colors pop, this slider is the one known to be easily used and abused. To ensure I don’t push the saturation slider too far, I will return and view my image after a few hours or the next day. With fresh eyes, I can double-check that I didn’t introduce too much saturation causing the image to look unrealistic.
Luminance is the brightness of a specific color in the image. Reducing the luminance for a particular color will introduce more black and darken those respective pixels. Increasing the luminance will reduce the black, thus brightening that chosen color throughout the photo. Thus, this is a simple way to alter the foliage colors of your autumn images, even the greens.
The examples above are pushed further than I would normally with my post-processing. However, they illustrate the point of how much flexibility and creativity you can employ with the HSL Panel in Lightroom. These adjustments are targeted to the specific colors and produce a more realistic result than using the Vibrance and Saturation sliders from the Basic Panel.
Working with the HSL/Color Panel
The beauty of the HSL/Color Panel is that you can choose how you want to edit. In HSL mode, Lightroom groups the sliders first by hue, saturation, and luminance. So HSL will show you the hue followed by the separate colors.
On the other hand, the Color mode is where Lightroom groups the sliders by colors. Therefore, the Color panel option will first show red and the red’s hue, saturation, and luminance sliders grouped together. Next, it will show orange and orange’s hue, saturation, and luminance sliders, and then the three sliders for the next color.
Employ the Adjustment Point Tool
The Adjustment Pointer is practically hidden in the top left of the HSL Panel. It looks like a circle within a circle. When you hover over it, arrows will appear above and below. If you are having trouble altering the color of a specific part of your image, this tool will help you target those exact pixels of the photo.
Simply click on the Adjustment Point Tool to activate it. Next, move your new cursor to the part of the image you want to change. Click and drag the tool up or down to directly change the color of those selected pixels throughout the image.
For example, let’s suppose I select the Hue’s Adjustment Pointer and click on a green leaf. When I click, hold, and drag the tool up on that green leaf, it will deepen the green. Conversely, if I drag the tool down after clicking, it will alter the hue from green to yellow.
How to Effectively Use Clarity, Texture, and Dehaze for Your Fall Photography
Often, we photograph fall color in overcast light, which can lead to your RAW images appearing washed out on your computer monitor. The image simply looks flat. To address this and have the image pop, we need to adjust the tonal contrast, which is the difference between the brightest and darkest areas of the image.
While the contrast slider in the Basic Panel applies global changes to the image, landscape images tend to require more precision in contrast adjustments. The next option is to look at the sharpening slider in the Details Panel to adjust the contrast. While this is still a global adjustment, it is only adjusting the contrast between each pixel in the image and gives a slightly finer adjustment. This is another option to experiment with when trying to bring out the image’s details.
But to help bring that pop back more selectively, Lightroom’s texture, clarity, and dehaze sliders share a common goal of enhancing or diminishing details and adjusting contrast. This is why they are great post-processing tools for creating some autumn splendor.
Clarity increases and decreases the contrast within the midtone areas by increasing the contrast along the edges of the midtones. In other words, clarity leaves the highlights and shadows untouched and impacts the remaining areas (aka the midtones). Clarity gives the illusion of a sharper image. Although it is difficult to see because of the even light of the example image, clarity slightly decreases color saturation and makes the overall photo appear a little brighter. Generally speaking, clarity is better than texture if the image needs a boost in tonal contrast (difference in brightness in different areas of the image).
Texture is Adobe’s more recent addition to impact mid to high-frequency areas of contrast. Think of frequency as those edges of details within the image that changes from light to dark. Low frequency is a bright blue sky. High frequency is a cluster of darker tree branches scattered across bright leaves.
The texture slider is a new favorite tool because it provides a strong impact without affecting the fine details. Essentially, it is a less drastic clarity slider. My preference is to typically increase texture in my fall images because it impacts areas that I want to emphasize and doesn’t overly brighten the image. For me, I find it works better than clarity in most cases. Moreover, texture doesn’t significantly shift color or saturation, unlike clarity and dehaze.
Dehaze is intended to add or remove atmospheric haze from an image, such as fog, haze, mist, or smoke. It increases the contrast in low frequencies areas and saturates color casts, even in very bright or dark areas. If a fall photography image feels washed out, dehaze can be very useful for amplifying contrast and color. Albeit, all of these examples a quite extreme but illustrate the points.
Final Post-Processing Advice for Fall Photography
As a final piece of advice, always review your post-processing changes zoomed in at 100% as well as zoomed out to fit the entire image on your screen. It is amazing how a change may look great when zoomed out but will show issues when zoomed in or vice versa. Also, I find that the best results are found when you employ a combination of these tools in subtle doses in my editing.
If it is autumn in your hemisphere, I hope you get outside and enjoy the brisk mornings, cooler temperatures, and bright colors this season. Additionally, I hope these post-processing tips will help realistically elevate the colors in your fall photography images. Happy Photographing and Post-Processing!