Over Exposing or burning the edge of a final photograph, has been around for a long time and has been used extensively by the photographic master printers since the 50’s (maybe even earlier). The primary reason to create the edge burn area is to hold the view in the image whilst they are looking at it. This post is about how to re-create the same effect in Lightroom and Photoshop.
If we think why we start the imaging post process, we are thinking about what the final image needs to represent or communicate to the viewer. To achieve this we can use the Lightroom and Photoshop and the wealth of features that they both provide. Not all tools in each program need to be used on every single picture, but I would suggest that there are a few mandatory develop mode panels that should be used for each image.
This is great to getting your images to a state of readiness for any additional processing. This panel is focused on working with the histogram, and using these control you have the ability to correct any white balance, exposure corrections, contrast, as well as recover any shadow and highlight information in the picture. There are also other powerful tools, like setting the white and black clipping points in the image, as well as clarity, saturation and vibrance. Most of the time, these tools might be all you need to correct the image to make it presentable.
This panel is typically used to sharpen the image, we will look at this in more detail in a future post. But in essence, it will enable you to choose how much sharpness is applied and the details to recover, but also the ability to control the sharpen mask and select which areas of the image will be sharpened. Sharpening is typically performed at the end of the post processing, however, when using Lightroom it’s ok to add sharpening at any point and refine during the editing process (this works hand in hand with Lightroom’s non destructive editing philosophy).
I would also strongly recommend that lens profiles are applied to the camera body and lens that the image was taken with, i.e. Canon, Nikon, Leica and Hasselblad are a few of the manufactures that Adobe works with to make sure that any natural vignetting or barely distortion are removed before the image is worked on.
N.B. Compact system cameras like the Fuji x-series and Olympus cameras to name a few automatically transfer the lens correction details to Lightroom and the software will automatically apply this to the image.
The other panel that I typically use in my post processing is the Effects Panel.
The reason that the master printers used an edge burn technique back in the day is that it can help a viewer of a photograph stay within the image when they are looking at it.
To fully understand why the edge burn is so important, we have to look at what the human mind or the limbic part of the brain is looking for and what grabs it’s attention. In it’s basic form, the Limbic brain when seeking for things doesn’t care if it’s good limbic or bad limbic. For example, imagine you are sat in the train carriage and there is another passenger that is working on their laptop and has very heavy hands. Once you hear the tapping of the keyboard it can be challenging to de-focus , the tapping of the keys is very limbic, but not in the good way, it can be highly distracting. The same applies to photographs and something that we can think about and use to control of how the viewer interprets the photograph and gain their attention.
When i’m editing my images, there are some basic elements I am looking for and wanting to improve. Elements like image structure/composition, engaging content as well as more specific limbic elements that can grab the viewers attention. Limbic areas in a photograph that I tend to focus on are how how the dark and light areas are represented and affect each other. These areas if done badly can be highly distracting, however, if done well can be used to navigate the viewers eyes around the image, and focus on the part of the image that I want them to focus on.
Brightness – The areas of brightness in an image need to be controlled for maximum effect. For example, if there are elements within the image that are brighter than the main focus point, these will grab the attention of the viewer and could loose the main focus and point of the image. Once our eyes see this part of the scene, the limbic part of the brain gets attracted, engages and tends to override other parts of the image. Once these areas have been found, the viewer (in my opinion) will get stuck on these areas and will be drawn back to them time and time again, potentially missing the point of the photograph.
So when i’m working on an image, my first activity is to remove anything that will distract the viewer in this way. In the dark room this was called dodge and burn, and also spotting (spotting was mostly done once the print had been created and was done directly to the print using inks), spotting was used to remove dust spots or anything that would show the natural brightness of the paper. In the digital world on a screen this could be something as simple as litter or other artefacts in the original scene. It could also be a bright light in the image, which might not have been noticed when taking the picture (I’ll come onto bright lights in a little while).
Removal of bright areas is pretty straight forward and there are many ways to remove bright areas in the scene, especially when they are small. Tools like the Clone/Heal in Lightroom, or tools like the Spot Heal/ Clone stamp or variety of patch tools in Photoshop have been designed for this type of activity.
Dark areas can also be Limbic but in a different way. As bright areas are attractive, dark areas like shadows push our eyes away and promote hunting of other Limbic bright areas. So when our eyes see dark areas, they tend to shy away and repelled from these places.
The edge burn technique is a great way for us to control the viewers experience and when the viewers eyes reach the edges of the image, they are pushed back in to the image (centre) to find areas of interest, in this case bright areas.
Times of change.
Back in the day, photographs were printed and photography was all about the print. And edge burning was an active part of the process. However, as times have moved on, there are less images printed and more images appearing on the screen. This does change that way that we need to think about edge burning and when it’s required. For example if the image is shown with a white border on the screen, our eyes will focus on the border and use this as a frame of reference, as opposed to the image, due to the brightness of the border. Once the tones of the border become darker, from middle grey onward the focus and dominance of the image changes, allowing the eyes to focus more towards the image (probably why most slide shows are on a black border). When darker borders are used, burning is not important as the border it self is a big edge burn. If the image on the screen is surrounded by a brighter border (from middle grey to white), then an edge burn might be required to keep the viewer in the image.
When we print (especially in fine art printing), however, it’s most likely that the border will be a mount, and will be a shade of white, (natural white or maybe a snow white are typical). Regardless, it’s still bright and if we are not careful when editing the image, focus of the story in the frame can be lost to the borders and loose the attention of the viewer. In this case, edge burning might be a consideration.
Applying a simple edge burn
In Lightroom the Post Crop Vignette (available under the effects tab) is a simple way to implement the edge burn. There are numerous options for the vignette
Sliders and Controls
Enables highlight recovery but can lead to color shifts in darkened areas of a photo. Suitable for photos with bright image areas such as clipped specular highlights.
Colour Priority minimises color shifts in darkened areas of a photo but cannot perform highlight recovery.
Paint Overlay mixes the cropped image values with black or white pixels. Can result in a flat appearance.
Amount – negative values darken the corners of the photo. Positive values lighten the corners.
Midpoint – lower values apply the Amount adjustment to a larger area away from the corners. Higher values restrict the adjustment to an area closer to the corners.
Roundness – lower values make the vignette effect more oval. Higher values make the vignette effect more circular.
Feather – lower values reduce softening between the vignette and the vignette’s surrounding pixels. Higher values increase the softening.
Highlights – (Highlight Priority and Color Priority only) Controls the degree of highlight contrast preserved when Amount is negative. Suitable for photos with small highlights, such as candles and lamps.
The post crop vignette also supports changes in the crop, by applying the effect after a crop has been modified.
The above options will allow you to create the required edge burn, you will need to wrangle with it to get the results that you want. But if you are wanting to apply an edge burn, similar to the way that the master prints did in the dark room, then it should not be obvious to the viewer, only slightly darker to move the eyes back to the main part of the scene. In the book ‘The Print’ by Ansel Adams, Ansel recommends that the edge burn should be no more than 10% to 20% more than the current exposure of the main part of the scene. In the context of Lightroom, this will need to be converted into a negative value (-10 to -20, I tend to typically use about -17).
Which images might work better with an edge burn.
Not every image will require an edge burn, this will mostly be dictated by the strength of the content in the scene.
i.e. When an edge burn may not be required
In the following example, the bright areas will attract the eye and will keep the viewer in the scene.
The adjustments to this image are quite simple. A recovery of any highlight and shadow detail, then set the white and black point. These are the basic adjustments that I would apply to this image to add more interest for the viewer. Other options include adding 2 radial filters, one to each of the subjects that will darken the areas around them even more. The basic adjustments here, work (in my opinion) because there no strong leading lines or lines of travel in the photograph, so if the viewers eye does accidentally drift to the edges, then the quantity of contrast and the darken edges will move the viewers eye back into the scene.
If there are bright areas in the edges, then an edge burn would most likely be effective and required.
In the following example. The young hay gather is the focus, however, the edges are brighter than the main subject. The hay is important as it adds context to the image but I don’t want it to take over and fight for attention with the main subject.
In this case i would use a Radial filter over the young man that will give more focus on him, then use an adjustment brush on the eyes to increase the exposure to attract the viewer into the scene. In the post process, i’ve also added a gradient filter on the left hand side to darken this area down, as it’s a bit bright. The final touch is a crop to remove the break up of hay on the left, then a post crop vignette of -20 to darken all edges equally.
If there are dark edges already, then an additional edge burn won’t make much of a difference, the natural darkness will perform the same thing as the edge burn would. The final presentation should be taken into consideration, and if printing, the type of mount will make a difference. This is just one way of applying an edge burn, there are others ways as well, i.e. Radial filter or if using Photoshop by creating a mask, or using the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop to apply a radial or Post Crop Vignette.
In the following example, there isn’t a great deal of darkness in the edges, there is however a lot of break up revealing areas of brightness in between the tree branches. In this case there is a danger that the viewers eye will be drawn to the edges. The main subject is the temple, but there is a risk that the speed of the roof will throw the viewer out of the scene.
To balance the image, the exposure, shadows, highlights and contrast are corrected, as well as the white black points to add more contrast. An edge burn of -20 has been added that will add darkness to the edges. Exploring the scene, in my opinion, the viewers eye will be drawn the roof at the top (due to the brighter areas), then the viewers eye will follow the roof lines, downward. Due to the edge burn, the viewers eye should then naturally pick up the branch of the tree and the viewer should naturally come back to the top of the roof and create a continuous circular flow of movement in the scene.
Additional – Using bright areas as part of the scene
In the scene below, the lights are limbic and distracting, however, i feel that in the following example the lights work and are being used as a frame to focus the viewer in to the main part of the image.
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The edge burn combined with the contents and flow of the elements of the image, is a great technique that can significantly improve the look and presence of your final image. This technique is suited to both print and presentation on the digital screen (slide show, a photography portfolio, Facebook or other social networks). It might require a little bit of wrangling to get exactly right and so that the viewer is not able to see it, but in my opinion is defiantly worth the additional effort.
I would like to wish all readers a very Happy Easter and hope that you are able to get out and shoot some frames.