A simple cheat to direct a viewer’s eye

We can’t always control the shoot as much as we’d like. One of my regular gigs is shooting real food prepared by real kitchen staff at real restaurants. The shots are more about the cooks and the restaurants than about my photographic prowess. Many times food comes out of the kitchen looking perfect, other times … not so much.  On these assignments I’m also usually restricted to available light, or minimal supplemental lighting. Immediately I’ve lost control over two key aspects of the shot. It’s on assignments like these that I’ll often employ a trick that’s so simple I’m almost   embarrassed–vignetting.

By artificially darkening the corners and edges of images we can direct the viewer’s eye toward the center. The trick is to not overdo it, but to have it be subtle. If you look at an image and think, ‘Oh, darkened corners,’ you’ve most likely gone too far. There are several points along the way where you can employ this trick, but my preference is in Photoshop, after the image has been cropped and the contrast adjusted.

My personal method involved the Quickmask tool and an Adjustment layer. On you image, enter Quickmask mode (Q key command) and select a round paint brush of appropriate size. Then simply mask the majority of the image. Remember this is a mask, not a selection, so the areas you paint will not be affected by the next step.

Quickmask mode
Quickmask mode

After you’ve masked the appropriate areas, exit Quickmask mode (Q key command again.) The areas you haven’t masked will now be selected. Add a Curves adjustment layer (Layer, New Adjustment Layer, Curves) and bring the mid-tones down to the appropriate point. I usually use 10% as a good starting point. This is the area where you can go too far if you’re not careful, so take your time.

Drag mid-tones down about 10% to start
Drag mid-tones down about 10% to start

The great thing about doing this on an adjustment layer as opposed to directly on the image is the ability to edit the curve as well as the layer mask after the fact.

Raw file
Raw file

File with darkened corners
File with darkened corners

Sometimes we simply have to go with the situation presented to us. Those situations don’t always allow for full control at the time we shoot. But using a number of little techniques and gimmicks can really help a shot pull through.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. It’s kind of ironic that we photophiles will debate the quality of lenses on factors such as vignetting and then artifically add it to our images later, but I like to add subtle amounts of edge and/or corner darkening to my images too. It can really help to better self-contain the subject and the scene with less likelihood of the eye trailing off the frame.

  2. Great tip!

    Adobe Camera Raw’s “Lens Corrections/Post Crop vignetting” is also a very quick way to get corner/edge darkening around the whole image. Very handy in some situations, and completely reversible.

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