The vignette in photographic terms is characterized as the loss of brightness around the edge of a photograph. A vignette was often considered an undesirable effect in photography, as it historically highlighted the limitations of a lens. Programs like Adobe Lightroom come preloaded with profiles for most available lenses and easily counter the darkening effect in software. Vignettes have changed roles in modern photography from an undesirable effect to a creative tool used to draw attention to a specific part of a composition. As the adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and in this article, we will see how the vignette can quickly cross the line from a subtle visual effect to an obtrusive compositional element. Let’s talk about it…

How to get a vignette

While there are more time-intensive (and crop-specific) methods to add a vignette to your images using layers in photoshop, the easiest route can be found in the effects panel in Camera Raw or Lightroom. I typically add a vignette (which I do very seldom) to an image as the last step in my editing workflow. Let’s look at the panel and shed some light on the sliders.

Step one: for now, forget about the style selector, and let’s look at the sliders and dial in our vignette.

  • Amount: A positive value for this slider will lighten the corners, and negative values will darken them. This slider is the one that gets people into trouble the most when adding a vignette. Remember, subtle direction of the viewer’s eye toward the desired subject is better than a silly-looking black ring. Nothing will get you called out quicker in an online forum than a heavy-handed vignette.
  • Midpoint: Higher values restrict the adjustment to the area closer to the corners, and lower values apply the adjustment to a larger area away from the corners. Don’t leave this one at the default 50, consider raising this to 75 for a subtle darkening of your corners without looking overdone.
  • Roundness: Positive values make the effect more circular, negative values make the effect more oval. Which direction you go with this slider will depend heavily on the composition of the elements in your image
  • Feather: Higher values increase the softening between the effect and its surrounding pixels, lower values reduce the softening between the effect and its surrounding pixels. This slider is the difference between a nice smooth darkened corner region and a hard-edged mess.
  • Highlights: (Available for a Highlight Priority or Color Priority effect when Amount is a negative value) Controls the degree of highlight “punch” in bright areas of an image, such as in the glow of a streetlight or other bright light source.

Step two: Once we have a vignette dialed in, head back to the top of the panel and look at the style selector. There are three styles of vignette to choose from:

  • Highlight Priority: Applies the post-crop vignette while protecting highlight contrast but can lead to color shifts in darkened areas of an image. Appropriate for images with important highlight areas.
  • Color Priority: Applies the post-crop vignette while preserving color hues but can lead to loss of detail in bright highlights.
  • Paint Overlay: Applies the post-crop vignette by blending original image colors with black or white. Appropriate when a soft effect is desired but can reduce highlight contrast.

Which style of vignette is best? It depends on your image. I generally dial in the amount of vignette, midpoint and the feather and then cycle through the three style options to see which one fits best with the composition and my intent for the image.

It is an unfortunate fact that unless implemented subtly, vignettes often feel like a processing error to the viewer of your image, especially with white vignettes.

Heavy-handed vignette
Subtle use of black vignette

Why does it always have to be about color?

It is super tempting to throw that amount slider into the positive territory and get yourself a nice white vignette rather than the tired old black one. The white vignette is often seen in wedding photography, and when used properly, can add a beautiful soft finish to a photo. In all my years of shooting events, cars, models, landscapes and products, I can only think of one case where a white vignette didn’t feel out of place in one of my images. If you were thinking it was probably a wedding photo, you are 100% correct. The bride’s white wedding dress, juxtaposed against a dark green background were complimented by the addition of a white vignette and made the subject pop – try that with a photo of a vintage corvette and I can guarantee that you will not have similar results. Posting an image with a white vignette will get you negative comments faster than that classic vette can do the ¼ mile.

Heavy-handed white vignette
Subtle white vignette

Vignette = HDR

For photographers who have been around for a while, post-crop vignettes feel a lot like Hight Dynamic Range photography. For quite some time, nearly every image you saw online used these effects with varying degrees of success. Now, that the newness has worn off (or whining in the forums stopped people from overusing them) they tend to stick out like a sore thumb when you see them. This effect fatigue does not mean the effects should not be used, both post-crop vignettes and HDR have their place when used properly. I believe most of the negativity towards these effects are because beginner and intermediate photographers tend to be too heavy-handed with the sliders. This is part of the learning process, when you are first exploring the use of spices in cooking, the neophyte chef will often tend to be heavy-handed until someone calls them out and puts them into a situation where the proper use of spices can be learned and appreciated. Just like in a well composed dish, you would not want to taste overwhelming cumin, but when used as a subtle component of the dish, it can leave your diners wondering “what was that wonderful spice”. Just like a master chef, use vignettes as a component of your overall composition, not the centerpiece of it

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