Lightroom: Painting with Textures

One of the great challenges of photography is to add range and dimensionality to 2-D digital images — and more challenging, to Raw images that already have a flat appearance.

I have a whole section on how to add dimensional complexity to landscape photos in my new book, Photographing Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks. And I’ve continued to explore this tool set in my latest images, taken in Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. Here are a few examples:

Agathlan: The Flatness of Midday Light 

Everyone knows that mid-afternoon light is deadly. Sure, the best solution is to be at a spot when the light is right.  But lots of times, that’s when you’re doing a tour or seeing the sights. Lightroom can’t totally solve the problem, but the image elements can be given far more texture and physicality with a few tricks.


Agathlan, Before. Raw image straight out of the camera. I like the composition but the mid-afternoon light flatness everything out.

This image (above) is a decent composition but without as much visual interest as it might have. So I broke the composition down into it’s key elements: the volcanic peak, field, fence and road, afternoon clouds. And I came up with this LR variation.

Agathan, After. Breaking down the image not components, clouds, mountain, road and fence, field. But using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Agathlan, After. Breaking down the image into components. By using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Obviously the sky has been darkened using one of the “Big Sky” presets I got from the Kelby folks. But there’s more happening. Look at how the cumulous have pulled away from the background cloud cover.

Now compare the textures in the mountain, how each outcrop has more depth and rawness. I could get some roughness in the rocks by doing a global Clarity adjustment in LR. But it wouldn’t have been as nuanced that way and a global adjustment would have also given the field an edgy quality and I didn’t want that.

So with both clouds and rock, I selected an area and essentially painted the internal elements of that feature with the Adjustment brush. Lots and lots of little brushstrokes that have extra Clarity, Contrast and Sharpness. I did something similar with the barbed wife fence since I wanted that leading line to have more visual impact. But for other elements, I actually backed off the Clarity and added a tiny amount of Contrast and Saturation.

Monument Valley: Selective Impact

I used a similar approach with the view you see going into Monument Valley. Instead of the standard vista you get as you drive into the Valley, of Left and Right Mittens, I went for a shot you don’t see so much, of Left Mitten and, to its right, King on Throne and the Castle. Here’s the original Raw image.

Left Mitten, King, Castle

This alignment of the bristly pine and the three buttes was what I wanted but the sky and books had gotten flat.

I used a preset to darken the sky to where it should be. Now you can actually see the thick rain clouds that were blowing through. I also gave texture to the pine  with the Adjustment Brush and my usual mix of Clarity, Contrast and here, negative Exposure. It’s a great foreground element and it needed presence to compete with the Mitten.

I also did some Adjustment Brush work on the three buttes — but not as a whole unit. Instead, I treated each piece of each monolith as a separate column. The eye still has a clear direction into the image — from foreground pine to Mitten to King to Castle. But each element has been give far more complexity and the eye ends up exploring far more.


Left Mitten, King on Throne and Castle. These Monument Valley features got a similar treatment as Agathon in order to deepen the mood and add impact.

In a way, I’m just pulling out more information about the different visual elements here, especially the blown out sky. But these adjustments are doing more than “fixing” something. I’m telling the eye, these are the key elements that you should include in your journey. And by treating each element separately, the sense of space between each butte becomes more defined. And I’m doing it in a way that is closer to the reality of that stormy moment than the camera was picking up.

Adjusting the Light

I’m using the same technique here. But in this image, most of the elements are too dark — which mutes color and hides the compositional dynamics.

A storm front coming in at sunset flattens the rich colors and hides too much of.

A storm front coming in at sunset flattens the rich colors and hides too much of.

I lightened up the fields and highway, added texture to the butte and added contrast to the sky, all with local adjustments. I also eliminated some of the buildings on the left so the highway lines are cleaner.

Monument Valley

Rainy Day in the Valley



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