How to Edit Car Photos in Lightroom
Unedited car pictures can often lack color and emotion. It could be because they were shot at the wrong settings, or simply that they are straight out of the camera.
Our solution can be found using the editing tools found in the develop module of Lightroom. Each adjustment you make can transform the look of the image, good or bad. So what is the best way to edit car photos?
In this tutorial, I show you four easy steps to turn any car picture from a dull RAW file to a digital masterpiece! The focus here is to make the car blend well with the environment but also have it stand out as the subject of the image. Let’s begin!
Here is my original, straight out of camera image:
Step 1: Take Care of The Basics
I begin the editing process in the Basic section of the develop module. This part is what I like to call the “meat of the burger” because we take care of the base exposure that decides the main look of the image.
Start at the top of the Basic Panel by adjusting the white balance first. Since the original image is a bit green and warm, I will lower the temperature to 5600 and increase the tint to 10.
All of the other sliders below those two, from exposure to saturation, can be adjusted based on your personal preference. Just make sure not to go overboard with increasing the exposure, highlights, or whites too much, or else you can lose valuable details like color and texture.
A good rule of thumb is to keep the clarity below 30, but above 0. Abusing the clarity slider will result in the image being too dramatic, which can look unprofessional. When in doubt, adjust in moderation.
Step 2: Color Adjustments
Now it’s time to make detailed adjustments to each of the colors. Click on the “HSL/Color/B&W” icon and then on “All” to show all the colors. For these adjustments, I will begin at the top and work my way down:
Red - Add a bit of saturation to make brake calipers pop more.
Orange - Nothing really orange in this picture so I skip it.
Yellow - I up the saturation to show off how cool the paint color is. But I actually bring the luminance (brightness) down a notch to maintain the integrity of the paint shade.
Green - The grass in the back is too green for the look I am going for, so I pull the hue slider to full yellow and completely remove the saturation. I then add some luminance so the grass isn’t too dull.
Aqua - I make the hue more blue to effectively reduce the teal tinge of the windows.
Blue, Purple, and Magenta - For this image, I ignore them.
Next, I will use the Split Toning Panel to totally change the feel of this car photo. How it works is that you adjust the hue slider to decide which color of highlights/shadows you want to add and then adjust the saturation for each.
In this case, I chose to make the highlights warm and the shadows blue. I never touch the Balance slider, as that just makes everything more complicated.
The selection of colors is based on color theory, which is a separate course on its own. But at the end of the day, it’s whatever pleases your eye the most. Personally, I like to keep the highlights yellow/orange and the shadows blue, as that combination looks the most natural.
You can see above that the image now looks much more refined in terms of exposure and color. However, it lacks the punch that makes it a final product.
That’s where the graduated filters come in:
Step 3: Utilize Graduated Filters
In my opinion, what sets an amazing car photo apart from an ordinary one is how much the car stands out. Because after all, it is the main subject!
If you’re taking photos of a car, chances are it’s on a road. An efficient way to add drama to your image is to make both the road and sky darker. This can be accompished in Lightroom by using the Graduated Filter.
Click on the rectangle icon located on the image above, then drag from the bottom of the image up to the car. Now you will see three white lines with a black dot in the middle.
Drag the middle line for moving the filter and the top line for adjusting the length of the filter. Click “O” on your keyboard to show the selected overlay of the filter you made - you should see the arrow by “Show Selected Mask Overlay” ticked. For this graduated filter, I will decrease the exposure to -1.50 to make the ground a bit darker.
You can actually change the Overlay color in Lightroom by going up to the menu bar of your screen, clicking on “Tools”, and hovering over “Adjustment Mask Overlay”. You can see there are four colors - red, green, white, black - for you to choose from. The color you choose isn’t a big deal, but it’s best if it’s separable from the part of the image you are working on.
Next, I will create another graduated filter, this time for the sky. Since the clouds are quite dull, I want to darken them significantly to add more drama while also bringing focus to the car.
So on this graduated filter, I completely lower the highlights, pull down the exposure, remove a bit of haze, and add a hint of warmness to complement the yellow paint. The key here is to trick the viewer’s eye to go straight to the car, but at the same time, maintain the natural look of the environment.
Step 4: Final Touches Using the Adjustment Brush
Now the car image looks spot on and the editing is almost complete. However, I want to add some finishing touches by darkening the side windows and boosting the contrast of the wheels using the Lightroom Adjustment Brush.
You can find the Adjustment Brush two icons right of the graduated filter icon. For the brush settings, I keep the flow/density at 100 and the feather at 20. The brush size totally depends on how much detail you are working with - for this image, I leave it at 17.
To boost the contrast of the wheels, I increase the clarity, saturation, and of course, the contrast of my adjustment brush. The selection doesn’t have to be perfectly round, but make sure to not select parts of the car paint or the road.
Darkening the side windows is simple. Just make your selection and then increase the Dehaze slider. Make sure your selection is quite accurate - to cover the entire window but not the rest of the car - so don’t rush this step.
In just four steps, you can totally alter the look and feel of any car photo. The beauty of this process is that it can be applied to any automobile image, action or static, and can be customized to fit your personal style.
And since Lightroom is nondestructive, you can redo any changes you make to your image. In summary. I hope you found this tutorial useful!
Here are my before/after images:
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