Adding Style to Low Contrast Photos

Sometimes there's no way around it: we have to get out there and photograph in less than ideal weather and lighting conditions. The picture at right exemplifies this type of situation. My wife and I were on a weekend retreat and the days we had allotted for photography ended up being cold and overcast. But, there were still some interesting sites to see, so we headed out with our cameras and found this pier and lighthouse on Lake Michigan (Michigan side).

Even after tweaking the exposure and contrast a bit, the image is still very flat. We have two choices in this scenario: 1) we can try to make it look like good light (i.e. fake it), or; 2) we can work with what we have and try to stylize the image in a way that accentuates what's important in the scene and speaks to the conditions that were present. I think in many cases, it's best to go with the latter option. The image below is the stylized version and it only took a few seconds to create. Let me share with you how I did it and why.

First, rather than try to make all the details stand out, I decided to soften the image using the Clarity slider. The reason I did this is simple: the details along the pier and lighthouse really aren't that important. What IS important is the context. A group of neighbors or friends gathering on the pier, fishing in the cold, cloudy weather. The softening accentuates the feel of a foggy or icy environment, without detracting from the overall composition.

Second, I wanted to shift the color contrast in the image away from the slate blue hues (lake) vs. bright red hues (lighthouse) motif, and make it more muted and rustic. The original colors are both OK on their own but together they create a slightly harsh color contrast. So I used the the HSL controls to shift the hue of the water (the Blue and Aqua sliders) a little towards green, and the lighthouse (Red and Orange sliders) towards orange, which is more of a rust-like color in this setting. From there I pulled the Vibrance setting back, in order to mute the modified colors, so that they lend themselves to the style I was going for. The final result can be seen at left, after a bit of noise reduction (and no sharpening) was applied.

So next time you've captured some interesting compositions in flat or overcast lighting conditions, don't toss the shots! See if you can't stylize them a bit and accentuate the mood or weather of the scene, rather than trying to "manufacture" the contrast found in good light.