What is grading? Grading means that we control the brightness, contrast, colour and saturation of an image. This is a concept that you can apply to any image editing software or even in the darkroom. It can be compared to seasoning your food when you cook, no matter how good your ingredients are, you will always need to add some salt, some pepper, maybe a dash of sugar, etc.

Photography is pretty much the same. No matter how good your images are, you would always need to apply some basic grading just to have the images say whatever you want to say. Grading in Lightroom is done in the Develop module in the basic panel.  Here we’ve got sliders that control the brightness, contrast, saturation, and the colour tone. We are going to refine this slightly further by controlling the highlights and the shadows and maybe a tiny bit of clarity. I am going to explain this later on. 

To help us with this, I would like to activate the clipping warnings. Clipping means that part of the shadow become so dark that they are completely black which means we lose all the detail. Highlight clipping means that part of the highlight become completely white and washed out. And in traditional editing, that’s something that we would try to avoid. I will activate this here. The first thing we will control is the brightness. There are no overall or particular numbers here. We just need to look at the image on the left hand side. I think we would probably all agree that this is too light.

You can also see the highlight warning kicking in. That means that these parts are washed out and white. That’s something that we want to avoid. If this is too light, and that is too dark, then there has to be the perfect setting somewhere in between. And there’s no problem if I don’t make any changes. So if I end up at zero again, that’s absolutely fine. But I need to control this by checking it.

Contrast means that the highlights become lighter and the shadows become darker. In general, this adds visual impact to the image. The image starts to look stronger when we add the contrast. Adding contrast is particularly important when you work with a raw file. When I add more contrast here I start to have problems with shadows and if you zoom into his face, although it’s strictly speaking not clipped otherwise the highlight clipping would actually kick in. This looks white and washed out to me. So a little less contrast, a little more contrast. And again, it’s completely down to your taste.

I’d say that looks pretty good. 

Now, you might have realised that by adding contrast, we also control or effect the saturation of the image. So in general, we can say the more contrast we add, the more saturated we make the image. We usually need to compensate for this by decreasing the saturation. So I’m going to do this ever so slightly here.

And the last element would be the white balance. That’s the colour tone of the image. I like to work with the white balance tool here. Click on something that you know is neutral, like a piece of tarmac, for example, like here that has enough details. And now I can make the image warmer or cooler. So if this is too warm and if this is too cool, then there has to be the perfect setting.

As I said before, it’s really like seasoning your dish. If you add too little salt, then you’re not going to release and develop the flavours to their full potential. If you add too much salt  you may spoil the dish, it is all about finding that perfect amount. 

So this was the first round. I am going to give it a second round, the same order. I start to control the brightness, the contrast, the saturation and the colour tone.

We have already made some huge improvements, but I would like to address some details. The first one, obviously being the specular highlights on his face. This could be problematic because particularly in skin tones, we would like to see some details and I can address this by using the highlights slider. This process is called ‘Recover the Highlights.” In fact, the camera has seen some details in the highlights and they have been recorded in the Raw file 

And now we can recover these. OK. So let me zoom out. You can see the effect on the entire image. That’s looking pretty good. I can do the same thing with the shadows. I can slightly open up the shadows if I like.  I personally like a bold visual style. Keep the shadow slider at zero and whites and blacks always keep it at zero.

And here, by using the clarity slide, I can actually add local contrast. Be careful with this one. If you overdo it, then the image really starts to have a really particular almost a jarring look. Stay maybe in the range of about plus ten, plus fifteen. Let me switch those clipping warnings off. And I’m gonna give it another round and I’m gonna control the brightness,  contrast, highlights and now the shadows and saturation and again the colour tone.  So I think that’s looking pretty good. If I compare it with the original image, I think that’s a huge improvement.

And one last thing that I would like to add to my images is split toning. Split toning only means that you can add a bit of colour tone to the highlights and to the shadows. And a really classic split toning would be a slightly warmer highlights and slightly cooler shadows. And it takes a little bit away of the digital  cleanliness of an image. Let me show you how I do this.  

Firstly, select the colours by increasing the saturation. This one here increases the saturation for the highlights. And this one increased the saturation for the shadows. So I completely overdo this now just to see what type of colour I would add in this case. You can see here that at a really beautiful beige tone to the highlights. And now I would select something that’s pretty much the complimentary colour, some sort of a cyan aqua tone.

Something like this. This is obviously far too strong. Toning should be something that you hardly see. You’re supposed to feel it than see it. So now that I have selected my colours, I’m going to reduce the saturation again. Maybe something like this. You can switch this effect on and off here, and it’s supposed to be very, very subtle. OK. This is looking great. Much better than our initial starting point.