The Art of Subtlety: 4 Ways To Add Vignette To Improve Images Effectively

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Vignette may not be on your list of top priorities in developing skills as a photographer. After all, how hard can it be to darken the border of your image, right?

Although that may be true, adding a vignette that actually adds to the overall aesthetic of your image is an art.

It is the art of subtlety.

In my opinion, you should think about why you want to add vignette and what you are trying to achieve instead of adding it for the sake of following what everyone else is doing.

Having said that, your image is probably going to look better with a vignette in any situation even if you don't know why...

But here is the issue:

You don’t know exactly how the added effect has improved the image. This means you can’t replicate the result and be consistent in your work.

In this tutorial, we are going to dive deep into adding a vignette to an image. You are going to learn how to add a vignette subtly to effectively improve your image in post-processing.

What Is A Vignette?

You probably guessed it right. It is not an English word but a loan-word from French. It is used to describe the vine decoration that typically borders certain pages of a book.

book vignette
how to add vignette in photoshop and lightroom

Classic vignette on the left and photography vignette on the right

In photography, a vignette is a darkened border of an image. Typically, it reduces gradually in tonality as you move away from the center of it.

There are 2 types of vignette. To be honest, I don’t think there is an official classification but this is how I separate the 2:

(1) In-camera and (2) post-processing.

In-Camera Vignette

This is when the vignette is present on the image the moment you pressed the shutter release on your camera. This can happen as a mistake or as part of the properties of the lens you use.

An unwanted vignette can be caused by an improper lens hood. Normally, the lens hood that comes with the lens or sold separately by the same lens manufacturer will be fine to use. It is those third-party ones that may cause problems. These may be too big or long for the lens and therefore causing unwanted vignette.

Another potential cause is stacking filters. It can happen with both circular and square filters. This problem can be avoided by keeping the number of filters to the minimum. It is worth doing a test shot after you have put on all the filters you need before taking the actual shot. Ultra wide angle lenses tend vignette more easily with multiple filters.

vignette caused by excessive filter stacking

Wide angle lenses are more prone to vignette from stacking filters

A vignette can also be caused by the construction of the lens and as a “natural behavior” of light. The term used to describe vignette in these situations is “light falloff”. As the elements within each lenses are different, some lenses have less light falloff than others. This is something lens manufacturers are trying to improve constantly with every new lens that surfaces the market.

In terms of “natural behavior” of light, this is referred to as the inverse square law where light intensity decreases to the square of the distance.

Post-Processing Vignette

This is the part where we are most interested in. Regardless of whether you are thinking of adding a vignette as the final touch in your post-processing workflow, you should always remove any in-camera vignette to begin with.

Image post-processing software these days are more robust than before. Removing vignette is simply a matter of checking a box, for example, in Adobe Lightroom.

Why removing vignette before you start post-processing when you actually want the effect in the end?

The reason is you want to get all your tonal and color adjustments done first. Doing so with the presence of in-camera vignette means the effect will become too strong which eventually ruin your image.

Black vs White

When adding a vignette in post-processing, you can choose for it to be in black or white color. Having said that, I can’t recall the last time I saw an image with a white vignette.

Why Add Vignette To An Image?

While adding a vignette is not that difficult, the tricky part is knowing why you are adding it and creating an effect that is both subtle and smooth.

Having your image looks darker around the border does make it look nicer to look at...but why?

Highlight The Subject

This is probably the commonest reason why you would want to add a vignette to your image. Very popular in genres like portrait, still life, product photography, etc. where there is normally a main subject in the image.

When there is an obvious main subject, you will automatically focus on it the moment you lay eyes on the image. A darkened border is going to help reduce distractions to enable the main subject to pop.

Redirect Attention

An image doesn’t always have a main subject. Sometimes we take a shot because we want to document the mood or the emotions we felt being at the scene.

This is commonly the case in landscape photography where every element in the scene adds to the composition. There isn’t a single subject yet if you remove one element, the composition crumbles.

A vignette can be used in these situations to guide your viewers where to look. Maybe there was a particular part of the scene that triggered your emotions to take the shot and you want to make sure your viewers can appreciate that.

Contrast Enhancement

I experimented with vignette a lot and many times the image just magically looked better. Apart from the two reasons explained above, vignette inevitably increases contrast in every image I applied to.

What I realized was if the image is generally bright or has elements that are bright in color, adding a vignette darkens the area around to make the brights appear brighter. This effect can sometimes be even more natural and visually appealing than contrast adjustment using Levels or Curves.

The Art of Subtlety

Whatever you do, don’t create a vignette that ends up looking like the mount of a photo frame.

how not to add vignette to an image

Vignette overdone

Your aim is to add one that enhances the image yet so subtle that it is invisible.

One way to tell if you have achieved your goal is to compare the before and the after image. You have mastered the art of subtlety if you can’t tell there is a vignette in the after image but clearly notice a difference when compared it to the before image.

How To Create Vignette In Photoshop and Lightroom

I know you may not be using the same software as I do. But what I’m showing you here are generic steps so you should be able to replicate it in any software.

There are MANY ways to add a vignette to an image but I’m going to show you 4 techniques that I personally use most frequently in my workflow. In my opinion, these deliver the best result compared to others.

Built-In Vignette Adjustment

This is by far the quickest and most effective way of adding a vignette. The slider controls are fairly intuitive and deliver a very good overall result.

adobe lightroom vignette adjustment

In Lightroom, the controls are located at the bottom of the adjustment panel in Develop Module. In Photoshop, similar controls can be found in Adobe Camera Raw filter by going to Filter > Camera Raw Filters. Make sure to convert the layer into a Smart Object first.

The slider controls are pretty self-explanatory and you should play with it by moving the slider to the end of either direction just to see how it affects the image. Above the sliders, there is a dropdown menu with 3 options: (1) Highlight Priority, (2) Color Priority, and (3) Paint Overlay.

Personally, I use Highlight Priority in probably 80% of the time. It basically tells Lightroom to preserve the highlights so it won’t be affected by the vignette you apply. Color Priority, on the other hand, preserves color in the border of the image from the vignette.

Pretty clear cut, right? But here is the secret...

highlight priority vignette
color priority vignette
paint overlay vignette

Effects are exaggerated for the purpose of comparison: (1) Highlight Priority (2) Color Priority (3) Paint Overlay.

Color Priority actually works best if the border of the image has a uniform color. A classic example is applying a vignette in an image with a lot of blue skies. If you only have some color objects in the border, Highlight Priority probably works better.

What about Paint Overlay? This option is a legacy from the previous version of Lightroom. It darkens the and desaturates around the border. I have never used this personally.

Another thing worth mentioning is the Highlight slider at the bottom. In the event the vignette is too heavy that it tones down the highlights too much, use this to recover it.

Radial Filters In Lightroom

Even though the Vignette Adjustment in Lightroom and ACR are perfectly fine to use, it can only add a “general vignette”. This means the vignette is created based on the center of the image. This can be an issue if the area you want to highlight is off center.

Radial Filter in Lightroom is one of the solutions to this. If you have read my other tutorial before, you know how much I like Radial Filter because it is extremely versatile.

adding vignette in adobe lightroom with radial filter

Once the Radial Filter is selected, create a circle around where you want the center of the vignette to be. Ensure the box for Inverse is unchecked in the Adjustment Panel.

Now the fun part. Experiment with the settings in the Adjustment Panel to create the effect to your liking. I recommend you starting with Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks. Each of these adjustments affects only what it is supposed to affect, i.e. Highlights adjust highlights only, etc. I’m sure you can imagine, with so much versatility, no doubt you will be able to create an effective yet subtle vignette.

Lastly, use the Feather slider (above Invert checkbox) to control how smooth you want the transition of the vignette from center to out.

Image Style In Photoshop

This is one of those hidden gems in Photoshop. Image Style is used frequently in composite photography where parts from different images are blended together to create a single image. In terms of adding a vignette with Image Style, you need to use the Gradient Overlay.

Start by selecting the layer you want to apply vignette in the Layers Panel. If adding a vignette is the final touch in your workflow (and it should be), I recommend stamping all visible layers first by using keyboard shortcut Cmd+Opt+Shift+E (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E for Windows).

Double click on the empty space of the stamped layer in Layers Panel to bring out the Layer Style panel. From the list of styles on the left, select Gradient Overlay. There are many things to select here and it may look intimidated, but the only 2 adjustments you need to tweak are Opacity and Scale.

Opacity determines the transparency of the vignette. The higher the opacity, the less transparent it is. Scale changes the transition of the vignette. A higher scale value creates a larger highlight area in the center. To see how this affects your image, look at the Preview on the right (make sure the box for Preview is checked).

adding vignette using the gradient overlay in photoshop

(1) Double click for Image Style; (2) Select Gradient Overlay; (3) Adjust Opacity and (4) Scale; (5) Click Gradient to make the center of the vignette more transparent

To reposition the center of the vignette, drag the Image Style panel (but don't close it) to the side so you can see more of the image. Left click on the image and drag to move the center of the vignette to where you want it.

If you the center of the vignette is not transparent enough to highlight your subject, click Gradient (shown as no. 5 in the image above) to open up the Gradient Editor (image below). Click and drag the small white square at the lower right corner of the gradient rectangular box towards the center. Experiment it to get the effect you like. You can always come back to readjust as many times as you want. 

adjusting gradient for vignette in photoshop

(1) Click and drag towards the center to shift the transition of the vignette; (2) Look at Gradient as you do so to see the changes

Nik Color Efex

Nik Color Efex is one of the plugin software from Nik Collection. It was acquired by Google and given out for free for a short period of time in 2016 until DxO bought the assets.

You will have to pay a small price to get the latest version of Nik Software. But DxO does offer the older version for free which you can download it here.

What is Nik Color Efex? It is essentially a collection of smart filters which you can apply as a plugin in Lightroom, Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

One of its filters is called Darken/Lighten Center and is one of my favorite ways to add a perfectly subtle vignette.

If you are doing this in Photoshop, convert the layer you want to apply vignette to a Smart Object first. Then, choose Color Efex from the Filter menu. Select Darken/Lighten Center from the list of filters on the left. Click the Place Center icon and click on the image where you want the center of the vignette to be. You can re-do this step if you need to.

use color efex darken lighten center to add vignette

You can then adjust the brightness of the center and the border separately. Compare the before and after by clicking the Compare button on top and hit OK when you are done.

How Stealth Are You In The Art of Vignette?

Just to wrap it up...

If you are new to vignette, start with the in-house Vignette Adjustment in Lightroom and Photoshop (or the equivalent in your image post-processing software). The only disadvantage is you can't add off-center vignette.

Radial Filters in Lightroom, Image Style in Photoshop and Color Efex plugin allow you to add vignette anywhere you want in the image. These also have more adjustment options to play with.

We are living in the digital age where our viewers’ attention span is shorter than ever. You probably only have a few seconds to catch their attention before their thumb swipes the screen up and down searching for the next interesting content. Creating an image that catches attention immediate require it to pop, a vignette can definitely help to achieve that.

No matter what technique you choose to add a vignette, keep it subtle. Less is more.

For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!

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