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Less is More: How to Alter Photos Creatively in Lightroom With Negative Adjustments

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Read Time: 7 min

Most photographers start the editing process in Adobe Lightroom by increasing sliders in the Develop module: add more detail, add more saturation, add more contrast. 

But what if we flipped this script, and experimented with the art of less? Instead of augmenting some part of the picture, a negative adjustment in Lightroom removes emphasis from specific details and areas in order to direct the viewer's eye. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to apply adjustments to the negative and see your photos a little bit differently.

Negative clarity adjustmentNegative clarity adjustmentNegative clarity adjustment
Negative adjustments like the ones in this image can give images an ethereal feel.

This type of edit highlights an important photographic post-production principle: creative adjustments are all about producing the finished image as you envisioned it when you captured the frame. The non-destructive editing approach in Lightroom gives you the freedom to experiment and express that creative vision.

How to Apply Negative Adjustments

Before we dive in, let's level-set our understanding of how Adobe Lightroom works:

By design, the adjustments that we'll see in this tutorial impact the look and feel of an image. In Lightroom, these types of adjustments take place in the Develop module. Lightroom is split into a series of tools inside of a single app, and the Develop module controls the look of an image.

Lightroom works on a series of sliders in the Develop module. Each of the sliders controls a different aspect of the photo's appearance, and the name of the slider is usually pretty intuitive. For example, increasing the Exposure slide will brighten an image.

Adjustment sliders in Lightroom Develop moduleAdjustment sliders in Lightroom Develop moduleAdjustment sliders in Lightroom Develop module
Use the adjustment sliders in Lightroom's Develop module to change the appearance of an image.

To change a specific part of the image, pull on the associated slider. When you move a slider to the right, you increase an effect. 

If you shoot RAW images, the files are typically a bit flat after capture. Therefore, most of your adjustments will be "increases" or positive adjustments, made by pulling the slider to the right. Pulling a slider to the left is considered a negative adjustment.

Negative Detail Adjustments

My favorite form of negative adjustments takes place with three key sliders: clarity, texture, and dehaze. Most photographers work with an image by turning up these sliders to bring out more detail.

Of course, the point of negative adjustments is to remove some details. The purpose of photography isn't to enhance every single detail to the maximum levels; instead, the image should have a feel and style to it.

The best way to see the power of negative adjustments is to see a couple of examples. The image below is a favorite in my library, and I like the default edit that you see on the left.

Negative detail adjustments exampleNegative detail adjustments exampleNegative detail adjustments example
In this example, I pulled the detail sliders down, which reduced some of the highly sharpened areas for a more 'painted" type of feel.

Negative detail adjustments don't always work well for portraits, but when they do the effects are stunning. Portrait editing styles are all about personal preference, but the example below shows a before-and-after with negative Texture and Clarity applied.

In this case, the summertime feel to the image lent itself well to dialing down the details. It fits perfectly with the mood of the image.

Portrait negative adjustmentPortrait negative adjustmentPortrait negative adjustment
This portrait benefitted from negative detail adjustments for an even lighter feel.

In Adobe Lightroom, you can create many copies of the same image to experiment with multiple editing styles. Use virtual copies and the tutorial below to create many editions and experiment:

Also, to learn more about the Texture tool, make sure to check out the full-length tutorial below:

Negative Color Adjustments

Many rookie photographers start the edit by turning up the Saturation and Vibrance sliders, cranking the colors to borderline unnatural levels. Even if your style features strong use of color, de-emphasizing some colors can enhance others.

The key to negative adjustments is to control the saturation of each color. Still working in the Develop module, find the HSL/Color settings. Click on HSL, and then switch to the Saturation option.

Each slider controls a different color in the image, and you can use the sliders to control the saturation of each image. Pull a color to the left to decrease its specific saturation.

One way to apply negative color adjustments is to focus on the dominant color. In the example image below, there's plenty of green foliage that tends to dominate the feel of the image. However, I'd instead draw more attention to the subject. By making a negative adjustment to the green slider, the subject is more the focus of the photo.

Negative adjustments to greenNegative adjustments to greenNegative adjustments to green
In this example, applying a negative adjustment to the green tones will draw more attention to the subject.

Let's look at one more example. In this photo, a photo of an abandoned factory was saturated and contrasty in my original edit. I'll pull down the blue and green tones to de-emphasize those parts of the frame and draw more attention to the abandoned building.

De-emphasize blue and greenDe-emphasize blue and greenDe-emphasize blue and green
I used a negative adjustment to the blue and green tones to re-focus attention to the structure.

As I said at the start: adjustments are all about creating the finished image that you envisioned when you captured the frame. In this case, highlighting the urban scene meant decreasing the saturated blue and green tones.

Creative color adjustments are the single most powerful tweak to apply to your images to add your style. Learn more in the tutorial below. 

Use the Adjustment Brush

When you start applying negative adjustments, you'll notice that the sliders impact the entire image. But maybe you only want to apply the negative adjustment to part of the image.

In that case, you'll need to use Adobe Lightroom's adjustment brush tool. You can adjust settings, then paint them over specific parts of the image. I used a negative clarity adjustment brush for the photo in the intro to de-emphasize only the background.

Learn more in the adjustment brush tutorial below:

More Adobe Lightroom Photo Styles in a Click

Working in the digital darkroom can be downright fun. Taking an image, styling it, and creating a finished product is an entirely separate step in the creative process.

Editing apps like Lightroom are so powerful, can also feel overwhelming. With so many sliders and options, how can you choose the settings for your image? The solution is to use inspiration in the form of Adobe Lightroom presets.

Envato Elements Adobe Lightroom PresetsEnvato Elements Adobe Lightroom PresetsEnvato Elements Adobe Lightroom Presets
Use Envato Elements to source hundreds of Adobe Lightroom presets and apply single click styles to your imagery.

Lightroom features some built-in presets, but there are plenty of other options to try. On Envato Elements, you can source hundreds of Lightroom presets for a single flat rate. Each of these presets gives you a different starting point for styling your image.

Consider saving and sharing your negative adjustments as presets that you can re-use on future images. Learn how to create a preset in the quick screencast tutorial below:

Keep Learning Adobe Lightroom

In this tutorial, you saw the power of negative adjustments. You've seen that de-emphasizing certain parts of the image is an important technique to draw focus to other parts of an image.

Negative adjustments are just one type of style you can apply to your images in Adobe Lightroom. Check out the tutorials below to learn even more about using Lightroom to complete your image edit:

How do you use negative adjustments in Adobe Lightroom? Let me know in the comments below, or share a favorite tip with your fellow Tuts+ reader.

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