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Aster Be Good: Post-Processing Purply Flowers


Asters of any kind provide such potential in photography: the colours and the gentle curve of their tiny thin petals combines with their close-growing nature to give the impression either of flowers fighting each other for space and light or of a mass of colour, huddled together for comfort. The clump of asters shown in this shot are a soft, luscious purply-cerulean-cornflowery-blue. Light seems to dance off the petals. Or it would, had there been much light when I took this. Instead, it was a fairly overcast day and I pondered whether it was worth the damp knees necessary to get down low enough to grab this shot. Turned out it was.

Equipment: one 5D Mk II; one 135mm f/2 L (traditionally employed by people for portraits or street photography, pulled into service by me for flora and fauna); one copy of Lightroom; one set of damp knees; and one hoodie covered with burrs from stalking what should have been a small deer through a clump of bushes five minutes earlier (turned out to be, well, a large blackbird).

Getting the Shot

I tend to take most nature shots wide open (at f/2 here, as wide as the 135mm goes). On a full frame this can lead to difficulties getting the precise area you want in focus. I usually take two or three shots once I’ve isolated the right composition from slightly different angles, ensuring that the filaments of the flower or, in this case, the petals, are perfectly sharp. The focal plane in this photo also catches the shaded bud in the lower right, adding a little more substance to the shot. But it’s a little dull, rather flat, and a bit busy. It needs light. Some movement. Some definition. It needs to become other than dull-shot-of-asters-with-no-light.

Luckily, there is a lot of potential here. Shooting the asters wide open means that the purply-cerulean-cornflowery-blue can become this beautiful, hazy, light bokeh, gently punctuated by the yellowy centres of the out of focus asters. The particular shade of these aster petals offers great possibilities in post-processing (for me, that’s Lightroom).

I’m going to do three main things to this photo: crop it; add light; and play with the colours. If anyone would like to follow along, I’ve made the original RAW file available to download.

Don’t Be Afraid to Crop

I find people often fear cropping. Perhaps there’s a worry about cutting down a photo to something smaller, about losing what was in their viewfinder – but often, this is what can make a shot. By cropping this photo square, coming in tight to the central flower, I can turn it from a bank of asters into something a little more dramatic, reducing the elements in the photo to the main flower, the bud in shadow, the out of focus flower bottom right. In the Develop module in LR, I chose the crop icon under the histogram and picked ‘1×1’ from the drop-down.

Because of LR’s non-destructive editing, you can crop, re-crop, re-re-crop, and… you get the idea. The original file stays untouched so you can always revert back to where you were or choose a different crop even after all your other editing changes have been made.

The square crop also allows the purple bokeh to become the dominant background rather than the green of the original shot but still provides some contrast. I tried a landscape crop but the various elements of the shot just didn’t seem to fit, so square it was.


So now to tackle the flat and fairly dull image. First stop is the Tone Curve panel. Some people like to drag the curve into position. I prefer the sliders. I know I want to give this image some light, so I increase the ‘Lights’ fairly significantly. I up the ‘Highlights’ a little, though this doesn’t make too much difference. I also lighten the ‘Darks’ (slider to the right). This lost a little contrast so the Shadows were increased a little to compensate. The screenshots below show the before and after in the Tone Curve panel:

Here’s what the photo looks like after the change (hover your mouse over it to compare):

Now this is a bit more interesting. It feels like there’s some movement there now. I make two further changes. Contrast goes up, in this image all the way to +100; brightness is lowered a little, both of which make the image a little more dramatic. Both are found in the Basic panel.

Here’s what the photo looks like after the change (hover your mouse over it to compare):

Colour Play

When I first started experimenting with LR, this may have been where I stopped. But this is now where much of the fun begins. Lightroom offers a range of tools to adjust the colour and general feel of the photograph. I have few general rules with nature shots and will often simply play around in different areas until the photo feels right. There are certain colours in this photos which offer obvious possibilities: blues and purples, greens, yellow and oranges. So these are the areas where I’ll start to tweak. I had no finished product in mind at this point. I just wanted to see what was possible. It’s important to note that what I describe here isn’t necessarily the exact order in which I actually process. I’m often jumping from one panel to another, sliding something here, tweaking another bit there, going back and reverting to a previous change. The word to remember: play.

In Lightroom, I use the HSL / Color panel, the Camera Calibration panel, the Split Toning panel, and make some global changes with the Temperature and Tint sliders in the Basic panel. I will use some of these more than others depending on the photo. Again: I have no guidelines other than “play with the sliders” but I’m concentrating on the colours which are most obvious in the photo.

Below are the changes I ended up with. As you start to learn Lightroom or some other sofrware, it’s worth experimenting with these one at a time to see how they change the photo. Slide it one way, slide it the other, watch how the colours and the feel of the photo change. The Blue Primary alterations in Camera Calibration can have a big effect, for instance. Upping the saturation of the orange and yellow in the HSL panel make the centres of the asters brighter and more vibrant.

And this is where it brought the photo (hover your mouse over it to compare). All together now: ewwwwww…

But three small changes in the Presence panel will now magically transform this photo from an over-saturated mess into (almost) the finished product. I’m going to reduce the saturation (which will get rid of the currently overbearing purples and orange), increase the vibrance (which gives a little more depth), and then lower the clarity (which adds a nice glow).

Much better – but it’s still not quite there. I’m going to add in a little more light by upping the Exposure a tiny bit on the Basic panel (very small changes only to the Exposure slider) and brightening the corners slightly in the Effects panel.

Et voilà. We’re done. One dull and flat bank of asters now cropped, glowing, and dancing in the light (hover to compare).

Hover over this link to compare it to the original crop.

Much of the post work broadly follows a free preset I have available for RAW files in Lightroom and ACR / Photoshop called ‘When the hurly-burly’s done’. Similar examples can be found here and here and the preset itself can be downloaded (along with a few others of mine) with a single click right here.

If there is a lesson to learn here, it’s not how to make an aster look different. It’s not to be scared. Lightroom (and almost every other image editing software) offers enormous power to make changes to your photos. Play with it. Use it. The more you understand it, the more power it provides.

About the author: Harold Lloyd loves bokeh, coffee, and the battery grip for his 5D Mk II and can be found tweaking his portfolio site or playing around on Flickr.