How to Edit Cinematic Photos

Longing for the perfectly balanced matte glow of lights at night in your photos? Long no more as I present to you a step-by-step guide on making your night photography go from phone snap to cinematic slap. This post will also talk about how to make cinematic edits in general, so if you are looking to add a little black magic to your camera, take a look at the guide below.

Read more: How to Edit Cinematic Photos

What does Cinematic mean?

Cinematic photo editing is where a photo shares similar characteristics to images found in modern-day cinema. This includes, and is not limited to colours, contrast, and mood of the image, often influenced by the colour grading style from particular films.

Often, cinematic edits have deep contrast, a slightly matte appearance, rich vibrant colours, a darker exposure favouring glowy highlights, and more. All of these can be manipulated in post-production, in this case, Adobe Lightroom.

Step 1 – Balanced Exposure

Exposure. A balanced exposure simply means that your photo isn’t too bright, it’s not too dark, and it is balanced. To correct an image, use the basic sliders of Highlights, shadows, whites and blacks to flatten an image. For example, if the sky is too bright, bring down the highlights. You can also use the Auto button to automatically fix the basics of an image.

At this point, I like to hit the Lens Correction tools to know what I am working with from the start. In Lens Corrections, check the Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberration. This will help improve the quality of your photo further and get rid of any discolouration around the edges.

Step 2 – White Balance

The white balance setting of your image will be the basis of the image’s temperature. If you are wanting more of a warm summer’s evening, you will want to have a warmer yellow base. If you are wanting to have the cinematic lights in the rain, go for a cooler, more blue base.

edit of christmas lights 2022

Step 3 – Tone Curve Contrast

Using the tone curve allows you to create a more creative contrast. For the contrast, you will be wanting to use the point curve option. (The white circle).

tone curve in adobe lightroom

For a cinematic look, you’ll want to add a slightly matte appearance to your shadows. By clicking on the shadow’s base point (bottom left) and dragging it up, you can quickly add that look.

For the overall feel of an image, ask yourself the following questions:
– Can I still see details in the shadows?
– Are there details in the highlights?
– Does the matte appearance feel overwhelming?

You want to have a good amount of contrast for this cinematic look without compromising on the highlights or shadows.

Step 4 – Hue, Saturation, Luminance (HSL)

The HSL adjustment lets you edit the hue, saturation, and luminance of all the colours in an image. This helps to completely change the look and feel of your image or even add complementary colours – green and red, orange and blue etc.

To add the cinema feeling, pick one or two dominant colours in your photo while desaturating the rest. For example, you could choose to keep blue and yellow saturated while desaturating the rest. Desaturating means muting them slightly, not sliding them to greyscale!

In the luminance setting – the controls of the brightness of your colours – brighten any of the colours you previously desaturated, this gives a unique aesthetic to your image.

Step 5 – Colour Grading

The colour grading tool in Lightroom offers an advanced way to add certain colour hues to your photos. For the cinematic editing style, this is one of the most important steps in the process. Depending on which types of colours you want your photo to favour, you can quickly add them via the three-colour wheels. These are for the highlights, mid-tones and shadows.

Choose your colour-grading across all three wheels and then pay attention to the balance and blending tools:
The balance slider allows you to control whether the highlight or shadow hue is more dominant in your photo.
The blending slider will dictate how hard of a transition lies between the shadows, mid-tone, and highlight hues.

mont saint michel in the mist
Image of Mont Saint Michel manipulated by the step-by-step guide, with a warm base, orange mid-tones and soft vignette.

Step 6 – Details

Time to look at sharpening masks and denoising the image. This step is not 100% necessary, however, if you have an image with a higher ISO, denoising and sharpening slightly will greatly help. As an optional sharpening technique, go to the masking slider and drag it while holding the Alt key. (Option key on Mac). This will give you a preview of your sharpening mask as you tell Lightroom exactly what you want to be sharpened. Everything white will be sharpened, while everything black will not. By increasing the masking slider, you will tell Lightroom to refine the sharpening adjustments to only the dominant edges in your photos. 

Another optional detail is to add Vignetting. A vignette simply darkens the edges of your photo to draw the eye to the centre of the frame. This is a great trick to use to make your subject stand out. There is a vignette slider in Lightroom, but, you can get more control and versatility with a radial filter.

Step 8 – Export and Share Your Photos!

There we have it, a cinematic edit from Lightroom to share! If you enjoyed this post let me know in the comments, or share your work with me!

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Published by Briony-Molly

Photographer & Designer. Horse Owner, Book Fanatic

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