Adjustment Brush Basics--Part 1

By Gene McCullagh
October 12, 2010

Lightroom provides a feature rich interface which can sometimes hide things in plain sight. Even if you have used the Adjustment Brush before there may still be some things hiding in the tool's panel. And that's one of the great pleasures of using Lightroom. Most tools are powerful and easy to use right out of the box. This let's a new user get quickly into the flow and start making their images dazzling.

Yet, many tools have more things to offer with some additional digging. Let's take a basic tour of the Adjustment Brush panel and explore the many parts of the interface. There is a lot there so we should get started! You will find the Adjustment Brush in the toolstrip below the histogram in the Develop module. You activate the tool by clicking on the brush icon or pressing K. (Another memorable shortcut--K for Kbrush...the K is silent...just kidding).

The panel consists of 4 sections:
  1. Mask: select whether to edit an existing adjustment or create a new one
  2. Effect: select a brush preset and determine the amount of the adjustment to apply
  3. Brush: select the brush to use and what size it should be
  4. On/Off: turn the adjustment on or off, reset the brush, or close the dialog

At first glance this doesn't seem to be too useful a feature. Ah, but there is more just waiting below the surface. Both the Effect and Brush sections have reveal triangles in the upper right. Click those to reveal more sliders and options!

Let's take each of these sections individually. The sliders in the Effect section apply to all brushes in a given adjustment. (Yes, there are multiple brushes. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. More in a minute.)

Exposure effects the exposure of the image wherever the adjustment is applied. It ranges from -4.00 to +4.00 exposure stops.

Brightness adjusts the brightness of the image and mainly impacts the midtones. It ranges from -200 to +200.

Contrast adjusts image contrast, again, mainly in the midtones. This slider (and the next three) range from -100 to +100.

Saturation changes the vividness or intensity of the colors.

Clarity can increase localized contrast in the positive range and apply localized softness in the negative range.

Sharpness increases edge definition in the positive range and blur in the negative range.

Color introduces a tint to the adjustment. When no color is selected an X appears in the swatch. Color here is additive. It doesn't replace the underlying color but adds the tint to whatever is there.

As you can probably see from the depth of these sliders there is an enormous amount of tweaking and finesse you can apply with any given adjustment brush. Another thing to note about the Effect section is that these adjustments are live. That means that even after you apply the adjustment you can change the sliders and the corresponding brushstrokes will update in realtime. This gives you additional flexibility when applying adjustments since you are not locked into the adjustment once applied.

So why does this section collapse and expand? It's rather clever actually. When the section is expanded you have access to each of the individual sliders. When the section is collapsed there is one slider called Amount. In this mode you can adjust the amount of the overall adjustment applied to the brushstroke. This concept is not necessarily intuitive and could benefit from a quick explanation.

Let's use the exposure and contrast sliders to illustrate. Suppose you set a brush to apply an exposure adjustment of +4.00 and a contrast adjustment of -100. So what does amount mean in this case? Amount ranges from 1 to 100. At 100 the exposure applied is +4.00 and the contrast is -100. As you decrease the amount slider from 100 to 1 all of the component sliders approach 0.

At an amount of 1 all sliders are virtually at their starting point of 0. At 100 they move to the extremes of the range you set. That is, if a slider is set in the negative range amount moves it in that range and never flips it to the positive side. The same is true of positive setting, they never flip to the negative side. So Amount is another level of adjustment finesse available to you.

The last thing to talk about in this section are presets. Lightroom comes with a few brush presets already installed. But you can save your own presets. When you have set up a brush and want to save those settings as a preset click the dropdown next to custom (once you change any setting this will change to display custom) and choose Save Current Settings as a New Preset... Give the brush a name and save it. It will now appear in your presets menu.

If you make a change to an already existing preset you will also be presented with an option to update the preset.

There is more to explore so check back for Part 2 where we will explore the Brush section.

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