Sometimes when concentrating on exposing the subject correctly, the background of a picture can be overexposed, especially if the subject is backlit. Other times it’s a creative choice to have a dark background. Either way, wrong exposure or creative choice, here’s how to darken a background in Lightroom Classic.
You actually have several ways to edit the background, because different photos need different treatment. Sometimes you can do a blanket quick and easy edit that affects the entire image and other times you need to work on just part of an image.
We’ll cover how to darken a background in Lightroom using:
- 3 types of global adjustments
- 7 types of background masking techniques
Pro tip: Use the desktop version of Lightroom and make sure your image is a raw file for the best results. But sometimes that won’t even help if you’ve really blown out the highlights in the background as you’ll see at the end of this article.
Global adjustments to darken a bright background
Very often you can darken a bright background simply by bringing down the highlights without affecting the overall exposure of the image when:
- Background highlights make it much brighter than your subject, especially a white background
- and there aren’t many highlights on your subject, or in other parts of the image
As always, with Adobe Lightroom there’s more than one way to do this, so you have a choice of three tools:
- Basic panel sliders
- HSL panel sliders
- Tone curve
1. Basic panel tools to darken background
Because it’s the easiest possible solution to an overexposed background, start in the basic panel by dragging the highlights slider to the left. Keep an eye on your subject to make sure they’re not affected by your adjustments.
Next, try reducing the overall brightness with the exposure slider and then brighten the shadow areas by increasing the shadow slider.
2. HSL panel to darken background
If the background color is different from your subject, like a blue sky or green grass, use the HSL panel for a color photo. To darken luminance in the Hue Saturation Luminance panel:
- Click on the targeted adjustment tool at the top left of the Luminance section of the HSL panel
- Position it on the bright part of the image you want to darken
- Drag downwards to reduce the brightness
You could also use each Luminance slider to darken individual colors, but I find it easier to just click and drag on the part of the image I want to adjust.
When working with a black and white image the B&W panel replaces the HSL panel. The Black and White Mix color sliders work the same way as the HSL luminance sliders, as does the targeted adjustment tool.
3. Tone curve to darken background
Although I’ve included the tone curve as an option, it’s not as effective as all the other methods for fixing the background, because it affects every part of the image.
Lightroom Classic offers two tone curves for adjusting tones, the parametric curve and the point curve. With both tone curve tools, it’s important to make sure you keep an eye on the rest of the image while darkening the background.
Select the parametric curve by clicking on the first icon in the tone curve panel. Then:
- Select the targeted adjustment tool at the top left of the panel and click and drag down in the image where you want to darken it (best option)
- Or click and drag on the curve in the appropriate area
- Or use the region sliders below the curve to make adjustments
To reduce brightness with the point curve, select the point curve by clicking on the white circle at the top of the tone curve panel. Then
- Select the targeted adjustment tool at the top left of the panel and click and drag down in the image to darken the area (best option)
- Or click on the point at the top right of the tone curve and drag it down slightly to darken highlights only
- Or add a point curve to the lights or highlights area and then drag downwards
How to darken background in Lightroom (background only)
For a more refined approach that doesn’t make a global adjustment to the whole photo, the best way to darken the background in Lightroom is to darken part of an image that’s too bright. This involves three steps:
- Select the part of an image to darken
- Refine the area selection, if necessary
- Darken the selected area using sliders
Step 1: select the background in Lightroom
To make the background of a picture darker you must first select it by creating a mask of the area you want to darken.
For a long time we’ve had 3 different ways to select and change backgrounds in Lightroom Classic. Now we have 7 methods for different scenarios. With the 2022 update masking became so much easier. Two super easy methods were added using AI technology and two new methods were added.
- Select background (AI)
- Select sky (AI)
- Brush tool (used to be local adjustment brush)
- Radial Gradient (used to be radial filter tool)
- Linear Gradient (used to be graduated filter tool)
- Color Range (latest version of Lightroom)
- Luminance Range (latest version of Lightroom)
We’ll start with the two AI masking tools and then the selective adjustment tools to darken part of an image.
To create a mask, in the Develop module, click on the masking icon to open the masking panel (round icon, far right). You can also use the keyboard shortcut (Shift+W) from anywhere in Lightroom to go straight to the masking panel in the Develop module.
1. Darken background (that isn’t sky) with a background mask
When, for example, you’ve photographed somebody in the shade and there’s a sunny patch of green grass in the background you’ll need to darken the background. The good news is that it’s ridiculously easy to mask the background in Lightroom Classic.
- Under “Add a new mask” in the masking panel click “Background”. Lightroom AI will automatically detect and select the background. If your mask overlay is on, your background will be red (or whatever color you’ve chosen for your mask overlays)
You can then brush out any areas of the image you don’t want included, but we’ll get to that in the next step.
Before and after using the background mask tool to select and then darken the background.
2. Darken background with a sky mask
When photographing outdoors very often the sky’s in the background of a photo and if it’s brighter than the subject, it’ll be overexposed so will need to be darkened in post production. Darkening a blue sky in Lightroom is also a great way to add drama and make white clouds really stand out against the sky.
- To darken a bright sky is now very easy, because all you need to do is click “Select Sky” under “Add a new mask” in the masking panel. Using AI Lightroom will automatically create a mask of the sky
Next, brush out any areas of the image you don’t want included.
Before and after using the sky mask tool to select and then darken the sky.
3. Manually select background to darken with the brush tool
If you need to select just part of the background (or foreground) to darken, the brush tool is a good option, especially if it’s an irregular shape.
Under Add New Mask click on Brush to open the brush panel (or push K on the keyboard to open the brush tool in the Develop module from anywhere in Lightroom)
- Set brush size and feather and make sure flow is set to 100
- Check the Auto Mask box to select just the area you want and avoid “coloring over the lines”
- Brush over the areas of the image to apply the mask
Before and after using the brush tool to select and then darken parts of the image.
4. Darken background with a linear gradient mask
Before we could select sky with AI, we’d use a linear gradient to darken the sky and it’s still a good option. Plus, the linear gradient can be used to darken any type of background where you want the effect to gradually fade out.
Because you can angle the linear gradient, it’s also really good for darkening the background from a corner, or from the side – not just from the top or bottom of the image.
Under Add New Mask click on Linear Gradient to create a linear mask (or push M on the keyboard to open the Linear Gradient tool in the Develop module from anywhere in Lightroom)
- Click and drag down from the top, side or corner of the image
- Fine tune the mask by clicking on either the top handle or the bottom handle to make the transition more or less smooth
- Move the mask up or down by clicking and dragging the central handle
- Change the angle of the mask by hovering over the middle line until you see a double sided arrow and then click and drag either right or left to rotate the mask
If you can’t see the mask lines, push H on the keyboard to show them and then H again to hide them.
Before and after using a linear gradient to darken the sky. The reason the subject isn’t darker is because I excluded her from the mask by clicking subtract, then selected subject (keep reading for more details on refining the area).
5. Darken background with a radial gradient mask
I use a radial mask to darken the background just enough to make my subject stand out, so I often use it quite subtly and with a large amount of feathering. The radial mask works best when your background isn’t a solid color, as with solid colors the effect might be more obvious.
Under Add New Mask click on Radial Gradient to create a radial mask (or push Shit+M on the keyboard to open the Radial Gradient tool in the Develop module from anywhere in Lightroom)
- Click and drag over the subject to create the mask
- Check the invert box to deselect the subject and select the background
- Fine tune the mask by increasing or decreasing the feather slider or by clicking and dragging on either the inner or outer handle handle to make the transition more or less smooth
- Move the mask by clicking anywhere in the masked area and dragging it
- Change the angle of the mask by hovering over the outer line until you see a double sided arrow and then click and drag either right or left to rotate the mask
If you can’t see these lines, push H on the keyboard to show them and then H again to hide them.
Before and after using a radial gradient to darken the image background around the subject.
6. Darken part of an image with a color range mask
When the background color is uniform and different from other parts of the image, one of the easiest ways to darken it is to select the color to darken with a color range mask.
- Click “Range” under “Add a new mask” in the masking panel to open up the range mask options
- Click Color Range (or use the keyboard shortcut Shift+J)
- The cursor becomes a eye dropper
- Click on the background color in the image you want to darken
Lightroom will automatically create a range mask of that color.
Before and after using the color range mask tool to darken the sky.
7. Make background darker with a luminance range mask
Creating a luminance range mask is a great way to darken part of an image based on the brightness of that area. However, with this method, you’ll more than likely have to remove some of the mask, which I go over in the next step.
- Click “Range” under “Add a new mask” in the masking panel to open up the range mask options
- Click Luminance Range (or use the keyboard shortcut Shift+Q)
- The cursor becomes a eye dropper
- Click on the part of the image you want to darken
Lightroom automatically creates a luminance range mask and you can then refit the area by brushing out some of the mask (as you’ll see a little further down).
Before and after using the luminance range mask tool to darken parts of the image.
Step 2: refine the selected area to darken
If some of the background area selected includes parts of the image that you don’t want to darken you can use any of the masks in the existing mask to erase parts of the mask.
You’ll find it easier to see this if the mask overlay is switched on. To show selected mask overlay option push O on the keyboard and push it again to switch it back off. Or use the long method, which is to uncheck the box next to the overlay icon.
The brush tool is the most common one to use for deselecting an area:
- Click on your mask
- Click the subtract button to see a dropdown menu titled “Subtract from Mask with…”
- Select the brush (used to be called adjustment brush tool)
- Adjust the size and feather of the brush and make sure the flow is set to 100
- Make sure the Auto Mask box is checked so that you can easily brush out just the area you want
- Paint out the area where you don’t want to apply the mask
Step 3: darken background area selected
After refining your background mask, make sure you click back on the mask before proceeding to the final step to darken the background. This will open up a panel that has all the usual basics panel sliders, separated into:
- Tone – Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks
- Color – Temp, Tint, hue, Saturation
- Presence – Texture, Clarity, Dehaze
Plus the detail panel sliders – Sharpness, Noise, Moire, Defringe.
Exactly which panels and sliders you use will depend on the image and the look you want to achieve. So you’ll need to experiment and use a combination of sliders.
- The exposure slider and highlights slider are the main sliders you’ll use to darken the background
- To darken shadow areas drag the shadow slider to the left
- Sometimes dragging the whites slider to the left to darken whites will also help
- If the background is already has dark tones that you want to make darker, drag the black slider to the left to darken blacks in the selected area
- Increasing the clarity slider in the presence panel will also help darken the background
There’s an Amount slider at the top of the mask panel, which is great for increasing or reducing the overall effect of your background adjustment to your desired level. When you increase or decrease the amount slider all the sliders you’ve altered will be adjusted equally at once.
The only changes made to the three versions of the image below is a change in the amount slider.
- On the left I reduced the amount to 50
- I left the middle image at the default setting of 100
- I increased the amount to 150 for the last image
Although the change is subtle, it’s a handy way of controlling your settings.
It’s always a good idea to check that you haven’t over processed an image. To do this, use the switch at the top left of the mask panel to switch the mask off and view your starting image and then back on to view the final image with the darkened background.
Darken the background on several photos at once
Yes, you read that right – darken images faster with batch editing. Once you’ve darkened the background on one photo, you can apply the mask to other similar photos. It won’t work with every method of darkening part of an image and sometimes you’ll need to make slight adjustments, but it’s a great time saver in many situations!
To sync the settings across the photos above I:
- Selected the edited image
- Then selected an unedited image
- Clicked the Sync button
- Selected the mask to sync
- Pushed the sync selections button
The background was automatically darkened by copying across the sky mask of the edited image. AI detected the subject and excluded her from the mask, even though she was in a different position.
Why use different ways to darken the background?
Every photo is different, so you need options for darkening part of an image. For example, you’ll have noticed that I used an image twice in this Lightroom tutorial to demonstrate different ways of fixing a picture.
- First I used the brush tool to darken just the paving foreground and background – see second image below.
- Then I used the same image to demonstrate using the luminance range mask to fix the background, foreground and material – see third image below.
It’s up to you to decide which method is best for the image.
Sometimes you just can’t fix a picture
Even though Lightroom is really clever, if your background is too blown out it won’t be fixable. Even if you shot in RAW, as you can see from these before and after photos below.
The sunny patch of green grass in the background of this photo was too blown out to fix. As you can see in the after picture on the right, there’s still a white line that’s completely blown out. Even the part of the image that isn’t blown is still so overexposed that it’s obvious that I’ve tried to darken it.
Keyboard shortcuts used in this Lightroom tutorial
Shortcut keys speed up workflow and you can learn more about my most used Lightroom shortcut keys here, but meanwhile, here are the shortcuts mentioned in this Lightroom tutorial:
- D – Develop module
- Shift+W – masking
- K – brush tool
- M – radial gradient
- Shift+M – linear gradient
- Shift+J – color range mask
- Shift+Q – luminance range mask
- O – show and hide mask
- H – hide and show mask details
Further reading: 28 essential Lightroom shortcuts that will speed up your workflow
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Let me know if you have any comments, questions or suggestions on how to darken a background in Lightroom.