The differences between OK photographs, good photographs and terrific photographs are numerous, but the reasons for the differences can be subtle and not so obvious. Subject matter is important, though sometimes a strong photograph of peeling paint can have as much or more impact upon the viewer as a strong, well-lit portrait.
Regardless of what or whom you are photographing, composing a photograph often comes down to framing a visually pleasing balance of light and shadow. But even a well-composed, well-lit photograph can benefit from post-capture tweaking in the form of darkened corners—or “burned” edges, which is a printing technique that goes way back to the early days of photography and was a common darkroom practice for enhancing portraits and landscape imagery. This isn’t to say even edge-to-edge tonality is bad—in fact it’s more often than not perfectly fine and appropriate for any given image. There are however, many photographs that can be improved by selectively darkening the edges of the frame as a subliminal means of redirecting the viewer’s eyes back to the main subject of the photograph.
It’s interesting to note vignetting was part and parcel to photographs taken in the earliest days of photography, not for stylistic reasons, but because the optics of the day were notoriously inefficient at delivering light to the extreme corners of the frame, which in many cases added to the character of the images regardless of how bland they may or may not be.
Back in the day of darkroom printing, “burning in” the edges of an image was common practice, and was usually performed by placing one’s fist in front of the image’s light path to hold back light from the center of the frame and increasing the exposure time to the edges of the frame. To ensure smooth tonal transitions and feather the edges it was important to jiggle one’s hand during the burn time, and because burn times and hand position varied print to print, each print was unique unto itself.
Fast-forward to the Digital Age and things haven’t changed all that much. What has changed is the methodology and the tools we use to darken the corners of the frame. Instead of jiggling our fists in the enlarger’s light path, we now use the Burn tool found in Photoshop and similar image-editing programs, the icons of which are coincidentally shaped like a cupped hand.
When you click on the Burn icon in Photoshop, you get a choice of options that determine the diameter of the burn zone, as well as the degree of feathering and transparency of the burn footprint. Unlike darkroom burning, Photoshop offers you the option of undoing single or multiple burn sweeps, and once you get the desired effects, the image can be saved as a new file and used to produce as many identical prints as you need.
Another method of vignetting the corners of the frame is to open the Filters drop-down menu, go down to Distort, slide over to Lens Correction, and play back-and-forth between the Darken and Midpoint sliders until you achieve the desired effects. You can achieve similar effects (and in a similar fashion) when processing RAW files in Photoshop, though when working in Photoshop’s RAW file processor you also have the option of creating elliptical or rectangular edge darkening, which in some cases can be far more visually pleasing than circular vignetting.
It’s also worth noting that these same sliders can be used to lighten the edges of image files in instances in which you’d rather have even edge-to-edge tonality.
Regardless of your choice of vignette shape and the degree of darkening you choose to apply to the image, it’s always a good idea to darken the edges moderately to avoid a heavy-handed look. With the exception of images created from RAW files, always work on a copy of the original image because once you hit the Save button, there’s no going back.