BEFORE/AFTER: Hard Light, and Overwhelming Tones

Ever since the middle of high school, I’ve been immensely interested in “the process.” You know, that middle bit between point A and point B that nobody but the artist ever sees. I’ve always loved peeking behind the scenes to see where something started and what kind of work and thought went into creating the finished product. To satisfy those of you who are like me, here’s another post in my Before/After series which not only shows you my images straight out of camera and the final product (hover over the image to see the before), but which uses each image to explain a bit more about what I do in post. If you’re just here for the freebies, enjoy the article! If you want to dig in way further, I cover every step of my post processing in my Editing + Consistency class. Enjoy, friends!


5D III + 35L

Hard light is a whole different beast. It’s a monster with hard shadows, distracting backgrounds, and strong colors. Luckily, we can calm that beast down. And for the record, I know. This isn’t “Hard Light” but it’s modified hard light ( I had a diffuser blocking the sun from her top half) and the background is in hard light. Sheesh.

If you know my work, you know how much I love soft light. You know I search for shade and you know that back light gets me giddy. Well guess what friends… experimentation fosters progression and lately I’ve been experimenting in harder light!


Let’s start with what we should always focus on first, the light. The type of light you work with is one of the most influential factors on your editing. Editing for hard light and soft light is a completely different ball game. My typical images have soft light on both the subjects and the backgrounds. That’s very important to my style since my tends to have a softer (although still contrasty) feel. In the images above, I wanted to keep that softness in my subject while playing with harder light in the background. My setup was simple. The sun was coming through a small circular diffuser on her right (your left) which shaded the top half of her body. Other than that, I let the hard light takeover.

Exposing shots like this is the same as I’d expose anything else. I underexpose the brightest thing I want to keep detail in. Did you follow that? In this shot, I wanted to keep detail in the sky and the skin (I wanted to keep some blue sky) and since the sky was brighter, I underexposed that. That left the skin much darker, but that’s okay because we can bring that up in post without losing details. On the other hand, if I exposed for the skin, I would have kept details there but would have blown out the sky. When shooting digital, if you blow something out, it’s gone forever. It’s always best to err on the side of underexposure (unless you’re shooting film).


Tones! Woohoo! If you’ve shot in both, you may have already realized that one of the biggest differences in soft/hard light is saturation. If you look at a blade of grass in the shade, you’ll see a soft, peaceful green. Move it into the sun and it turns into a freaking neon blaze of green hell fire. Sun = Saturation. It’s just simple math.

Why does this matter? If I want to keep my images in hard and soft light consistent with each other, I have to understand how to manipulate that saturation. This is where the glorious HSL tool comes into play. If you don’t know where that is, it’s the super confusing looking patchwork of sliders under the Tone Curve in Lightroom.  This panel allows you to manipulate three things about each specific color: the hue, saturation, and luminance. For example, I could change the blues in the image (make them a different color, add/kill saturation, or change the brightness of them) without affecting any other color in the frame. Pretty dang handy.

The HSL slider is something I’ve rarely dug into when I’m working on images with softer light but it can be crucial for taming the bonkers colors that hard light can give you. When shooting outdoors with hard light in the background, you’ll likely be seeing strong greens, yellows and oranges taking over your image. To subdue those colors a bit (bringing them closer to how they would look in soft light), you can simply drag down the saturation for each specific color you feel is too strong. So dang easy! The only other thing I did in the in the HSL for this image is to bring down the luminance on the blues/aquas to darken the sky just a tad. You can hover over the image below to can see the exact settings and the difference they made on the image. Yay!

Hot dang, that was a lot of technical mumbo jumbo. Here’s a stupid GIF of me to keep you entertained.

Heck Yeah!


The main reason I shoot with soft light in my backgrounds as much as I do is because it helps me keep a muted tone in an image and it allows the subject to pop. Hard light in the background can have the opposite effect. The background can go from soft to harsh leaving you with a subject that doesn’t draw your eye and a background that feels abrasive and busy.

Good news, we have a fix! Wouldn’t it be weird if I posted one of these before/after blogs where I just talked about all of the problems but didn’t give any solutions. If I ever decide to annoy a ton of people at once, I’ll do that. (And for those of you wondering, that’s what we call a tangent). Lightroom has a killer tool right under the histogram called brushes. These allow you to paint over any part of the image and change almost anything about that part of the image. If I wanted to make her left arm bright orange and contrasty (you know, like on myspace), this is how I can make that happen.

In this case, I’ll use the brush to take the background from harsh to soft by painting on everything except for her and the sky, and lowering the contrast and clarity of that area. Bringing down the contrast subdues the difference in light/shadow and lowering the clarity takes the harshness out of the lines/shapes behind your subject. That creates a softer, more visually pleasing background and a subject that pops out of it. Bingo! You can see the exact brush settings and the difference it made by hovering over the image below.

Alright that’s enough of staring at that image, right? Thought so.


5D III + 35L

This shot of Meredith was from a shoot a few months ago that I was hoping would be a dive into playing with hard light. Instead, I showed up to our shoot spot to find nothing but cloud cover (sometimes nature has it’s own plans).  I ended up shooting most of these front lit using the clouds as a diffuser. That allowed me to have soft, flattering light on Meredith and exposing it in a way that would keep a bit of color in the sky.


Shooting out in nature as much as I do (and jumping from landscape to landscape) can mean I’m always finding little quirks in the colors that I need to fix. When I shoot out in the desert, I find that the yellows and warmer tones can be overwhelming because the light is reflecting off the ground and spreading those warm tones all over the frame. When I shoot in the forest or anywhere with a ton of grass, I see the same thing happening with greens. Above, I said that I rarely come into the HSL sliders when I’m shooting in soft light and this is one of those rare instances. It’s a pretty simple process:

1. Figure out which color is overwhelming.
2. Desaturate that color.
3. Success.

You’ll see in the image below that I also brought down the luminance of the blues and aqua again to keep the color in the sky.


Next up is my happy place, Split Toning. I love the power of this tool and I LOVE turning people on to it. Split Toning allows you to add a specific tint into the highlights and shadows individually. That means I can have blue shadows and yellow highlights (mimicking Kodak Portra), red shadows and blue highlights (mimicking expired film), or I can just create a palette unique to me. I typically prefer to use only yellow in the shadows and nothing in the highlights but lately I’ve been adding blue into the highlights as well for a slightly different look (check out the rest of the images from this set with yellow shadows and blue highlights here).

The difference that HSL and Split Toning can have is pretty drastic in terms of eliminating overwhelming colors and cleaning up your image. If you hover over the image below you can see the difference it makes and the exact settings I used.


Well, dang! That was much more technical than the other Before/After post’s but I wanted to share a slightly different side of things. I hope you found it helpful! Feel free to dig in to my other free education in my blog,  my Editing + Consistency class (which covers everything I do in post and then some), or my other Self Paced Classes.  Until next time, high-fives!

Also, I recently launched Heck Yeah Presets (SUPER EXCITED) for Lightroom and ACR! Kthanksbye.

  1. Reply

    Thanks, Ben, For SHARING your process. This is one of the best write-ups i’ve read recently and, even though i’ve been shooting for a while, i’ve learned some new techniques for handling light.

  2. Reply

    Thanks for that and Great gif 🙂

  3. Reply

    ben! we love yor work + anxiously await your new presets! xx

  4. Reply

    thanks a lot!

  5. Reply


  6. Reply

    As always – great post and sooo helpful! Thank you so much for this 🙂

  7. Reply

    Ok thx!

  8. Reply

    Just the kind of post ive been looking for! Thanj you for Sharing!!

  9. Reply

    Super awesome sharing!

  10. Reply

    Awesome article!

  11. Reply

    Hey Ben! We always enjoy your work and blogs as it inspires my wife and I. Definitely excited to see the presets!

  12. Reply

    i Would love to know when you launch your presets!

  13. Reply

    Love this post extra! It’s so refreshing when photographers assume their readers are smart and capable of understanding nuanced techniques. You are a gift to the photographer communtiy, Ben!

  14. Reply


  15. Reply

    **SO** HELPFUL. Thank you!

  16. Reply

    “… neon Blaze of green hell fire.”
    Haha! Absolutey perfect descrIption!

  17. Reply

    Love your work! Cant wait for Your presets!

  18. Reply

    I think you’re a genius. Thank you thank you thank you for all your helpful advice!

  19. Reply

    Thanks! this was super helpful…

  20. Reply

    this was amazing! Thanks you!

  21. Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing this ben i was in need of some direction and understanding of how tools should be used in lightroom. Very helpful 🙂

  22. Reply

    Reading your blog always makes my day! Thank You so much for sharing and being such a big inspirtion for community over competition. Xx

  23. Reply

    awesome thank you!

  24. Reply

    I get pretty bored reading blogs, so i normally don’t :/. But i always enjoy yours! Thanks for letting your personaliTy come thRough to make it super enjoyable as well as Informational. Huge fan 🙂

  25. Reply

    So great! Thabks for sharing!

  26. Reply

    So excited About this article! I am looking to make my harsh light photos look comsistent with the soft light photos as well. Im so exciyed to see the bew presets released soon too! Thanks for the tips!

  27. Reply

    Thanks, ben. that was extremely helpful to read. 😀

  28. Reply


  29. Reply

    This is so cool and so very helpful! Thank you 🙂

  30. Reply

    So good! Thanks!!!

  31. Reply

    Awesome sauce!

  32. Reply

    Such a great post and so informative! Thanks 🙂

  33. Reply

    Thanks so much of what you wrote in this article online .

  34. Reply

    awesome tips as always! )

  35. Reply

    Fantastic Resource, thanks ben!

  36. Reply

    really a good work here! 😉

  37. Reply

    I always enjoy reading your posts. Thank you for sharing your knowledge (and love) for photography!

  38. Reply

    This is great ! Thank you so much !

  39. Reply

    Thank you, that was really helpful!

  40. Reply

    You win the prize. all the prizes. the whole hover before/after with the image of the sliders right there next to it is amazing and so so helpful. thank you ben!

  41. Reply

    Ben, thanks and would love to get your cool presets!

  42. Reply

    Killer preset notofication

  43. Reply

    Thanks for sharing your process, I can never get enough Lightroom help! This one was especially easy to follow and I loved the clear before and after steps. I am looking forward to checking out more of your stuff!

  44. Reply

    Incredible stuff Ben! Thanks a bunch for sharing. If you ever are in need of a virtual coffee, we’ll shout.

  45. Reply


  46. Reply

    Thank you for a practical and straight-forward blog post! I love learning from other photographer’s and getting a peak into your process. I’ll be a better photographer for having these little nuggets in the back of my brain 🙂 Thanks again!

  47. Reply

    This has been the best thing ever! I feel like every wedding i have shot this year has been harsh light and this is so refreshing and exciting to have this step by step!

  48. Reply

    This is so incredible helpful – thank you, thank you!

  49. Reply

    Amazing! Split toning!? Thank you! I have been trying to fIgure This out for some time. Its perfect. I use the sliders all the time but this just gives me that extra awesomeness i needed to get me in the right direction. ThaNks Ben!

  50. Reply

    Ben! thanks so much for this wonderful write up! i have been shooting for a while and am just moving from photoshop to lightroom for processing. the detail you have included has helped me debug several issues i was having! REFRESHING to see the EXPLANATIONS for what each task does! tahnks for sharing!

  51. Reply

    Love your work…i’m making a new website so it’s old work if you look. i’m still struggling to find my editing style…i feel like i change my mind all of the time. ha!

  52. Reply

    Thanks ben! Very helpfull.. But I want to ask, did you use f 1.4 / 2.8 on that photo? Thanks for your help.

  53. Reply

    This is ss incredibly helpful! I feel the same way about seeing how things get from A to B – and this makes it so much more approachable for me! Thanks again for giving us a peak behind the scenes!

  54. Reply

    Amazing!!! I love love love this.

  55. Reply

    we want more 🙂 love your pictures and retouching style, thanks for sharing simple but yet usefull tips 😉

  56. Reply

    Awesome walkthrough. Beautiful images – love your photo and editing style. Also, really appreciate your conversational writing style. Thanks for the blog post.

  57. Reply

    You can not imagine how much i have searched for a tutorial like this. thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

  58. Reply

    WOW LOVE your WORK.

    Inspirational, THANKS FOR SHARING!

  59. Reply

    i loove your style, how all your images make sense with one another! thanks for this, it wasn’t too technical, it was great! keep it up you are amazing!

  60. Reply


    • Bernie, Thanks! That came from a mix of having a flatter tone curve with the highlights brought down, and bringing up the fill light a bit.

  61. Reply

    Smashing stuff Ben. DON’T shy away from overly TECHNICAL bits and pieces, some of us lap it up wanting more.

  62. Reply

    Love your way of communicating your process, fun and helpful.

    Keep up the work man!!

  63. Reply

    Such a great post..Thank you for sharing! I was just going to ask you about making your own presets 😉 cant wait to see them.

  64. Reply

    Ben, you rock. That is all.

  65. Reply

    hi there! i am new to all this and i can’t seem to understand the first part of the process. how does that work with all the underexposing and stuff? is it the brush and you just played with the exposure button, and you used in some areas to overexpose and in others you did the opposite? the second part is easier since you put the pictures but here i am having troubles and is is the most important part.thanks

    • Hey Luiza! The underexposure is done in camera.If you don’t know already, I’d suggest learning how to use your camera’s meter to expose your image properly (google can probably help you learn this). Once you understand that, you’ll be able to decide to expose it properly, or underexpose (I underexpose).

  66. Reply

    want to know when you have new presets!

  67. Reply

    I understand that,because from what I read you do that a lot. But i am not sure, did you make some modifications in lr before working on the tones?because the before picture from the tones subtitle already looks bright, so i am thinking you already did something and i don’t know what. ,many thanks

    • Luiza, In that image, I had done all of my other edits aside from the tones so I could illustrate the difference the HSL made. I had already added exposure, contrast, etc to the image.

  68. Reply

    well this was crazy helpful!! Your editing class is totally on my wish list but posts like this are so amazing for right now!

  69. Reply

    Interesting as usual

  70. Reply

    Really nice Ben, thank you for sharing with us.

  71. Reply

    Really interesting, thanks ben!

  72. Reply

    hi Ben, thank you so much for posting this, it helped me a great deal! really appreciate it, as not many photographers share.

  73. Reply

    This is the best post on editing i’ve ever came across. Thank you so much! 🙂

  74. Reply

    OMG I just had a lightbulb moment after reading this post! Thank you señor Sasso for this great blog post – – I love following your work!

    Muchas Gracias from Pura Vida Land AKA Costa RIca!

  75. Reply

    discovered your site and insta maybe 17 mins ago and already hooked. your writing is so refreshing and i am officially obsessed with your work!!! thank you for being so honest about your editing style too, it is so refreshing to have a photographer care about helping others! three cheers for ben and an extra for that gif!

  76. Reply

    These are gorgeous! This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  77. Reply

    Thank you sooooo much!!!!

  78. Reply

    Mind bending, but awesome stuff! Thanks mate.

  79. Reply

    Thx for your job!! Great post! 😀

  80. Reply

    I would like to be notified when you release your presets. Thanks!

  81. Reply

    Sign me up for the email buddy, god damn that was easy to follow and all presented in a very palatable lovely website.

    i think you’ll see by my website that i need to start killing a few harsh killer distracting colours in my photos

  82. Reply

    This was fantastic, truly appreciate your openness. As soon as the next paycheck comes through editing+Consistency is going in the shopping cart.

  83. Reply

    Amazing post, thanks so much for explaining all these things in detail!

  84. Reply

    hey ben! i’ve been UTILIZING split toning e lately and loving it. one question on skin though – in that picture of meredith, you desaturated the yellow to chill out the rocks, but how is her skin not affected?

    • Hi Hanna! The skin isn’t affect as much because the main tone in her skin is orange, not yellow.

  85. Reply

    This is just amazing, thank you so much fOr this post and for sharing tHis insight into your work. Your photos are beyond beAutiful! Looking Forward to being able to attend one of your workshops one day!

  86. Reply

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

  87. Reply

    Wow! this worked Wonders! I hope you hold an inperson class soon!!

  88. Reply

    Ben! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us in great detail. You’re pretty darn awesome! 🙂

  89. Reply

    wow. this is an eye opener. i keep coming back to this post to get inspired on what i can do with a proper image in post.

  90. Reply

    Thank you! This was incredibly helpful + refreshing how you are so open about the editing process. appreciate your willingness to let others into the process (for free!). keep it up!

  91. Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing Ben, you’re a legend! Love your work!

  92. Reply

    This was so great! I’ve intended to read up on this article for a few weeks now and I’m glad I finally had time to get through it. Thanks for the helpful tips, as editing hard light has always been my main struggle. Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  93. Reply

    Wow, that was su h handy information, thank you so much for being so open and sharing it with us all 🙂 Hugs from New Zealand

  94. Reply

    Thanks so much for all this info!!!! You are a rockstar!

  95. Reply

    This is solid. Thank you For always being so transaparent and sharing with the community!

  96. Reply

    This is solid. Thanks For always being so transaparent and sharing with the community!

  97. Reply

    What a refreshing approach to being an inspiring photographer!!! No tangents… .just real encouragement & answers!! ! Youre the real deal & my favorite.

  98. Reply

    This is great!
    Thanks a lot!

  99. Reply

    You’re a legend mate… Bloody loved your self paced classes – but you already know that…
    Love all this extra info you keep on giving us. You are rad.

  100. Reply

    Great post. I love the clean soft look of your images. 🙂

  101. Reply

    Dude, so inspiring. I’m so gratful for you and your willingness to share your awesomeness.

  102. Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing this! It’s an awesome little tutorial and so helpful! You totally made split toning less of a monster for me to actual understand!!

  103. Reply

    Thanks for sharing and a great attitude 😉 !


  104. Reply

    This was so so incredibly helpful! Thank you for showing your creative process in editing!

  105. Reply

    no sky on these photos, before i can see sky and after not? this same with white dress, i dont see it only “big white hole”
    no chance to work with fashion magazines
    also why spend some much time in lightroom when we can use vscom, one click and pic are ready. your tutorial is waste of time and life 🙂 but you do good photos 😉 so + for that .

  106. Reply

    So helpful! Way better than any tutorial I’ve seen out there. Transparent, and to the point but also fun!

  107. Reply

    Thank you SO much, Ben!! Your editing style is my absolute favorite, and I’m always trying to replicate parts of it. I so so appreciate that you are so willing to share your creative processes <3

  108. Reply

    Great read. Thanks Ben 🙂

  109. Reply

    Thank you so much for all the information you provide for us! You are truley an amazing artist!

  110. Reply

    THANKS BEN! these classes are so helpful. ive been feeling real down and in a rut and these inspire me to experiment and try new ideas. so grateful!

  111. Reply

    Awesome post Ben, i’ve known what the HsL sliders have done for a fair while, never thought of using them like in the examples! Cracking work!

  112. Reply

    Hey, thanks for the post! Question i’m in lightroom but i can’t find the soft background option?

  113. Reply

    Thank you for your turtoruals. One Day i will Photograph like you. You are a great example of What a nice photography Should be. Keep on doing what your are doing ! Thank you !

  114. Reply

    Thanks! This was really useful! is always nice not to see only before/after pictures but also the way you get to them, thanks again!

  115. Reply

    Great post, Ben! Thanks so much for sharing! May I ask what you used for a diffuser? Thank you! 🙂

  116. Reply

    I literally lol’ed at your explAnation of the Grass in hard light!!

  117. Reply

    I learned so much from this one blogpost, I wish more photographers shared their processes! I’ve messed around a little bit with HSL & Split toning, but the way you explained it & the before/after showed me how & what to do to achieve a totally different look!! so thank you!!

  118. Reply


  119. Reply

    andihavebeenlookingforsomethingtohelpmeonthissubject,thisWHOletime!! aaah at last i can breathe. thanks ben for your post – super super helpful.

  120. Reply

    Hi, love your website. What meter would you recommend to use with the contax 645?

    • Thanks Chao! I love the Pentax Digital Spot Meter (it’s based on a zone system, not like the sekonic meters.

  121. Reply

    As someone who hasn’t taken a retouching class in over a decade, your quick (albeit, technical) post here was an awesome read. Even though I edit images every day, I think it’s great to read up on the post processing of other talented photographers. So thank you! And keep up the great work!

  122. Reply

    Do you have an assistant help you with your diffuser? If not, how do you manage by yourself?

  123. Reply

    I will have to recommend you to my friends. I am very thankful to you for giving this post.

  124. Reply

    thank you for sharing!

  125. Reply


  126. Reply

    Oh this was sooo helpful. THank you. Most tutorials out there give such minimal advice and just waste time. BOnus points for being funny too!

  127. Reply

    Thank you for sharing your process! so helpful for a beginner like me!

  128. Reply

    a good article for learning photography

  129. Reply

    You’re a good dude, ben. Thanks for being so entertaining, educative, Inspiring and genuine. it’s great to have someone like you ’round the old interwebs.

  130. Reply

    HUGE fan of your work! thanks for always be so transparent. love your philosophy, your humor and your insanely beautiful work!

  131. Reply

    So well written and such helpful information!!!! Thank you!!!

  132. Reply

    Hi Ben, could you please share with us the EDIT YOU MADE AT THE VERY BEGINNING (EXPOSURE, Highlights, Shadows, WHITES AND BLACKS)? Thank you 🙂

  133. Reply

    Thanks for sharing this! I’ve totally struggled with hard light / mixed shade many times, and i’ve found the HSL sliders to be really tricky.

    I look forward to trying your approach 🙂

  134. Reply

    Wow, that was interesting. Thanks so much for sharing, I learned something new today thanks to you. 🙂

  135. Reply

    oh my gosh!!!!!! That was amazing and so helpful!! thank you so much for sharing your talents

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