Adobe Lightroom – Selective image editing

Lightening and darkening specified areas of a RAW photo

Load the photo in Adobe Lightroom

This sample photo offers a lot of opportunities for editing. The background is rather light, the sky is severely bleached, and the foreground is too dark.

Of course we’re handling a RAW file, easily editable in Lightroom. The main problem is that usually, adjustments affect the whole picture. This is why Adobe Lightroom versions 2.0 and up offer the Adjustment Brush tool which allows selective adjustments to be applied only to specific image areas. Today, we’ll start with the sky.

The brush

The Adjustment brush can be found in the Develop pane, on right side of the upper toolbar. Click it to display a settings panel which offers six types of adjustments: Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, Clarity and Sharpness.

Our primary goal is to make the sky somewhat darker, that is, decrease its exposure.

Select Exposure and the ‘-‘ sign which represents decreasing. Intensity can be specified using the Amount slider. For now, set it to -1.0.

Brush size

The adjustment brush, true to its name, is to apply the selected adjustment like you were painting. Where the brush touches the picture, the photo will become darker by -1 exposure value.

But first, set the Brush – Size slider at the bottom of the settings panel. Make sure Auto Mask is selected below.


When it is over the picture, a couple of circles show its size and a + sign its center. The larger circle is the sensitive area of the brush, which, when Auto Mask is enabled, attempts to separate objects in the picture.

The painted area—that is, the exact size of the brush—is the smaller circle. This is where exposure decrease will be applied. Darkening will only affect those areas which the + sign passes through.

For example, when darkening the sky, the + sign must only touch the areas belonging to the sky, and thus, every sky pixel inside the inner circle will darken. The circles can touch other picture elements, for example, roofs. The brush will distinguish them from the sky and won’t affect them, only if the center touches them as well.

The way it works is pretty similar to Photoshop’s smart color swap brushes and backdrop removing erasers. In fact, trying it will make you understand quicker than reading this explanation.


If you messed up something, press Ctrl+Z to undo the last step. Beware though, it will also revert the whole of a larger area which has already been painted over.

For correcting smaller errors, use the Erase feature belonging to the Adjustment Brush. This is at the top of the settings panel, near the brush size control you already know.

After painting over the desired areas, a dot appears where you started painting. Hover the mouse pointer over this dot to display a transparent red mask showing the painted areas. If you painted some parts unintentionally, click the dot, and then click Erase at the bottom of the panel. Now you can use the Size slider to set eraser size, and start tidying up those messed-up parts.

A bluer sky

By painting, you have now decreased exposure, but you can apply other adjustments as well to the painted area. Click the switch in the upper right corner of the settings panel to display all possibilities. Adjusting exposure by -1 EV is already in effect, but for now, enhancing the blue of the sky is also desirable as it is currently rather dull. To do this, increase the Saturation slider. Darkening and saturation increase will both affect the sky.

As you like

Further areas can be adjusted using the same procedure, without affecting the whole of the picture. Click a new option (e.g. Exposure+), set up the brush, lighten the shadowed areas in the foreground, then select another (Contrast+) to increase contrast. You have a multitude of choices. After painting for a few minutes, we got the above result.