“Washed out” look in Lightroom

The “washed out” look for photos has been popularized by the barrage of “retro” filters in apps like HipstaMatic or Instagram (think of the “Willow” filter for black & whites). With “washed out” I mean photos where true black has been eliminated (it can of course be used for white as well). This is simply a compression of the tones in the darkest areas of the image, eliminating detail – the lack of detail and added brightness makes these areas look “washed out.”

Tone curve for a washed out look in Lightroom - the black point has been slightly raised, to eliminate true black
Tone curve for a washed out look in Lightroom – the black point has been slightly raised, to eliminate true black

Now I’m not generally a fan of killing detail in my photos, but there are some situations where this look is quite nice – one of those situations would be fog, where I typically want to add some contrast to an overall low contrast scene, but also preserve a soft and somewhat flat look.

The key is Lightroom’s parametric Tone Curve, as illustrated in the screenshot. You just need to click on the little icon in the lower right of the Tone Curve panel in the Develop module (it’s labelled “Click to edit point curve” when you hover your mouse over it) to switch to the “free” tone curve editing, where you can place points as you please.

To raise the black point, click on the rightmost dot of the curve (in the lower left corner of the square), keep the mouse button pressed, and drag that point up a little bit.

Values between 5% and 10% off of true black work quite well – above that, the loss of detail becomes a bit too much for my taste, but you might of course want to play around until you achieve the look you want. As you can see to the right, I also lifted the mid tones and lights a little bit for the photo of the Black Oak, to further the bright/hazy appearance of the tree in fog. Another control point close to the black point was added to keep the dark tones down while adjusting the mid tones.

You can do the same with the white point (in the top right corner of the curve) of course, to compress the whites in your photo. Personally, I find that it often reduces punch and brilliance of a photo too much, but your mileage may vary.

Last not least – combine this with some Split Toning effect for a nice “retro” look in color photos. Just apply sparingly – try to avoid the look of “yet another retro preset.” ;-)

Here are some examples:

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