Creating a Muted Black “Film Effect” in Lightroom

With the rise in popularity of editing programs that make your digital photographs look like film (VSCO anyone?), this look has become so widespread that it’s hard to look through a friend’s wedding album without seeing the telltale muted blacks. While the act of making blacks appear “muted” is not difficult in itself, there are a handful of steps you need to go through in order to recreate this effect in Adobe Lightroom.

First, start with a RAW image. It’s very important that you shoot RAW so that you have the full range of whites and blacks to play around with. RAW images are especially important when fixing the white balance in post-production.



Step 1

At the top right of your screen, click on ‘Develop’. This will get you into the editing panel. First you’ll want to start out with a good white balance and exposure. This photograph didn’t need too much tweaking for either, but I still chose to decrease the exposure a smidge and adjust the white balance slightly. To adjust your white balance, play with the Temp and Tint sliders until your photograph doesn’t look too blue, green, yellow, or red.

Step 2

The next important step is increasing the clarity of your image. Under Presence you’ll find a Clarity slider. I usually pull up my slider to around 15 – any more than this and you’ll find that people start to look like zombies.

Step 3

Now you’ll want to mute your blacks. To do this, scroll down to your Tone Curve. Make sure your Channel is set to RGB and your Point Curve is set to Linear. You’re going to click on the curve to make your points. To do this, do what I did and click three times so that you have three evenly spaced points.

Step 4

Notice how there is a point at the far left of the curve and the far right, along with the three points you added. To mute your blacks, you’re going to pull up on the far left point, so that the curve looks like this:

Your photograph should now look like this:


It’s already looking better! Now it’s time to adjust vignetting and grain.


Step 5

Continue to scroll down on your editing panel until you reach effects. The first thing you’ll see is Post-Crop Vignetting. Make sure Style is set to Highlight Priority, and then adjust the Amount slider down until you get the vignette you want. I tend to keep mine between 10-15. Further down you’ll see Grain. Adjust the Amount upwards until you get the grain you desire. This is easier if you zoom into your photograph while applying grain. For this photograph, I chose a level of 12.


You can see that the edges of the photograph have a slight vignette, which brings the focus more towards the subjects of the photograph.

If you like the look of your photograph, feel free to stop here! If you want to further edit the tones of your photograph, stay with me.


Step 6

Scroll back up in your editing panel until you find Split Toning. There is no surefire way to get perfect tones with split toning, it all depends on your own personal preferences and initial colors in your photograph. To adjust my photograph, I chose to use a greenish yellow hue in the highlights, and a bluish hue in the shadows. I increased the saturation only slightly, and used a balance of +75. The best way to learn split toning is to play with it yourself, so feel free to start with my adjustments and work from those!



Step 7

This is looking much better! However, the yellow color I chose for the highlights is too noticeable in the background. To fix this sort of problem, scroll up directly above Split Toning. You’ll see that there’s a line of colors to choose from. Since there is too much yellow in my photograph, I chose Yellow. I then adjusted the Saturation slider down, which didn’t affect the people in the photograph but took out a lot of the yellow from the background.

Voila! The final image has enough warmth in the foreground to separate the subjects from the background, and the background isn’t so saturated that it distracts from the main subjects. The slight vignette draws your attention to the two people, and the clarity makes the photograph look very professional.

As you can see, once you know how to play around with Split Toning and Tone Curve, you can create beautiful, professional, film-style images in no time. Just remember: always shoot RAW, and always experiment! What works for one photograph may not work for another. Have fun!

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This entry was posted by Kiri Rowan.

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