The how to of underwater photographs post processing using lightroom

Mastering  properly the image’s post-processing with lightroom isn’t an easy task! There are many options to choose from.

Whether it’s an underwater photograph or a regular image, the same principles can be applied.

Therefore , in this article I invite you to discover, step by step , all the necessary milestones to post-process a RAW file using Adobe Lightroom CC 2015 .

If you don’t have any experience in terms of post-processing and you wish to have a deeper understanding of this subject , this article is made for you !

Before anything else : download the image (62mb)

Click here to download the raw file of the image of the image we are gonna be dealing with in this article. 

By doing so you will be able to try out the effects by yourself.


The workflow

We have seen in the last article the advantages of shooting RAW over JPEG as the raw file has got much more informations and detail.

In this tutorial, we will start by talking about the metamorphose of a raw file into an elaborated image according to it’s own sensibility.

Therefore, I will be describing step by steps the main phases of  a RAW file post-processing.

The processing of these files falls into a bunch of actions and adjustmens targeting the different notions that make a photograph.

Let’s discover these serie of actions , communly called ” workflow”.


In fact, post processing starts at the moment you take the picture.

“It’s crucial to specify that everything that can be done from the camera , while being in the field, has to be done by then . It’s even more true in underwater photography. “

A common error would be of minimising the shooting technique under the false pretense that  Lightroom or Photoshop would help you out later.

But , to my mind , post-processing or digital post-treatment in general is an integral and crucial part of the image creation process, and even represents a step that’s as important as when shooting itself.



Steps addressed in this tutorial

The main notions we will deal with during this guide are the following :

  1. contrast
  2. tones and colors
  3. a few localisez actions tools

Note that the list of described actions isn’t comprehensive.

“The post-processing of a RAW file is sensibly the same whether it’s an underwater photograph or a regular one. But, there are some specific attributes to underwater photographs.”


Good to know

In order for you to be able to fully understand the step by step process , I am enabling you to donwload the RAW file of this image.

Therefore , you will be able to use the same settings as I did.

But be becareful : the color rendering may vary according to the screen differences , especially if they aren’t calibrated.


Let’s go for this step by step tutorial

As I said earlier , the development of a RAW file is a set of actions. They aim to optimise and adjust some components that can’t be realised during shooting time.

I will describe, the process by steps and will walk you trough all the actions needed for post-processing for underwater photography. As we will progress you will be able to do a before/after comparison:


This photo was taken towards the end of a dive in Mayotte’s “Passe en S.” It’s a backlight photograph, therefore with a huge dynamic.


Lightroom UX Presentation

First , open your photo in Lightroom and click on the ” Development ” tab .

You should have this interface :

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing


What does the lightroom working space look like ?

Here are the elements or the group of elements that will spare us to work on this file :

  1. The histogram : it is at the top right. You can see how to use it by reading my article “The Fundamental Technics of photography“. This histrogram will evolve as we are processing the image, each of our action will affect it.
  2. The exifs : these are the informations provided by the camera ( Shutter speed, aperture , ISO , but also the focal lenght and the lens used , here a 16-35 @16mm)
  3. The localised tools : this group of tools will allow you to crop, correct the horizon, fix the white balance (very usefull in submarine photography), use gradual filter , and make a bunch of local adjustments.
  4. The setting tabs : there are 9 of them
    • Basic Settings
    • Tone Curve
    • HSL / Gray Scale
    • Split Toning
    • Details
    • Lens Corrections
    • Transform
    • Effects and Camera Calibration
  5. Preview option : it’s a very useful tool that allows you to have a before/after view of the modifications, there are several types of displays
  6. Zoom : An essential tool that allows you to make back and forth zooms on the picture


First of all , let’s deal with a few permanent settings :

I am talking about the colorimetric space , and the base profile from which we will start working and eventually transfer our images to photoshop after developping the RAW.

Color Space

We are going to be working with  ProPhoto RGB so to speak the most extended that lightroom has to offer.

“Even thought most of the screens isn’t able to display the total range of colors that this space has to offer, it’s important to use it, in order to have more color shades.”

It’s even more true in underwater photography where there is a lot of shades of blue . This space will allow you to improve gradient and better transitions between each tints.

You also have to select a color depth of 16bits/layer . But becareful that no crop occurs.

Theses modifications are to be done by clicking on  Lightroom => Preferences => External Edition

You will get this tab :

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

Before starting your post-processing

you have to select the profile that you will use as a base.

In order to better understand what profile you can use , you can read my article on the RAW format using the link at the beginning of this article.

To select this you need to click on the last tab : Camera Calibration

Once this tab is opened , a panel of sliders will be available.

Let’s focus at first on the menu  :

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

Lightroom offers a lot of RAW file interpretations

These  interpretations are in fact called profiles

  • Some are even available from your camera ( Landscape , Portrait , etc )
  • Others are profiles created by  Adobe.

The original rendering may be very different from the final one depending on the profile you choose.

Here , the goal is to select the profile that looks as neutral as possible in order to master your post-processing better.

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

In order to do so , here is a small comparaison between the different types of profiles available.

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

You can notice that the rendering is totally different , both on contrasts and colorimetry.

Some such as the the Camera Landscape profil have very contrasty and very saturated colors , not too much of my taste!

I always select the Adobe Standard V2 Profile . It’s the profil that offers me the most details, that’s the most neutral in terms of color rendering . The contrasts are also very low which leaves us the opportunity to adjust the contrasts as we wish.

But , nothing is preventing you from choosing another profile as it’s all a matter of appreciation and interpretation .


Contrast, Tonalities, and information recovery

This RAW file with the previously selected profile is, at it’s natural state, flat and not contrast. This is normal, because these two notions are subjective.

The sensor will record the maximum amount of informations , but , some of them , such as contrat , depend entirely on each and everyone’s taste.

Contrast , just as the exposure are subjective notions

In fact , they depend on our own interpretation and on the rendering we wish to have on our image. This is the reason why a macro photograph on a black background will be underexpose, whereas an atmospherical image , just as this one , aims to show a scene as a whole , and the exposure has to be spot on !


What’s the first action of this post-processing flow ?

In this case , it’s capturing as much data from the blown out or the shaded areas .

It’s  depending mainly on your sensor’s dynamic range.

The newer your sensor is , the bigger the dynamic range, and therefore the more data you will be able to retrieve.


But this solution knows it’s limits       

You have to expose your photo properly, and adjust your flash power in order to reduce the post-processing time, and therefore the amount of informations you have to retrieve.

On this image , you can see that no areas are shaded , meaning , none of them are totally black .

Only a slight part of the sun is blown out.

We can conclude that a well exposed picture doesn’t require you to play around the the exposure’s slider.


Tip to identify these shaded areas or the blown out parts

By clicking on the two small buttons at the top of the histogram , the software will color in red the blurned out and in blue , the enshadowed areas .

We notice on this example that there isn’t any part to get back in the blacks.

Only the area next to the sun is a little burned out .

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

The next step requires you to play with the other sliders of this same tab !

Before going further , here are some little precisions on the tab we are dealing with :

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

Exposure : The overall brightness of the image . The exposure’s value are increments equivalent to the value of a STOP of light on your lens . If you add +1,00 , it’s just as if you had your aperture a step higher . If you do -1,00 it’s just like if you had shut down your aperture by a stop.

Contrast : Allows you to higher or lower the overall contrast of the image , mainly aiming the middle tones . When you raise the contrast , the dark sides of the image get even darker , and the bright sides of the images get even brighter.

Tons clairs : Bright tones : Deals with the bright parts of the image . Move this slider to the left to darker these tones and retrieve some details in the blown out parts of your image . Move it to the right to brighten then while minimizing the clipping.

Dark tones : Deals with the dark parts of the image . Move this slider to the left to get your dark tones even darker while minimising the clipping . Move it to the right to brighten up the dark tones and retrieve some details in the blacks .

Whites : Deals with the clipping of the white tones . Move it to the left to reduce it , move it to the right to raise it .

Blacks : Deals with the black’s clipping . Move it to the left to raise the clipping . Move it to the right to reduce it 



Let’s try to back up some informations around the sun , the brightest part of the picture, without overdoing it.

In order to do so, use the white tones slider, and push it to the left.

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

The slider being at -40% , we notice that the overexposed zone isn’t red anymore.

We can also notice that this action impacts the other bright zones of this image , such as the clouds next to it .


Once these informations are brought back , the next thing on your to do list is the overall contrast of the image !

The most simple solution is to vary the contrast slider. This slider is based on a preset that modifies the tonal S curve.

This solutions gives you little to no margen, and it’s a lot less precise than directly playing with the tonal curve, yet, most of the time, the result isn’t bad .


Dealing with the overall image contrast using the contrast slider.
post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

We notice that using the before/after view , the image is a little more contrasty : the washed-out effect of the image is gone and we can start to see some depth.

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing


Dealing with the overall image contrast using the tonal curve.

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing












It’s another method to adjust the image’s contrast. But before going further , let’s get some pointers :

The tonal curve is a very important tool regarding the contrast setting

On the contrary of the contrast slider which is the basic tool , we can play with the contrast a lot deeper by selecting a set of tones from the curve .

We also can play with the bright areas without having any fallovers on the darker sides and vice versa.

The result will be much more precise than when using the previously seen technique 

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing



Here , let’s see the curve without any modifications on it.

The neutral point is at the middle of the square.

All the curve under this point concerns the dark tones , whereas anything above it represents the bright tones.







Here is the typical shape of the curve I work with :

The S shape does  the following 

  • Darkens the blacks
  • Brightens the higlights , to get higher theHere , I exagerated the settings on purpose to showcase my point




The point methodes to modify the curve using lightroom CC

Using this methode , it’s possible to create as many points as you wish to vary the curve as you wish

Try this out when you get home !

Below , the contrats have been adjusted using the tonal curve method.

It gave it a little “juice” in the highlights and I darkened the darkests parts of the image .

The photograph gains in dynamism and the washed-out effect is gone . The post-processing is starting.

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

Notice : adding contrast will influence both, the least and most exposed areas of your image

The more contrast you add the more informations you will lose at both extremes.

The goal is to find the right balance, the main one being the “mood” the atmosphere or the environment that you are willing to bring to your image.

For the rest of the image, let’s keep changing the contrats with the tonal curve, but make sure that you kept the contrast slider, from the first panel, to 0 .



The clarity is the first tool to be seen in the basic setting category .

Claiity lightroom

It’s function is to bring out or lower the amount of details and micro-contrasts of your overall image.

This is very important if you want to bring out some texture, such as sand, or tortoiseshells. It also emphasises the border of some components of your image.

This tool boosts the dynamism and the reliefs of your image . On the oposite , it can blur some of your details when you use negative clarity , something I never do .


Clarity : A tool to be used with moderation

At the beginning I was using a lot of clarity , especially to add a bit more juice to my photos.

But , as time goes by , experience taught me that this seductive tool has to be used with extreme cautiousness.

Now , I almost never use it anymore , actually , sometimes I do , on very precise spots of an image .

If you add too much , it really denaturates your image , and removes that “soft” feel  and gives it a metallic effect .

But , I believe than an image speaks a thousand words so :

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

For this treatment , I didn’t add any clarity , I find the image to be dynamic enough , with a relief shown thanks to the contrast management shown earlier.


Lens corrections 

lens correction lightroom

Lightroom has a functionality called ” Lens detection “.

You can employ it to remove any chromatic aberrations  or any unwanted vignetting.

Chromatic aberrations are always to be removed.


We can notice on this screenshot that the software noticed several settings :    

  1. The camera’s brand
  2. The lens being used
  3. The Focal Lenght

Lightroom offers you a lot of corrections according to the lens and focal lenght you used to take the picture.

These corrections are given by the lense’s manufacturer in order to fix some optical flaws.




Here you have 2 screenshots , one before the lens correction and one after :

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

post treatment lightroom underwater photograph - diving lightroom processing

You can notice the difference of rendering regarding the borders of the image.

In fact , the vigneting correction brightens the surroundings of the image, which are by default, darkened by the lens.

According to me, this correction isn’t to be done all the time.

It has to be done after having a case study of the image and it’s composition.


I almost always add some vigntting to my images in order to lead the eye to the subject . This is not a correction I often do.

You must know that vignetting depends a lot on the quality of your lens

The better the quality , the lower the vignetting will be seen , or , in the worst case scenario , it will be spread more evenly .

For this image , I will leave a bit of vignetting on the lens . Therefore , I will only apply the correction up to 30%.


Why so ?

I do so because the dark corners lead the viewer’s eye towards the center of the picture, where the subject actually is.

On the other hand I always use the distortion correction.

The colors

Here is another big chapter of the informatic threatment.

The color interpretation is subjective.

On top of that, your camera’s screen isn’t  the absolute truth.

It’s even more true in underwater photography where :

The colors are often messed up by the water collumn  

  • the delicacy of the color processing evolves according to your experiences
  • Just like great wine or cheese, it gets better with time !

Just like great wine or cheese, it gets better with time !

The most commun error I see is the  « too much » one where you oversaturate your images.

Trust me, we get there pretty quickly.

The color harmony is also very important : Be careful with the dominant colors linked to a bad lighting or a bad white balance                    


There are a ton of tools available to process your image’s colors

  1. The color temperature and tint tools
  2. The management of each color in an isolated maner from the HSL / Color / BW
  3. The split toning which influences your choice in high, middle and low tones
  4. The tool that allows you to change your primer colors, that can be found in the calibration tab of your camera.

To start with, we will use the tool that controls temperatures and tints it can be found in the basic settings menu :


The tool that allows you to change your primer colors, that can be found in the calibration tab of your camera.

colors lightroom

Here, the temperature is 5850 Kelvin

This setting will be set according to your camera’s one.

During this dive I let my camera automatically deal with the colors, but sometimes, I will choose to overide it.

By modifying the slider,you can adjust the colors to give them a warmer or colder feel.

Here are too exagerated examples of possible renderings with this tool :

Below, a temperature of 7500 Kelvins.

colors - lightroom tutorial

We immediatly notice that all the colors are warmer, they go towards the yellows.

Below, a color temperature of 4700 Kelvin.

On the contrary, they now tend to go towards colder tones, so, towards blue tones.



Temperature influencers the entire colorimetric space of the photograph.

Take into account the fact that the rendering can greatly differ according to the screen you are using if it has not been calibrated.

Usually, subaquatic images have a better rendering when the temperature is set between 4800K and 5500K

For this image, I will leave the temperature as it is, at 5850K I find it to be nicely balanced

For the tint slider, it’s exactly the same process as for the temperature, at the single difference that the colorimetric spectrum will drive more toward the greens or the magentas.

Just like temperature, I won’t modify it’s value          

Still in this basic setting tab, we have two sliders, to accentuate the colors, these are the last two ones


Vibrance and Saturation

Vibrance and Saturation

What’s the core difference between vibrance and saturation ?

The saturation of a color in colorimetry is, in a way, the intensity of the tint

  • A very saturation color tends to be very fluorescent
  • A less saturated color will go to more “pastel” tones

Vibrance, a notion popularised by Adobe, is much harder to define !   

Here are their Definition :

« The vibrance setting allows you to set the saturation in order to minimize clipping of the colors close to the maximum level of saturation. This setting raises the level of  saturation of the low saturated colors so that it’s higher than the one from which the colors are already saturated. It also allows to prevent any excessive saturation of the skin. »

Conclusion on the difference between these two notions :

  1. Saturation raises  the intensity of tints from all colors
  2. Vibrance selects the least pronounced colors (the middle tones) to intensify their tint without impacting the already dominating colors.

In underwater photography, vibrance is a huge asset to raise the subject’s colors without modifying the dominant tints (blue in most cases)               

Be careful not to overplay with the sliders !

For example, here is the vibration set to 50% :

And now that the saturation is set to 50% :

We can notice that the saturation, when set to 50% gives a very unatural result, whereas when the vibrance is at 50%, it’s not too bad.

Of course, I exagerated on both sliders on purpose, just to showcase the difference.

In general, I never go above 20% in Vibrance and 10% in Saturation

These are the maximum values I allowed myself during the past few years  . Beyong those numbers, the result doesn’t look natural anymore.

Here is the rendering at 20% of vibrance and 10% of saturation:


HSL/Color/BW Tool

To modify a specific color without touching any other, we will use the tools that can be found in the HSL/Color/BW tab.

There are many presentations of this tool, according to whether you click on color or HSl.

In real terms, it’s quite similar.

It’s possible to modify 8 distincts colors   :









It’s possible to influence 3 notions for each and every given colors, that allows precise adjustments for each colors without impacting the others.

  • the tint
  • the Saturation
  • the luminence

For our example, I think that the blues are too greeny, which is disturbing me quite a bit.      

I am gonna modifty their tint by pushing the Cyan slider ( blue/green ) to the right :

Précision : The cyan tints influence a lot the rendering of the blues in a picture, it’s the color to be worked first             

I won’t be playing on the color’s saturation with this tool  

In fact, the saturation has already been adjusted earlier.

But, nothing is preventing us from rising or lowering a color’s saturation if it doesn’t look good or is too different from other colors.

We get a blue that’s not going towards the greens anymore. It’s your choice to try to determinate the colors that fits best.


Split Toning

It’s another method that aims at adjusting the colors in the highlights and/or the shadows.

In this case, we can’t select a precise color.

It’s the entire colorimetric spectrum, from the highlights or the shadows that’s being modified.

Eventhought I sometimes use this tool for landscape pictures, I never do so for underwater photographs.





There is a third method that allows you to adjust the colors, we will go in a tab you are already familiar with :

Camera calibration tab












We have seen the different profiles available in this tab ( standard, landscape, etc).

But, another set of sliders can be used to modify the primary colors  :

  • Red, Green et Blue (RGB)
  • Therefore, we can play with the shadow’s tints in this tab.

A modification on one of these sliders directly impacts the primary color, but also the secondary colors that follow.









In this example, I would love to bring back a bit of red on this soldierfish that’s going too much to the yellows for my taste.

You can see that with the before/after comparaison, it has also had an impact on the warm tints of the coral. Don’t hesitate to vary these sliders, even towards the extremes to be able to clearly see the possibilities of this tool.

Before calibration

After calibration

At this stage of the processing, most of the work has been done :

The global aspect of the picture is fine, but I still have a ton of steps possible, especially with these tools :

  • Local Actions
  • Gradien filters

I won’t be going in depth with the localised actions tools in this tutorials, neither will I on the Transformation, Details and Effects tab. But I invite you to try them out, it’s a great way to learn.

But, let’s discover together what these tools have to offer :


Gradient filter tool




The gradient tool is, as it’s name says , a progressive filter.

This filter is rotatable in any direction, and it’s graducation can be modified as you wish.

It’s especially efficient in landscape photography, to work with skys for example

In underwater photography, it’s usefull to work beneath the surface.






This tool can be found in the localised tools tab : It’s the small rectangle surrounded by red, as you can see on the photograph below.




After clicking on this small rectangle, a bunch of sliders appear .

It’s almost the same sliders as on the general tab.

Before modifying anything, make sure it’s positionned where you want to on the picture.

For this, click on the area of the image where you want the filter to start, then, move the mouse where you want it to stop   





Which should give you the following :

3 lignes appear. All these modifications will be 100% above the ligne at the top.

The filter will be graduated in a progressive maner from the top line to the bottom line that’s at  0%.

Therefore, everything under the bottom ligne won’t be modified.

Of course, the distance between both of those lignes, can be adjusted according to your needs.

Here is an example of the results we can have :

On the photograph below, here are what has been modified :

  • exposure
  • contrast
  • highlights
  • clarity
  • saturation

All of these actions/modifications had the effect of demonstrating an extra texture to the water surface while retrieving some informations from the sun’s highlights.

Without a gradual filter :

With a gradual filter :

This tool is to be used at the end of the process.

This graduent tool is a kind of end layer.

Just like any post-production tool, you are to use it with parcimony, in order to prevent the “too much ” effect. It shouldn’t be visible at first sight. If you can see it, you went too far !


Results of all these steps :

The Lightroom process is now finished !

Below, here is the final result :

Retrieving the informations and managing the contrasts and colors lead to this final image.

Eventhought it’s not quite like the RAW file, it’s quite similar to the scene I remember seing while I was there.

To conclude with Lightroom Post-processing

The digital post-processing of a RAW file is similar the the development of a FILM photograph back in the days.

After all, the dark room has now been collapsed into a computer.


To conclude on the lightroom post threatment 

Digital post-processing ( I am talking about processing not retouching ) is now a huge part of the creation process of a photography masterpiece for which the RAW is imply the material used to capture the scene during the shooting.

Digital processing sets itself in a suite of actions called workflow, who aims at subliminating the image by appealing to the emotions, the vision, the feelings and the experiences of the photographer.


This tutorial is to be seen as a guide

It’s very important that you get use to working on a post-processing software.

There is not secret, the more you work on your images, the better you will become !

Your sensibility will evolve according to your “know-how” and will get better as time goes by.

But, you will need to spend a serious amount of hours of this fastidious job ! It will then become a real pleasure as you will be the master of your own results.

The knowledge and experiences you will acquire in digital post-processing will change the way you photograph                   

You won’t photograph to get a simple picture at the back of your live-view anymore  !

You will now photograph according to your camera’s possibilities but also the available ones in post-production.

Always remember this :

All that can be done on the field, has to be done on the field !