Lightroom (despite Adobe's attempts to sabotage it) remains the best photo workflow and editing software in existence. A recent update replaced one of the most powerful tools, Split Toning, with an even more powerful tool, Color Grading. I go through the steps of using this tool to create a new preset called "Forest Greens" (which you can freely download).

I shoot a lot of film, much of it decades expired, and I like the chaos in the analog process. Those photos don't need much editing, usually just some cropping, before I'm happy with them. Call it delusion if you want, but I believe there's something timeless and eternal about how scenes are rendered by the film, and there's beauty not just in the flaws, but in the character of the film itself.

So when it comes to digital photos, I edit to re-create (or simulate) that magic of film. To make that happen, I start with one of the muted film simulations built into my cameras, maximizing the dynamic range of my camera by shooting at least ISO 800. Of course this all depends on your subject, and what key the photo is in, what the light situation is, but generally we simulate film's rendering by bringing down the highlights and pushing up the shadows.

the color grading tool at default

split toning or color grading?

That done, the secret sauce that pushes the photos from digital-looking to film-like used to be the Split Toning tool. This tool was a powerful way to control color casting, selectively casting different hues against just the dark or light parts of the photo. But now, that tool is replaced with Color Grading, a collection of even more fine-tuned adjusts.

Straight out-of-camera photo of the woods

I recently shot some photos in the Henry Cowell State Park redwoods during mid-day. The problem with mid-day photos in the forest is that the canopy above shades most of the sunlight, but allows in many beams of much, much brighter direct sunlight. The look, straight out of camera, can be terrible. How can something that looks so beautiful to the naked eye render so awfully on my sensor? And so, we've a prime candidate for touching some photos up with a little bit of simulated film magic.

false starts

This first image is bright, and maybe by emphasizing that brightness, warming up the mid-tones through a touch of the orange-teal color pair, while bringing out the yellow-greens in highlights, we can get nice setup?'s not terrible

This isn't awful. But it doesn't quite "do it" for me. It's too flat, too plain. This effect may work in other situations, but not for the woods.

What if we take the teal out, and replace it with a combination of blue and aqua?


Ok, let's try something different. Reds and greens and yellows, just like classic Fuji Superia.


That didn't work. In fact, that looks damn awful. Let's go crazy instead, let's make this look like expired slide film, where the reds and purples are starting to fog up.


That's alien and ... so unpleasing to the eye. Hot garbage.

Let's start over. We want a theme for the forests – let's put the mysterious, sylvan magic back into the woods. What if, instead, we aim for low key, making the image dark, and pushing those dark shadows to a blue-green that evokes feelings of being in the deep woods? We can warm up the few remaining highlights to balance the image. How does that work?

Nice! I think we're on the right path.

I like this, but those true-blacks, we want something low key, but not inky black. Let's see if we can keep this dark without losing information.

There! Good! Great, even. On the color grading tool, our mid-tones are yellow, our shadows are cyan, and our highlights are red. We've used the exposure tools to darken the image while avoiding any information lost to pure black regions, and that beam of bright sunlight has a magical feel to it, rather than a distracting over-exposed look.

straight-from-the-camera and then with our preset applied

Let's try this out on some other lighting styles and subject.

foliage closeup with a blown-out highlight in the background, showing more of the red than the lower-key images a more evenly-lit image made low-key with our preset look how people and skin tones get distorted by our preset... definitely not for portraits! a low-key starting image will show almost none of the highlight reds a backlit scene can still be made low-key and fit into this theme a traditional speckled light shot of the forest floor, saved by our preset some wild fungi growing on the tree trunk, really emphasized by our color palette

the preset

I'm now happy with this new "Forest Greens" preset. As always, these presets are just starting places, and additional editing is always encouraged. But as a starting place, this is a great way to use film-like looks to put the magic back into what otherwise look like drab, flat forest photos.

download the preset

Here, as a totally free, do whatever you want with it file, is this preset [this is the download link]. Import it into your Lightroom Classic preset library and you can use it to achieve this same look you see here. Of if you're completely unimpressed, don't.

and now here's some more photos