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Simple Vignetting using The GIMP

Before After

In this tutorial I'll show you how to simulate a vignette effect in your photograph. The term vignetting is typically heard in conjunction with lens hoods and wide angle lenses. If a lens hood is used with the wrong kind of lens it causes a light falloff at the corners of the frame the resulting image appears darker in the corners.

Although lens vignetting of the unintentional variety is usually unwanted, vignetting can also be used intentionally to create a sort of "spotlight" effect that, if done subtly, draws the viewers eye to the subject of the photograph. It is particularly well suited to portraits.

The Procedure

The procedure is similar to many others in my collection of intermediate-level tutorials. It requires a reasonable understanding of layers and layer masks. If these are unfamiliar to you, consider reading the ND Filter tutorial to get an general introduction first.

We duplicate the layer, create a layer mask that controls the vignette (blend), and darken the upper layer with levels.

Here is the original example image, loaded into The GIMP.

Open the Layers dialog and make sure that the original image is listed in the drop-down box. Right-click on the Background layer and select Duplicate (there is also a button for this in the bottom button bar of the Layers dialog ().

Now double-click on the duplicate layer and rename the new layer "Vignette". This step is not strictly necessary, but it is helpful to prevent confusion about what is on each layer, especially if you add some additional layers for other editing purposes, or more importantly, if you save the file with layers and open it six months later.

In the Layers dialog, right-click on the Vignette layer and select "Add Layer Mask".

In the Add Mask Options dialog, select white (Full Opacity) and click OK.

Make sure Black is the default foreground color and White is the default background color (this is the way the GIMP normally starts up; if they are not, just click on the tiny versions of the squares to restore the defaults).

Double-click the Blend (AKA "Gradient") tool () in the GIMP toolbox to get the Tool Options dialog.

In the Tool Options dialog, select "Radial" as the Gradient type.

In the Layers dialog, select the layer mask in the Vignette layer by clicking on it.

Now go to the image window and click down in the center of the area to be vignetted; drag outward and release just short of a corner. In this case, I clicked down near the baby's chin and dragged out to near the top right corner.

In the Layers dialog you should see a radial black to white gradient in the layer mask icon, although nothing will be visible in the image window.

In the Layers dialog, select the Vignette layer image by clicking on it (you were working on the layer mask, now we want to work on the image itself).

Bring up Levels (Image/Colors/Levels) and move the middle slider right until you see the effect you want. You can even leave the Levels dialog open and go back to the Layers dialog and click on the "eye" next to the Vignette layer to toggle the visibility of the effect on and off to compare the image with and without the vignette.

Of course, other tools can be used instead of Levels (e.g. Curves, Brightness/Contrast, etc).

At this point you can experiment with different vignettes. Just select the layer mask icon in the Layers dialog, choose the Gradient tool and begin drawing different gradients; each one will replace the old. Stop when you have something you like.

Save the image in native GIMP XCF format for maximum flexibility; it preserves the layers. That way you can go back and change the layer mask or the darkened layer anytime you like without affecting the original image, unsullied on the Background layer.


You can get a different and equally interesting effect by creating the vignette in the layer mask using the lasso select or ellipse select tool. Do everything as described above, but instead of filling the layer mask with a gradient, double-click the Lasso tool to get the Tool Options dialog and set the feathering very high, as shown. Now draw a circle or other outline around the subject, roughly corresponding to where you want the boundaries of the vignette to be.

Make Black the fill color, choose the Bucket Fill tool and fill in the circle. Toggle visibility of the selection (Ctrl+T) to see your handiwork.

This technique creates a much less gradual vignette, as you can see, so you may not want to darken the upper layer as much.

See the "Further Reading" for another variation on this that does not use layers.


Other Examples

Original With Vignette

Further Reading

Last modified: Wed Dec 10 22:23:39 HST 2003

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