3 powerful uses for highlights in watch photography

If you’ve seen a few of my editing tutorials, you would know that I typically start my edits by applying one of my presets. While a preset gets me about 80% of the way, the last 20% is where a photo really starts to take shape for me. This is where I really dial in my settings and tailor all the adjustments to the specific details of the photo, while still working on top of the foundational aesthetic that my preset gave me.

One of the settings that I am almost guaranteed to tweak is the Highlights. One simple reason for this is that watches tend to have a lot of reflective parts that are easy to over-expose, and, as you’ll read today, the Highlights setting is a great way to address this.

And whether you use Lightroom or any other photo editing app, you're very likely to find a setting for highlights. It's a staple of even the most basic of editing tools and a powerful setting to learn to control properly. So today, I wanted to dive deeper into a specific part of my editing arsenal and focus on 3 ways I use Highlights to produce more effective watch photos. Enjoy!

This week's challenge

Let's put today's techniques into practice and see how managing your highlights can help you create a more polished watch shot. Don't forget to tag #watchstudies to help inspire the community!

3 ways to manage your highlights

Before we begin, I want to re-iterate an important best practice in photography (as covered in my list of general photography advice): when shooting, always expose for the brightest parts of your photo. That is, do your best to ensure the details in the brightest parts of your shot are captured, even if that means your shot as a whole is under-exposed.

3 powerful uses for highlights in watch photography

The reason for this is that it’s far easier to recover details that are lost in the dark parts of a photo than it is to recover details in the bright parts. If parts of your photo are over-exposed (that is, they appear completely white), you may not be able to bring back any details in those parts later when you’re editing. They’ll remain a blotch of white, which you really don’t want.

If you can do this, then you’ve set yourself up for success when it comes to managing your highlights! Let’s proceed.

1. Fix over-exposed metals

As hard as I try, I still occasionally end up in situations where parts of a watch’s bracelet, lugs, or bezel are a little blown out. This happens especially often when a watch has polished surfaces and is reflecting back the light source at full force.

In the following example, you can see that the top right lug as well as part of the bezel of my Seamaster is a little over-exposed. The best way to fix this is by applying a mask (using the brush tool) over the over-exposed areas and turning the Highlights down.

3 powerful uses for highlights in watch photography

Do this in moderation and let your eyes guide you to the right value to set your Highlights to. You want to retain the natural contrast that existed and simply add a bit more definition to the areas that were blown out.


2. Make a dial stand out

One of the key lessons I’ve learned in photography is that our eyes are always drawn to the brightest parts of a photo first. This is why I always encourage finding ways to brighten, even if just subtly, the focal point of a photo.

This concept applied to watch photography means that the dial of a watch (which is the focal point in most cases) should be brightened slightly to help it stand out and draw the eyes toward it. Pay close attention to the subtle change applied to the Pilot 36's dial in the example below.


One of the simplest ways to do this is through the use of a radial mask and, you guessed it, adjusting the Highlights.

3 powerful uses for highlights in watch photography

Now, you might be thinking that bringing up the Exposure should do the trick. And in some cases, it might. However, keep in mind that the Exposure setting will brighten the entire dial, including the parts that are meant to be dark or black.

Adjusting just the Highlights on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to simply take the dial’s naturally bright spots and enhance them without touching the darker parts. Of course, you can always use a combination of both Exposure and Highlights to find the exact aesthetic you want.

Obscure the light direction

I use a one light setup a lot to create a more dramatic mood in my photos. But whether you do the same or use multiple light sources, there’s bound to be parts of your photo that are closer to a light source, and therefore brighter, than those parts that are further from the light source.

Unless light is an active subject in your photo (e.g. a stream of light coming through a window), I believe that the direction of my light source(s) out of frame doesn't need to be prominently discernible to the viewer. There will always be subtle cues – direction of shadows, general contrast between light and dark areas, placement of the flecto, etc – but anything more obvious than that tends to be a distraction rather than a complement in my opinion.

3 powerful uses for highlights in watch photography

In this example, you can see that the silver camera in the top right of the photo is much brighter and well lit than most other items in the photo (in fact, so is the whiskey bottle in the bottom left, which is facing the softbox). Recalling the principle I shared above, this might unintentionally draw the eyes upward first by virtue of its relative brightness. Someone with a keen photographic eye might also deduce that there’s a sizable light source just out of frame. They’d be right, but they’d also be picking up on something I don’t need them to be spending brain cells on.

3 powerful uses for highlights in watch photography

To obscure the direction of the light source a bit, I can draw a linear mask from the top right of the photo down toward the center of the photo and bring the Highlights value down slightly.


What this effectively does is balance the exposure a bit more, making the scene feel more like a naturally occurring one, rather than one perfectly staged by a photographer.

Your turn!

Let's put today's techniques into practice and see how managing your highlights can help you create a more polished watch shot. Don't forget to tag #watchstudies to help inspire the community!

Thanks for joining another edition of Sunday Study Club! If you enjoyed today’s tutorial, you may also enjoy these related ones:

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