a7 June 2012

Tutorial: Restoring highlights & shadows

Today I will write a few words about common issue with photos, i.e. shadows are too dark or highlights are too bright. It happens especially when editing a single RAW/JPEG photo but sometimes it might also happen when fine tuning tone mapped photo.

One of the solutions is to apply curves (or exposure or brightness & contrast) adjustment layer and mask out some regions of the photo. Another solution, in case of tone mapped photos, is to blend tone mapped photo with original bracketed shots. However, in Photoshop CS there is one more adjustment which is a lot easier and faster to work with: Shadows/Highlights adjustment tool. It doesn't work well always but sometimes it can save us a lot of time and work. I often use it as the first tool to restore some detail in shadows or highlights.

Ok, without further ado - to the example. Here is original photo. I couldn't get it right in Photomatix Pro (it was taken a few years ago so my skills were lower than they are now) what resulted in a way too dark shadows and a bit too bright highlights.
  1. First open your photo in Photoshop and duplicate your background layer by pressing CTRL + J.
  2. With your new layer selected navigate to Image -> Adjustments -> Shadows/Highlights... Following window will appear. If you don't see all the controls make sure "Show More Options" box at the bottom of the window is checked.
  3. First lets work on shadows. Make sure Highlights Amount is at 0% and then increase Shadows Amount to 100% to see the effect at full strength. Now it's time to define shadows areas. To do this play with Tonal Width slider until only real shadows are affected (with default 50% a lot of mid-tones are affected as well). For this image I decided to use 7%. As you will see you might have a lot of halo artifacts at this stage. To get rid of them increase Radius a little bit what will smooth the effect. I chose 100 pixels for Radius. Finally decrease Amount (as you remember we used 100% only to see the effect well). I used 50% for this slider. Click Ok. As you can see we restored great amount of detail in shadows.
  4. Now it's time to restore highlights. Open Image -> Adjustments -> Shadows/Highlights... again and this time reduce Shadows Amount to 0% and increase Highlights Amount to 100%. Then play with Tonal Width slider. I used value of 3% for this photo and Radius of 150 pixels. Finally I reduced Highlights Amount to 40%. Here is final photo:
And here is before/after comparison:

As you can see in a few seconds we managed to restore most of the details in shadows and also some in highlights (particularly in the clouds which are now a bit better defined). The original photo was greatly underexposed, now it is not that bad. Of course further editing might be necessary as now the shadows might look a bit artificial. This tool is very easy and can greatly improve your working speed. Often using layer masks will still be necessary but not everyone is aware of this tool.

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