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Monday, March 31, 2008

Tame The Contrast Monster

Control the light in your photo with the Shadows/Highlights adjustment

When you first open up Shadows/Highlights, you'll immediately see shadows open up with more detail in them. It's sometimes amazing to see how much detail actually is there as captured by your camera.

If you like the look of the image at 30 percent for Amount, you don't have to do anything else. But you can certainly try changing the Amount higher and lower to see if you like the effects. As the Amount increases, the shadows often will look rather unrealistic, though that will depend a lot on your scene. A lower Amount can give the shadows a stronger, bolder look.

Tonal Width controls how far this adjustment will make its changes across different tones. Generally, I think it looks best in the range of 20 to 40. Radius controls how far this adjustment looks for change across pixels and can also be tweaked to get the best-looking shadows possible.

As you're adjusting the brightness of your shadows, look at the overall effect on the photograph. Don't simply look at how bright the shadows are; examine how the relationship between shadows and the rest of the photograph changes.

As the Amount in Shadows is increased, look carefully at what happens to color. As dark areas are brightened, you'll see more color. Yet that color was underexposed when you took the picture so that you might not have colors that are normal or expected from the shadows. You can try adjusting Color Correction and Midtone Contrast to see if you can affect this or you can tweak the Amount, Tonal Width and Radius until you get a look that you like.

Second, watch out for noise. Shadows/Highlights can bring out a lot of detail in a dark area. However, those dark areas are often filled with noise, especially if you have used a high ISO setting for the photograph. As you brighten those areas, noise can become obvious. You may have to reduce the shadows adjustment so that the noise doesn't overpower your image. Or you may have to use noise-adjustment software, such as Nik Software Dfine or Imagenomic Noiseware.

contrast monster
Highlights are adjusted to balance the overall image as needed.

Highlights are trickier than shadows, which is probably one reason why Adobe used 0 percent as the default for them. As shadows get brighter, you'll often see something from the scene, even if it's mainly noise. But when highlights are really bright, detail can be gone from them. So as you darken them to bring something back, there's nothing to reveal. You can't expect Shadows/Highlights to magically bring in detail in highlights where nothing was captured by the camera.

However, bright areas with some detail can be darkened quite nicely with Shadows/Highlights. This can bring them more into balance with the rest of the picture. Start by moving up the Amount slider in jumps of about 10 percentage points and see what happens.

Tweak Tonal Width and Radius just as in Shadows to refine how the highlights are affected from this adjustment. These two sliders work similarly to their counterparts in Shadows, but obviously affecting highlights.

When you work with shadows, you try to bring out detail in the dark areas of your photograph without making those areas look unnatural. When working with highlights, your goal isn't about bringing out details, but about balance. You want to balance highlights visually with the rest of the picture, which is why you do them after you've adjusted shadows.


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