Home How-To Image Processing Tame The Contrast Monster
Monday, March 31, 2008

Tame The Contrast Monster

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

contrast monster
contrast monster
Before: Flash was used to brighten this giraffe against the sky, but the trees are very dark.
After: Shadows/Highlights was used to brighten the trees and the giraffe's eyes. The adjustment was done selectively by using layers.

A powerful tool to help you bring the most out of your photographs is the use of layers and layer masks. Many photographers feel intimidated by layers and layer masks. (I can't share everything you need to know about them in this article, but I want to show you their power when used with Shadows/Highlights. I have some additional information about layers and layer masks at my website, www.robsheppardphoto.com.)

Shadows/Highlights doesn't come as an adjustment layer. Adjustment layers are great tools because they simply provide instructions to how an image will be adjusted, but don't actually change pixels on the image. An adjustment layer sits on top of an image and changes the way it looks, but doesn't alter the underlying photograph itself.

It would be helpful, however, to be able to use Shadows/Highlights without having to imbed the adjustment in the photo's pixels. You can do this by creating a copy of your image as a new layer. Click on your image layer and press Ctrl/Cmd + J. That command copies one layer to another. If you use adjustment layers and want to get a layer that combines all of your adjustments into one, press Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Option + Shift + E. (In older versions of Photoshop, you may have to press Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Option + Shift + N + E.)

One way or another, you have to have pixels in order for Shadows/Highlights to work. Next, open up Shadows/Highlights and do the magic as needed.

contrast monster
Easy Does It. Shadows/Highlights is applied to a layer over the original image. The overall adjustment does a good job with the trees, but it lightens the giraffe's color too much.
Now look at your photograph. Do all of the shadows really need to be opened up? Do all of the highlights really need to be darkened? It's common to look at a picture and discover that you don't want everything equally adjusted with Shadows/Highlights.

But since you have everything on a layer, you have the adjustment isolated from the rest of the picture. You can remove parts of this layer where you don't want the adjustment to occur. The easiest way to do this is with a layer mask, but you can't use layer masks on pixelled layers with Photoshop Elements. The following technique can be used in both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

Select the Eraser tool from the toolbox at the left side of the screen. Size this eraser so that it's big enough to remove large areas of your photograph. Also, choose a soft-edged eraser—be sure that hardness is at zero.

Now erase those parts of the layer where you don't want the Shadows/Highlights adjustment to occur. A tip: Turn off all the layers underneath your Shadows/Highlights layer as you work. This causes every place that you erase to appear transparent, which usually is represented by a checkerboard pattern. This makes it much easier to see where you've erased.


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