Expand Your Range


Look, ma! No HDR (high-dynamic-range) program or HDR plug-in! That’s right, HDR fans. The opening image was created in Photoshop using basic adjustments, which I applied with Photoshop Adjustment Layers.

In my how-to feature in this issue, we consider when to use HDR techniques and the capabilities of specialized software like Photomatix to dramatically expand dynamic range. Here, we’ll check out some ways to push the range using tools you probably already have.

Now don’t get me wrong…please! For scenes where the contrast range is wider than a few stops, you’ll get the very best HDR results with a true HDR program. However, when the contrast range is relatively small, you can do some amazing things right in Photoshop (as well as in Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture).

I took the opening image at sunrise at South Tufa on Mono Lake in California. It’s from a RAW file. For maximum image quality and dynamic range in a single image, you must shoot RAW files.

In this column, I’ll show you the Photoshop process that I went through to create that image. Let’s go!

Adjustment Layers Are the Law

Here’s my original digital image. The light at sunrise was nice, but not for a straight photograph. Before digital photography, if I had slide film loaded in my camera, I might not have taken this picture. However, envisioning the end result and knowing the capabilities of Photoshop, I took the shot—and man o’ man, am I sure glad I did.

A Look At The Layers Panel

The Photoshop Layers panel shows all the Adjustment Layers and Layer Masks that I created to enhance the opening image. If you’re new to Photoshop, an Adjustment Layer is a method of applying an adjustment to an image without actually working directly on the image; your adjustments are placed on a different layer that can be altered or deleted without affecting your original pixels.

After you apply an adjustment, you can mask out the effect by setting black as the foreground color in the Tool palette, clicking on the Layer Mask and painting over the area with the Brush tool, “painting” where you don’t want the effect to be applied.

I created the following Adjustment Layers, which showed up in the Layers panel (from bottom to top): Shadows/Highlights, Hue/Saturation, Curves and Photo Filter.

As a final step, I sharpened the image using Unsharp Mask. You always want to apply sharpening as the final step because other adjustments, such as Curves, Levels and Brightness/Contrast, also affect sharpness, and the last thing you want to do is over-sharpen an image.

Basic Adjustments, Big Improvement

Here’s a screen grab of all my Photoshop adjustment dialog boxes. You see them here all together, but when you’re working on an image, you’ll only see one at a time. I made this screen grab just so you could see my adjustments.

All these adjustment layers are accessible by going to Layer > New Adjustment Layer, except for one: Shadows/Highlights. The Shadows/ Highlights adjustment isn’t readily available as an Adjustment Layer. You need to know this trick to make that happen: right-click (or Control + click) on the background layer of an image and choose Convert to Smart Object from the options.

When working on my image, I opened up the shadows and toned down the highlights using Shadows/Highlights, increased the saturation and color using Hue/Saturation, brightened the image using Curves and added some more color with the Photo Filter. As a final step, I sharpened the image using Unsharp Mask. Note that you can use Unsharp Mask like an Adjustment Layer if you first go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. The advantage is that you can apply sharpening to select parts of the image—which for this image were the tufas (rock formations), and not the sky and water.

Summing up: HDR programs and plug-ins can’t be beat. However, when the contrast range isn’t very wide, try expanding the dynamic range of an image in Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. You may be surprised at the power of these programs.

Rick Sammon’s latest book, HDR Secrets For Digital Photographers, covers all aspects of HDR photography. Visit www.ricksammon.com.

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