From Flat To Fab


This is a bad news/good news story—one with a happy ending. This past November, I had the opportunity to travel to the bottom of the world to photograph emperor penguins. It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. I planned this trip to Antarctica for a year, and couldn’t wait for the day that I’d be on the ice photographing these magnificent animals.

Well, you’ve heard the expression, “The best-laid plans….” When we arrived on site after four days of travel, the weather was quite bad: Flat lighting created by an overcast sky made photographing the basically black-and-white animals on the white ice more of a challenge than usual.

What’s more, I only got off the ship once, taking the opening shot for this column. You see, after that first day, I was sicker than a dog, picking up a virus that had me quarantined in my cabin for the remaining five days of the trip at the rookery.



That was the bad news.

The good news is that with a little help from Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS4, I was able to transform the few flat and dull shots that I did take into images that are now among my favorites.

My guess is that someday you may be in the same photographic situation—where flat light produces a lackluster image. So I thought I’d share with you the steps I went through in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS4 to transform my original shot, which you see here, into a favorite.


When you open an image in Adobe Camera Raw, the default panel is the Basic panel. It’s called Basic, but it offers some advanced controls, such as Recovery (which helps to recover overexposed highlights), Fill Light (which opens up shadows) and Vibrance (which increases the saturation of only colors that aren’t already saturated).

I experimented with all the adjustments in the Basic panel until I added contrast, color and detail in the scene. At this point, the picture was already much improved.



While still in Adobe Camera Raw, I applied a Graduated filter, picking a dark blue as my color and placing the digital filter exactly where I felt it gave the best effect. You can choose any color and place a Graduated filter anywhere in the frame. You even can place more than one Graduated filter in the frame, if so desired.


Next, I clicked “Open Image” to open my now much-improved shot in Photoshop CS4. I wanted to tone down the highlights and open the shadows even more, so I decided to use the Shadows/Highlights adjustment. But wait! Shadows/Highlights isn’t available as an adjustment layer, and we all know using adjustment layers, which is nondestructive image editing, is the way to go. So what to do? No problem!


You can use Shadows/Highlights as you would an adjustment layer and layer mask by following this technique: In the Layers panel, right-click on your background layer to get a menu that includes the option Convert to Smart Object. When you do that, and go to Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights and make your adjustment, you’ll see what looks like your old layer-mask friend below your image in the Layers panel. Just as you’d do with a layer mask, use black as the foreground color and a brush to mask out (hide) the effect where you don’t want it by painting on those areas, and white as the foreground color to mask in (reveal) the effect, if you need to refine the mask. (For a detailed explanation of masking technique, go to and search for “Layer Masks.”)

quick fix

quick fix

quick fix
quick fix


As the final step in the enhancing process, I selectively sharpened my image, meaning, in this case, that I only sharpened the penguins and not the background. You can sharpen selectively in Photoshop CS4 (and CS3) by going to Filter > Convert to Smart Filter and applying your favorite sharpening technique; mine is Unsharp Mask. When you convert to a Smart Filter, you also can mask in and mask out the effect using black and white as the foreground colors, respectively.

When I sharpen an image, I always zoom in on the most important part of the image in the Unsharp Mask dialog box.

quick fix


If you’re like me, you like to see behind-the-scenes shots. Here’s a photo of our ship, which was “parked” in the ice for our adventure. And here’s a photo tip that goes along with it: When there’s a lot of white in a scene, set your exposure compensation to +1 as a starting point for a good exposure.

Finally, speaking of an adventure, here’s what Marco Polo had to say on the subject: “An adventure is misery and discomfort, relived in the safety of reminiscence.”

Rick Sammon is the author of 31 books, some of which he has written on ships, when he was feeling better than he did on his Antarctica adventure. Check out his work at

Leave a Comment