Adjusting shadows and highlights in digital photos

Does this scenario sound familiar?

A subject, such as a charming, weathered old barn, sits in front of a beautiful sky and you’re dying to get a photograph of the scene. But no matter what you do, the picture just won’t come out right. Either the subject is nicely exposed but the sky is washed out or the sky is perfect but the subject is too dark.

Welcome to the limits of your digital camera. So what’s the problem and is there any way to get around it?

Problem exposing barn

The problem:

Your eyes are capable of detecting about 10,000 levels of light from total black to total white. Your digital camera, on the other hand, can record only about half of that tonal range. The scene that looks perfectly lovely to you is beyond your camera’s ability to capture.

What to do:

One solution is to shoot the scene, then fix the shadows and highlights later in a photo editing program, such as Photoshop Elements (which this tutorial will feature). Some free image editing programs such as Picasa have tools for adjusting shadows and highlights, effective though not as sophisticated as Photoshop.

When in doubt, go dark

With digital photographs, it’s generally easier to fix a photo that is too dark than one that is too light. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to make a choice regarding your exposure, go for “too dark.”

In the case of the barn example above, expose for the sky and let the barn go dark. You’ll increase your chances of successfully recovering shadow detail later if you shoot with as low an ISO setting as you can. Images taken at higher ISO settings will produce digital noise (graininess) in the shadows when you try to lighten them.

If your camera can produce images in RAW format, choose that as well. RAW image files contain a larger amount of digital information, ensuring a better chance of recovering lost detail. (Note: Not all low-cost or free photo editing programs support RAW image files – they may require a conversion to JPEG before opening.)

Improving shadow and highlight detail when editing

Open your image in Photoshop Elements. Before making any shadow and highlight adjustments, it’s advisable to duplicate the background layer so no changes are made to the original.

Next, choose Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadow/Highlights.

Shadow/Highlight box

Drag any of the adjustment sliders or enter values in the text boxes to adjust the tones.

Lighten Shadows will brighten the dark areas of your photo and reveal more of the shadow detail that was captured in your image.

Darken Highlights will darken the light areas of your photo and reveal more of the highlight detail that was captured in your image. Pure white areas of your photo don’t have any detail and therefore aren’t helped by this adjustment. This is the reason why it’s better to shoot darker than lighter).

Midtone Contrast adds or reduces the contrast of the middle tones. Use this slider if the image contrast doesn’t look right after you’ve adjusted shadows and highlights.

For our barn shot, a value of 35% in the shadows and 10% in the highlights creates an image closer to what we saw with our eyes.

Barn photo with shadow and highlight adjustment

While the Shadow and Highlight adjustment should not be used as an excuse for not trying to expose an image properly, in those cases where the tonal range of a scene is beyond your camera’s capacity to capture, this photo editing tool can be a handy way to extend the range of tones in your final image.

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