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|| News Item: Posted 2009-11-09

It's all in the Details: The Shadow and Highlights Tool
By Josh Lehrer

Photo by

Before adjustments
Digital photography is a constant struggle to obtain the most amount of dynamic range possible. I've written articles in this column before about different ways to get the most amount of information from a single exposure. While HDR photography is a fantastic solution for noise-free shadows and detail filled highlights, it is not always possible to make multiple exposures of a subject, especially if it is a passing moment or fast action.

Luckily, one of the most powerful tools in Adobe Photoshop (version CS3 in my case) is here to help. It is called the Shadow/Highlight tool (it is found in the Image>Adjustment menu about 2/3 of the way down). What this tool does is far more advanced and controllable than any other highlight/shadow recovery method within the software. The Shadow/Highlight tool uses a complex algorithm to recover detail, and it considers not only the value of a particular pixel, but also the values of surrounding pixels. Adobe suggests using this tool for backlit images, and while it does work quite well for that purpose, there is so much more it can do.

I always do a Shadow/Highlight adjustment on a separate layer. Make a rough selection on the background of the image of area you'd like to adjust, and use the keyboard shortcut "apple-J" or "control-J on a PC. What this does is copy the contents of that selection onto a new layer. The Shadow/Highlight tool cannot be used as an adjustment layer. It works directly on pixel information.

In order to apply its effect in the simplest way possible (meaning without using smart objects, a topic for another article), but while still maintaining a "non-destructive workflow," make sure to adjust content on a separate layer. Since the initial selection is very rough, add a mask to that layer when the adjustment is complete, and with a few deft strokes of the paintbrush, seamlessly integrate the adjustment into the original image.

Make sure to click the "Show More Options" box within the Shadow/Highlight to have maximum control.

A simple overview of what the various options do:
Amount: simple enough, controls the overall strength of the effect

Tonal Width: controls the breadth of tones that are adjusted, lower the tonal width to effect a narrower range of highlights or shadows to avoid an "artificial" or over-adjusted look

Radius: dictates how far around the surrounding pixel that the adjustment factors in. Generally, an increase in radius weakens the effect. If you notice any unusual "halos" around pixels, max out the radius to 2500 to remove them.

Photo by

After adjustments
Another hastily overlooked feature within the Shadow/Highlight is the Midtone Contrast slider. This works similarly to the Clarity tool in Adobe Camera Raw, by adding a bit of "pop" to the mid tones. A small amount of mid tone contrast is often the only adjustment an image needs. The Color Correction slider just above that helps manage any color shifts that may occur in highlights or shadows as they are recovered. Black Clip and White Clip tell the adjustment to keep the deepest blacks and purest whites to stay that way, preventing the image from becoming too flat or completely white areas to become a mushy gray.

The Shadow/Highlight is fantastic for recovering details in bleached white uniforms, ocean whitecaps, or faces under helmets. When using the tool, over-adjust slightly, and use layer opacity and masking for fine-tune control. Frequently, small percentages of adjustment are needed. I rarely go over 10% for either highlight or shadow amounts. Remember that the adjustment is rarely fitting for an image overall, it is critical to work in selective areas to maximize its effect and preserve as much of the original "look" of the photo as needed.

So the next time a team with white uniforms hops on the field at noon on a sunny day, don't despair! The Shadow/Highlight tool is waiting in the menus to save the day (and lots of detail).

(Josh Lehrer is a recent graduate from the advertising photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology and writes regularly about technology for Sports Shooter. He is currently working as a freelance photographer/assistant out of New York City; his work can be found at

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