Highlights And Shadows in Your Photography: Take More Control

Just when you’re becoming comfortable with image controls in your editor of choice, an update comes along and changes everything, so I sympathize that it sometimes feels like you’re aiming at a moving target. But no matter what image processor you’re using, I always try to urge photographers to think of “image correction” as meaning just one thing: making your photographs look good…to you.

Unfortunately, because good image correction skills take time to learn and are difficult to teach, most instructors fall back on rules. “If the photo has high contrast, use control X before you use control Y.” But, generally, I feel that taking a little time to understand the tools will pay off ultimately. And this is because every single image correction problem is different. There are no rules!

Given all of that, it seems that Adobe threw us a bit of a curve ball when it came to the Tone Controls in Lightroom 4 and Camera Raw 7. The revamped processing adds a couple of new controls and loses some others. But perhaps most interesting is the evolving relationship we have with Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks. Why do we need four controls when it seems that there’s so much overlap? In a word, control. Of course, the flip side is that they’re not necessarily easier to learn, but with just a little bit of experimentation, you now can improve your raw captures in ways that would have seemed like magic just a few years ago.

Let’s start with Whites and Blacks. These two sliders are primarily intended as clipping controls, but with a few special features. Lightroom has always had a Blacks control, but in the past it only went in one direction. In previous versions of Lightroom and Camera Raw, you pushed the Blacks control to the right to clip the darkest parts of your image.

In the new version, the control starts at 0 in the middle and can be pushed to either direction. Pulling it to the left doesn’t touch the Whites in your image, but expands most of the rest of the tones to the left (with the effect weighted on the shadows), thereby clipping the Blacks.

So, in terms of slider movement, the new Blacks control goes in the opposite direction from the old version. The one sentence summary of moving Blacks to the left is that it increases contrast everywhere, while darkening the image slightly, and clipping the very darkest tones to pure black.

In the image of the bottles (Fig.1), we have a photo that needs a basic exposure correction of about -.75, but it’s still flat and has no solid black (Fig. 1a). Pulling Blacks to -80 (Fig. 2a) gives better contrast and sets the Black point (Fig. 2).

The Whites control is new, and works very much like Blacks, only on the other end of the histogram. Pushing Whites to the right doesn’t touch the darkest tones in your image, but expands the rest of the range (with the effect weighted in the highlights), clipping the Whites. The summary for Whites is that moving it to the right increases contrast everywhere, while lightening the overall image slightly, and clipping the very lightest tones to pure white. For both Blacks and Whites, the combination of a slight expansion in the midtones along with the clipping gives you very nice control over your image contrast.

Highlights And Shadows

With the new Tone Controls all starting in the middle at 0, you probably noticed by now that pushing any one of them to the right makes that respective part of the image brighter and pulling any one of them to the left makes something darker. So, in that sense, we now have more symmetry in the controls. But that still leaves the question of how Highlights and Shadows are different from Whites and Blacks. If you just push them around a little bit on a few images, at first you might think they’re doing exactly the same thing.

A closer look reveals that these new controls are completely different. Highlights and Shadows do move similar portions of your histogram around—relative to Whites and Blacks—but they also have (in the words of the Adobe engineers) “edge awareness.” This is very much like the Clarity control.

As an example, let’s look at Fig. 3, the silhouette of the man in the walkway. The exposure is about where it should be given the circumstances, but the tones in the scene exceed that of the camera’s dynamic range. Luckily, there’s still detail in both the highlights and the shadows that I would like to recover.

Pushing the Shadows control up to +85 (Fig. 4a) not only opens up the shadows nicely, but also brings better definition into the dark areas—a result of the edge awareness (Fig. 4). If that somewhat dramatic move on the shadows leaves you feeling that the photo is now a little flat, this is where you can use Shadows with Blacks together, only moving them in opposite directions. Pulling Blacks down to -25 (Fig. 5a) brings back the contrast, leaving the photo with a more natural, photographic look (Fig. 5).

Finally, to deal with the burned-out walkway, simply pulling Highlights back to -50 (Fig. 6a) brings in a nice amount of detail from tones that were all very nearly clipping in the original capture. Detail is enhanced by the new edge awareness (Fig. 6).

By now I think you can probably see how many variations there must be. So, let’s summarize. In general, I most frequently use positive Shadows settings (moving to the right) and negative Highlights settings (to the left) to recover blocked-up shadows or burned-out highlights, respectively. And for Blacks and Whites, it’s the oppo­site. I generally use negative Blacks settings or positive settings on the Whites control to fine-tune clipping points and to adjust contrast. In general, those cases cover 95% of my needs.

Having said all that, what about the other side of the coin? Would there ever be a time when you would use negative Shadows settings or positive Highlights values? And likewise, would you ever need to use positive Black settings or negative Whites values to moderate clipping?

And the answer is, sometimes (depending upon your grasp of the controls)! Let’s look at a few more examples. First, if you used earlier versions of Lightroom or Camera Raw, you’ve probably noticed that there’s no longer a dedicated Recovery control, and no single control replaced it. In the new version, Adobe’s highlight recovery algorithm is being applied by three controls. Whene
ver you move Exposure, Highlights or Whites to the left, highlight recovery is taking place. And they can work together.

Finally, there’s the question of when you might use negative Shadows settings. If you remember, when you use Highlights or Shadows in the expected direction—meaning, for highlight or shadow recovery—then the new controls are adding that edge enhancement that we talked about above, which is like Clarity. Essentially, when you use Shadows in the positive direction, you not only get lighter shadows, but also slightly greater shadow contrast. Just like Clarity, when you pull Shadows in the other direction, Lightroom’s edge awareness gives you a slightly softer edge contrast.

This means, when you need deeper shadows, you have a choice! You can always use Blacks in the “normal” direction—which is to say, to clip—which gives you a large boost in contrast, or you can use Shadows in the same direction, which gives you slightly less shadow contrast. Don’t get me wrong—negative settings for Shadows still result in darker shadows. Shadows just does it in a much more gentle manner, without giving you the huge increase in contrast that Blacks would give you.

In general, I most frequently use positive Shadows settings (moving to the right) and negative Highlights settings (to the left) to recover blocked-up shadows or burned-out highlights, respectively

With an initial Highlights and Whites correction on the photo of the monk in Fig. 7, I’ve very nearly achieved my desired correction. But I feel that the shadows are still muddy and could use just a tiny bit more contrast. The photo definitely has a solid black, so I don’t want to change the clipping point by using the Blacks control. This is where you might use Shadows in the counter direction, to deepen the shadows, without really adding the contrast that you would get with Blacks. My final correction on the monk is -75 Highlights, +40 Whites and -30 Shadows (Fig. 8 and Fig. 8a).

The idea of using negative Highlights with positive Whites might seem counterintuitive at first. In this case, I need the tone that the Highlights correcti­­­on is giving me, but I need that tone to have more contrast. So the positive move on the Whites brings contrast back to the highlights in exactly the same way we brought contrast back to the shadows using Blacks in the photo of the man in the walkway from Fig. 3.

George Jardine’s blog is at mulita.com. You can see his extensive articles on image processing, as well as find his tutorials on Lightroom 4.

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