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).