How often do you adjust Shadows and Highlights in your pictures?

Discussion in 'Image Processing' started by grog, Sep 6, 2016.

  1. grog

    grog Mu-43 Rookie

    Apr 30, 2015
    I'm a bit of a newbie to post processing and just had some basic questions. I would say I know my way around Photoshop but not to the point where I would call myself an expert.

    Lately I have been tweaking my good pictures (taken with my Panasonic G3) in Photoshop (CS2) to give them a bit more pop. I have noticed that the most common adjustments I make other than cropping and straightening the horizon are adjusting the shadows and highlights followed by adjusting the contrast. When it comes to jpeg's I don't touch saturation as I feel like I have the colours down just the way I want them in camera.

    Adjusting the shadows and highlights (mostly shadows) seems to be the one adjustment I need the most especially for outdoor shots, even when I have got the exposure as correct as possible when taking the picture. I should mention that by adjusting shadows and highlights I usually stick with about 5-15% correction and don't go overboard with it.

    My question is do you often find yourself adjusting shadows and highlights in your pictures, or does the fact that I need to adjust them to make pictures look 'nicer' mean that I am not taking the pictures correctly?

    There is a part of me that feels a bit guilty about adjusting these values for reason, like I am taking the easy way out instead of getting it right when taking the picture.
  2. stratokaster

    stratokaster Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Jan 4, 2011
    Kyiv, Ukraine
    Unless I shoot people, I usually expose to protect highlights. It means that about 95% of my pictures need shadow adjustment. (I usually slightly overexpose people shots, because underexposure really ruins skin tones.)
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  3. Bruce McL

    Bruce McL Mu-43 Veteran

    I would say there is no reason to feel guilty. I think tonality is something that cameras are not especially good at. Better tonality is one important reason why I buy the biggest camera I feel comfortable carrying around, instead of using a smaller camera with a smaller sensor.

    I shoot RAW so I am in a slightly different situation than you, but I have a suggestion: Try using the tone curve to change shadows and highlights. It is a very powerful tool - harder to figure out than the sliders for shadows and highlights, but it can be very rewarding.

    When I was using JPEG I had several custom curves saved. Some were specific to a certain camera, some specific to certain scenes. After a while it became second nature to apply the appropriate curve to a photo that needed some tonality help. Note that once you save a tone curve you can modify it with a text editor. Sometimes that is easier than trying to move points up or down a very small amount.

    With RAW I can, and frequently do, modify the tone curve before the photo even shows up on screen - but that's another story.
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  4. ionian

    ionian Mu-43 All-Pro

    May 20, 2016
    Kent, UK
    Firstly, do you understand that a camera does not work like your eye, and that the camera is applying a whole range of adjustments to your image in-camera? If you do, you can see that making ANY adjustment to the levels in post is just the same as taking control of the actions that your camera is doing automatically.

    So now we've put to bed the myth that processing an image is somehow adjusting it away from pure reality, do you understand what those shadow and contrast adjustments are doing to your image, and why you feel you want to adjust them? If not, go have a read about histograms, it will inform all the level adjustments you need to make.

    Now you know about histograms, look at the image you've created and its histogram. To avoid clipping the whites, you've likely got a lump in the lower quarter of the luminosity graph. Increasing the shadow adjustment will reveal detail in darker tones by increasing the luminance of these areas. The camera sensor has a limited dynamic range, and captures the whole scene within that range. Your eyes, when viewing the same scene, are actually constantly moving and adjusting the amount of light hitting your retina as you move from light to dark tones. So to view the same detail in a single image, you need to compact the tones into a range that can be displayed by the image.

    Contrast is just compacting or expanding the whole histogram. If you've moved your shadow slider up, your image will likely lack contrast as the luminosity will be bunched in the middle. So spreading it out again by increasing contrast is a logical counter-balance.

    I've purposely not gone into too much technical detail here, and I therefore hope it doesn't read as patronising - it's certainly not meant in that way - but I hope it demonstrates the importance of knowing how things work in order to create the image that you wish. Although it's possible to create a great image by accident, it's much easier if you do it in knowledgable and logical steps!
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  5. PacNWMike

    PacNWMike Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Dec 5, 2014
    Salish Sea
    Rather than starting with highlight/shadow I start with checking the histogram and adjusting levels...or curves if I feel it needs more. Then fine tune the shadows.
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  6. grog

    grog Mu-43 Rookie

    Apr 30, 2015
    Thanks for the replies guys, I appreciate them.

    I have been trying to focus on first working with the histogram and adjusting levels as a starting point. I think right off the bat I noticed that pictures started to look a bit nicer compared to jumping into shadows and highlights right away. I then make some slight adjustments to the shadows and highlight as needed, and then finally fine tuning to the contrast and brightness.

    Bruce, you mentioned curves but I think I will need to do a few more tutorials on that subject to get a basic idea of what is going on there. For the moment I hit auto in the curves adjustment just to get an idea of what is going on there.

    I have been doing a number of Photoshop tutorials over the past few days and I think I should slow down a bit because it does get a bit overwhelming at times trying to remember all the steps I need to take.
  7. Speedliner

    Speedliner Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Mar 2, 2015
    Southern NJ, USA
    Virtually every pic gets highlights turned down, shadows up then blacks and whites adjusted until there is minor impact on the mask. Some have exposure adjusted too.

    Sometimes the adjustments are minimal. Sometimes I adjust much more, but the above to answer your question, is done in the majority of pics.
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  8. gryphon1911

    gryphon1911 Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Mar 13, 2014
    Central Ohio, USA
    Every picture is different, and requires different TLC in post.

    I shoot pretty flat, so every picture gets processing of some kind.
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  9. oldracer

    oldracer Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Oct 1, 2010
    Yes. To begin with I consciously "expose to the right." A preview with a few little blinkies is about right. The blinkies indicate that an in-camera JPG will have these highlights blown but the RAW is 99% of the time fine.

    It depends on the photo what I adjust. Sometimes exposure, sometimes highlights, often shadows and often I'll need to pull the blacks to the left in the histogram. On a recent photo safari, mid-day sunlight often made my subjects too contrasty, so brightening up shadows was common while processing those pictures. Knocking down highlights is also often useful because a slightly darker sky allows the mid-tones to be made brighter.

    Re histogram, remember than not all photos should fill the full brightness range. I wouldn't be without it as a reference, but the subject matter determines whether I fill the histogram to the edges or not. A high key photo, for example, probably won't have much of anything approaching black. Similarly, a picture in a dark workshop or concert hall needs to have dark things when the post is done, so few or no whites.
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  10. agentlossing

    agentlossing Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Jun 26, 2013
    Andrew Lossing
    Lately my technique has been to shoot for saving highlights, then take the RAW file into LR and flatten it out, then switch to Perfect Effects 9.5 to fine tune exposure, contrast, etc. Definitely don't feel guilty about changing the values on these things, as cameras can't get everything 100% right, and when they do it's usually a very flat scene anyway, which doesn't usually have as much visual punch. We're pretty much consigned to using PP programs if we want to get the best out of the files we get from these cameras.

    oh and um...
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  11. dwig

    dwig Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 26, 2010
    Key West FL
    That's a totally incorrect way of thinking, period.

    "Getting it right when taking the picture" is a matter of getting the image recorded on the sensor, or film, in a way that best preserved the range of tones that you, as the artist, want to reproduce. A properly exposed image has the lightest highlight in which you wish to show detail very near the highlight clipping point. It is then the job of the artist to manipulate that data so that the final output, print or screen display, is "correct".

    If you find that the lightest important highlight is "far" from the clipping point then you've missed the best exposure. If this happens often then you need to review your camera technique. All other "necessary" exposure and tone adjustments are to be expected; it's part of making good images with either film or digital.

    A lot of the chatter on the web by those espousing how the "right" image is the in-camera JPEG are largely trying to avoid pointing out how poor their technical skills are. If you can't get a better image than the in-camera JPEG by manipulating the RAW image it means you just aren't skilled enough. You may be a decent camera operator, but you aren't a skilled photographer.
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  12. Drdul

    Drdul Mu-43 Veteran Subscribing Member

    May 16, 2015
    Vancouver, BC
    In most images I reduce the highlights a bit at least, as I prefer to see more detail than I get in the default Lightroom raw conversion. Then I option-drag the whites to the right as needed.

    I make comparable shadow adjustments less often, and if I do I usually bump up the contrast in the shadows with a tone curve to compensate.
  13. barry13

    barry13 Super Moderator; Photon Wrangler Subscribing Member

    Mar 7, 2014
    Southern California
    I mostly use RawTherapee nowadays, and I haven't found a Curves tool in it... Anyone know what the equivalent tools in RT would be?
  14. zx7dave

    zx7dave Mu-43 Regular

    Feb 5, 2013

    Sent from my iPad using Mu-43 mobile app
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  15. panamike

    panamike Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Jul 5, 2016
    Lincolnshire UK
    With wildlife being my interest 99% of the time,could be less if Panasonic did a exposure compensation in auto ISO
  16. drd1135

    drd1135 Zen Snapshooter

    Mar 17, 2011
    Southwest Virginia
    Like many, I use the "blinkies" to adjust the exposure compensation to mostly to save highlights and adjust shows in PS or LR. There is not the photographers fault. If you get bad shadows and highlights in one shot then you just ran out of dynamic range.
  17. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    I think there's 2 parts to the answer to your question.

    The first is your exposure when you take the shot. Depending on whether the highlights or shadows are more important to you when you take the shot you should be adjusting your exposure so that you can capture what you want, especially the wider the luminance range of the scene is. It's easy to find yourself in a position where you have to start making choices between preserving highlight detail or shadow detail. Making that choice and exposing accordingly makes the post processing a hell of a lot easier.

    The post processing part of the answer depends a lot on what application you're using but you said Photoshop. I assume you're shooting RAW which means you're starting out in Adobe Camera Raw and there's a basic recommendation I've found helps a lot with it and Lightroom. That is to start in the Basic panel and to work your way down from the top. Adjust Exposure first for your midtown values and get them right, then Contrast for an initial adjustment of the overall luminance range, fine tune that with Highlights and Shadows, then adjust Whites and Blacks, and finally if you need to fine tune highlights or shadows any further then move to Curves and/or use a local adjustment. Basically work the Basic panel from top down first, then Curves which is the next global adjustment option, and finally move on to local adjustments. As much as possible try to get a reasonably good looking result using just Exposure and Contrast before adjusting any other sliders. That's what I've seen recommended by the authors of the books I refer to on Lightroom and ACR, and over time I've found it usually works for me.

    There's one area where I've learnt to be a little cautious with that approach. The Contrast slider also has an effect on saturation and increasing contrast increases saturation, decreasing contrast decreases saturation. I sometimes avoid using the Contrast slider or don't use it as much as I think the image demands if I find it changing the saturation of the image in a way I don't like. If that happens I either ease off or don't use the Contrast slider and rely on the Highlights and Shadows sliders and/or Curves instead in order to avoid making my colour adjustments a bit more complex.

    Another thing to remember is that in your local adjustments, the adjustment brush and graduated and radial filters, you also have controls for Whites and Blacks as well as Highlights and Shadows. That can be handy. For example if you're going to have to bring down the highlights to keep detail in clouds you may be tempted to use the Whites slider in the Basic panel as well to avoid clipping in the clouds but that will also tone down "highlights" in the darker parts of the rest of the image. Leaving Whites alone in the Basic panel and reducing the whites in the clouds by using an adjustment brush can be a better approach. The same can go for using the Blacks sliders for shadow adjustments.

    Probably the most important thing to remember, however, is to think about what you really want the image to look like before you press the shutter, and to adjust your exposure in order to ensure that you capture what you want in the highlights and/or shadows when you do take the photo. Remember that you can't recover clipped highlights so if you want highlight detail, then you definitely need to expose to preserve your highlights. You may be surprised at how much you can recover from shadows but you may need to do some extra noise reduction in shadow areas with a local adjustment if you really start having to raise shadows a lot.
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  18. sethrus

    sethrus Mu-43 Rookie

    Aug 19, 2016
    Well put!!

    Sent from my STH100-1 using Tapatalk
  19. Lunatique

    Lunatique Mu-43 Regular

    Sep 14, 2014
    Lincoln, CA
    I feel that people tend to get too overwrought about "proper" philosophical approach to photography, where there's this rigid rule dictating that you must get everything right in-camera. That is a very outdated and close-minded way of thinking. We're in the 21st century and our civilization has changed in terms of technology, lifestyle, and values. It's time to move on.

    There are a lot of reasons why you'd want to treat the digital darkroom phase of your workflow as being just as important as how you captured the photos with the camera. What really matters is the end result, because ultimately, other than fellow photography nerds, no one is going to give a damn how your achieved the result -- not your family, your friends, your co-workers, your clients, or strangers on the Internet -- they only care whether the photos look great or not.

    It's also important to differentiate between excessive post-processing that looks artificial and awkward from skilled post-processing that looks natural and aesthetically pleasing. A lot of times when people make blanket criticism against post-processing, they are really criticizing the over-cooked photos that give post-processing a bad name. But the truth is, many of the professional work you see in the biggest publications and ads have plenty of digital darkroom work done, including lots of expert Photoshop work -- you simply don't notice it because they are done very tastefully, with consideration to what looks natural and aesthetically pleasing.

    So my stance is to do whatever you want, to get the result you want. In the end, when people look at your photos, they just don't care how you achieved the result, and the only time they'll have a negative reaction is if the photos are bad. And in this context, bad can mean anything from terrible composition, bad lighting, unappealing subject, shoddy technique, to overzealous post-processing.
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  20. DHart

    DHart Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 7, 2010
    Scottsdale, Arizona
    I shoot RAW for any situation where I may want to take advantage of the full quality that m4/3 can provide. Everything goes into Lightroom. Editing in post is critically important to the final look of my images. I don't "cook" any images in-camera, except those that are just not important enough to even bother making look their best. No in-camera cooked JPGs can achieve the ultimate quality that is possible when shooting RAW and editing with a professional software, such as Lightroom.

    I typically adjust Shadows, Highlights, Lights, Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation on every image I prepare. I also do some selective dodging and/or burning where that can improve the quality of the image.

    Where there are blue skies in the scene, I typically reduce the luminance of Blue.

    Where conditions from one image to another don't change, Sync is my friend.

    99.9% of my images are cropped to suit the image, not to a particular aspect ratio. Cropping for wall images is generally for canvas gallery wraps where I am not constrained by any aspect ratio. I don't print much of anything smaller than wall art.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2016