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Shadows/Highlights in Photoshop

Photoshop has included a Shadows/Highlights adjustment for almost 20 years. Is it still relevant in the age of Lightroom? For JPEG and TIFF formats, it has not said its last word.

When You Prefer JPEG and TIFF Formats

Photographers sometimes remain attached to certain functions of Photoshop, especially for JPEG and TIFF formats. They offer less editing flexibility than raw files. But some adjustments, such as Shadows/Highlights, often prove effective. This one allows a fast treatment as soon as the shadows or the lights, or even both, deserve an adjustment. With a few precautions.

Switch to 16 Bits/Channel

The alteration of a file is less destructive on a 16-bits image. If it is in 8-bits, change it with Image>Mode>16 bits. Then, to be able to cancel any adjustment, we work on a copy of the image (Mac: cmd+J, PC: Ctrl+J, or right-click on the background to duplicate it). The copy automatically becomes a layer. It will be converted into a smart object. This will allow you to adjust afterwards the adjustment made on the layer. Finally, select the Image>Settings>Shadows/Highlights setting.

These four steps (16-bits, duplication, smart object and adjustment) can be saved in an action to automatically apply them to the background image in order to save time if you need to often process an image with Shadows/Highlights.

Advanced Shadows/Highlights Options

Shadows/Highlights show first with its simplified version. By checking Show more options, the settings are more flexible. Let’s take a look at them. Amount controls the proportion of adjustment. In order to get a natural effect, it is preferable to remain in the range of 10 to 30%.

Play With the Range of Tones

The tone slider determines the range of modified values. Low, it concerns very dark values (dark tones) or very light values (light tones). At 100% in the former, it covers up to medium dark tones. For the second, they go down to the light and medium values. Too high a percentage causes halos. By default, it is set to 50%. In most cases, there is little need to go beyond the 40 to 60% range.
The radius amount is comparable to the feathering of a selection. In practice, it modifies the local contrast of the areas affected by the adjustments. Weak, it reduces the contrast, but between 100 and 200 pixels, the shadows as well as the highlights generally retain a very satisfactory local contrast.

Compensate for Saturation and Contrast

Changes can result in a loss of saturation and contrast. The Color slider modifies the saturation and the Midtone slider corrects midtone contrast. The Black and White clips values move the darker pixels toward black and the lighter pixels toward white. This is a way to adjust the image’s overall contrast. But be careful not to set the values too high, as this will clip shadow and highlight detail.

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In the house of Auguste Renoir, in Essoyes. The Shadows/Highlights setting in Photoshop, which appeared with the CS version in 2003, is still of great interest for a quick control of shadows and highlights.

1/Layer in smart object
Shadows/Highlights is not an adjustment layer. To make its action reversible, it is preferable to duplicate the background (Ctrl+J or cmd+J) and convert the copy into a smart object. Any modification of the layer can be modified later.
Shadows/Highlights… is in the Image>Adjustments menu. Unlike many of the adjustments available in this menu, such as adjustment layers, Levels, Curves, Hue/Saturation, etc., it exists only as a direct adjustment. The use of a smart object makes it reversible.
3/Simple and advanced settings
In its most reduced form, the setting shows only two sliders, the first for Shadows, the second for Highlights. Show more options extends the possibilities of adjustments.
4/ Shadows
In the shadows, a factor of more than 30% often creates an artificial brightening. The Tone slider determines the range of dark values, up to midtones. The radius determines the tonal transitions between the brightened areas and the rest of the image. A radius of 100 to 200 pixels provides a natural effect.
5/ Highlights
It is often better to start adjusting the dark areas before the light ones. The reverse can be done if the light tones are preponderant. A back and forth between the two is often necessary to balance the image. Here again, an amount of more than 30% may look artificial. The Tone slider controls the width of the range, down to the midtones. A radius of 100 to 200 pixels is also a good starting point for a natural look.
6/ Contrast and saturation
Depending on the settings made in the shadows and highlights, the saturation of the image may change and the contrast of the midtones may be affected. The Color slider adjusts the saturation by increasing it or decreasing it. The contrast is managed by the midtone contrast. The black and white clipping values adjust the overall contrast. Start with the default values to maintain detail in the light and dark tones.

Text and photos: Philippe Bachelier, teacher of Printing techniques at Spéos

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