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Shadows and Highlights in Adobe Photoshop 


Adobe Photoshop CS introduced a new way to adjust images that do not have well-exposed dark or light areas, the Adjust Shadow/Highlight feature found under the Image menu. Now, users of Adobe’s inexpensive Photoshop Elements 2.0 may have their eyes glazing over already with the thought of more tips for Adobe’s powerful but expensive flagship product. Well fear not gentle reader, this month we’re going to take a look at the equivalent tools in Elements as well.

Fixing an image like this baptism shot (Fig. 1) in previous version of Photoshop would have involved a trip to the Curves dialog box (Image: Adjust: Curves) and possibly even some masking of select areas of the image. But this is a typical problem shot. It was photographed on a bright sunny day, but all the action was under the roof of a gazebo. This produced some dark shadows causing much of the detail to be lost. ‘Lost’ is not really the correct word however, some of the detail is there in the shadows, but the difference in tones is too subtle to easily make it out. 

Fig. 1

The Shadows/Highlights adjustment in Photoshop CS has two modes. When you initially pull it up, it has only too sliders (Fig. 2). The Shadows slider brightens up the dark areas in a natural-looking way without affecting the rest of the tones in the image. The Highlights slider makes the light areas darker in a similar way. The default setting is for the Shadows to be lightened 50% and the Highlights to be unaffected. This actually works pretty well for this test image, bringing out a lot of detail in the people as well as the ceiling of the gazebo.

Fig. 2

At the bottom of the dialog box is an unassuming checkbox labeled Show More Options. Clicking this will give you much more control over these effects (Fig. 3). You can still vary the Amount under Shadow and Highlight, but you can also affect the Tonal Width and the Radius. A lower Tonal Width number will only affect the darker tones (Shadows) or lighter tones (Highlights). A higher number will have the correction affecting more into the midtones. At a 100% Tonal Width, the effect is linear. For Shadows, the darkest tones will be completely affected, but the lightest tones will be unchanged. There will be a 50% correction to the midtones.  Setting the Tonal Width too high can cause an unnatural halo to appear around the areas you are changing.

Fig. 3

The Radius setting is how Photoshop determines what areas of the image to affect. A Radius number that is too high will have the adjustment affecting the entire image. Some experimentation may be needed to determine the optimal number.

Fig. 4

The first slider in the Adjustments section of the Shadow/Highlight dialog changes depending on the type of image you have. Color images will have the Color Adjustment slider. This will help compensate for color changes in the corrected areas of the image. Grayscale images will show the Brightness slider (Fig. 4), which will lighten or darken an image. The next slider is Midtone Contrast; a higher number will make the shadows darker and the highlights lighter and produce more contrast in the midtones. 

The last setting is the Black Clip and White Clip. Higher values in either of these fields will result in more tones being set to black or white respectively. Too high of a value will result in loss of detail in the affected areas.

Fig. 5

At the bottom of the Shadow/Highlight dialog is a button labeled Save As Defaults. Clicking this will make the current settings the new default. To get back to the factory setting hold down the Shift key while clicking the button.

To do this sort of image correction in Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, you have to look in one of three places. Under the Enhance menu’s Adjust Lighting submenu select either Adjust Backlighting (Fig. 5) or Fill Flash (Fig. 6); or make it easy on yourself and just select Quick Fix at the top of the Enhance menu. Quick Fix contains both of these adjustments and plenty of other common ones as well (Fig. 7). For this image the Fill Flash Adjustment is the most appropriate. A Lighter value of 14 makes this image more acceptable. You won’t find all of the nerdy settings in these tools, but they will get the job done.

Fig. 6

These tools, whether in Adobe Photoshop CS or Photoshop Elements 2.0, are remarkably powerful and easy to use. They can make a mediocre image into the image you really wanted to shoot. Check them and give ‘em a spin.

Fig. 7

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. Who knows what you’ll find lurking in the shadows when you lighten them up too much. If you would like to see the Graphics Guy address a specific topic email Paul Vaughn at


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