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Correcting shadows and highlights

January 28, 2005 by
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Quick photo fix

One of the most common questions I’m asked these days is how to fix a photo where the shadows, most oftentimes the people or focal point of the image, are so dark you that you can’t see squat. Luckily, Photoshop CS (unlike previous versions) makes this problem insanely easy to fix from within one easy-to-use dialog box, with nary a selection required!

Case in point: My friend J Curtis had a photo taken of him at Macworld recently that he wanted to use in his newspaper article. He had a friend shoot him in front of the San Francisco Apple store, directly underneath the logo, at a playful angle. He was really pleased with the shot, and really bummed when he looked at it later on his laptop. Happily, it took all of 3 seconds to fix it. Here’s how:

Step 1: Open the offending photo to be corrected, and from the Image menu, choose Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight.

Step 2: You’ll then be presented with two adjustable slider bars, which you can tug on to your heart’s content. Note that by default the shadow slider will be set to 50% (it assumes that would be your first choice). If you want to correct the highlights, simply drag the shadow slider bar back to 100%.

For the truly brave at heart, you can check the Show More Options box at the bottom left. You'll be assaulted with a display of scary sliders that even Adobe doesn't understand! (I'm kidding, of course. I think. Hopefully. Surely.)

Nevertheless, you can see the difference this one adjustment can make. Though I pulled the slider up to about 60%, the highlights of the photo weren’t molested in any way (the differences you see came from a little color correction using Curves in the “After” shot). Same is true in reverse when adjusting highlights—Photoshop will leave your shadows alone. So the next time you need a little digital fill flash, be sure to reach for this adjustment.