Using the shadow/highlight tool in Photoshop
Every landscape photographer knows how important the consistent use of a tripod is to composing and producing sharp images. The use of the shadow/highlight tool in Photoshop is equally as basic and important in producing dynamic images. It is so easy to use that it is hard to believe how much improvement can be made in an image with so little effort. The improved shadow or highlight detail may seem subtle, but often it gives an image that extra something which makes an image “all that it can be”.
I am not a technical guy so what follows now is a basic how to use it description of the tool.
1. After importing the file from Bridge or what ever program used to process the raw image, make a duplicate of the base layer. The tool cannot be used as an adjustment layer and applying the tool to the duplicate layer preserves the integrity of the original layer. On this duplicate layer Go to: Images/Adjustments/Shadow-Highlights. In the dialogue box click on show more options.
2. There are three boxes labeled “shadow”, “highlight” and “adjustments” with sliders in each box. The shadow sliders lighten the shadows, the highlight sliders darken the highlights and the adjustment sliders are for final adjustment to make the image look good. In the shadow/highlight sliders the tonal width sets how much into the midtones the effect will be applied. The higher the percentage, the more the effect is moved into the midtones. Amount is just that – the higher the amount the more the effect. Not every image needs both shadow and highlight adjustment. Almost all need shadow adjustment, so start there first. First adjust the tonal width , and then the amount and then the radius tool. When working on the shadows, concentrate on the shadow areas that have detail while moving the radius slider back and forth until the desired effect is achieved. There is the “aha that’s it spot”, and going beyond make the image too garishly sharp and below that point things look too soft. Make sure to view the whole image on the screen to see how the effect looks on the entire picture. (As opposed to the sharpening tool which should be viewed at 100%.) Repeat the same process for the highlights if necessary.
3. In the final adjustment section, the midtone contrast slider is the only one that needs to be used. Most images benefit from a little more contrast, but not usually more than +10-20. However, there are some contrasty images where a little flattening of the contrast with negative values looks better. To see what works best with the midtone slider, exaggerate the changes first in either direction to see if the image needs more or less contrast. Reexamine the entire effect. Occasionally after having done all that some small changes might need to be made in the shadow and highlight settings. Hit OK to apply the effect to your duplicate layer.
4. If it looks a bit overdone, use the opacity slider to back off on the effect Merge the layers down or keep it as a separate layer to be reworked later if needed. With newer versions of Photoshop with smart images, it is possible to make the base layer a smart object and then apply the shadow highlight tool as an adjustable filter – same effect, just no need to go through the process of starting with a duplicate layer.
To learn more about using photoshop, I recommend the books by Tim Grey. They offer some of the best step by step practical how to books I have seen on the subject.
Using this tool is easy, and it is an extremely effective way to maximize the potential of your images. For landscape photographers I think it is as important as your tripod, and we all know how much we love our tripods.