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The Shadow/Highlight adjustment should be at the top of your list of techniques to try, whenever you're dealing with a photo that needs tonal or lighting adjustments. Shadow/Highlight adjusts the dark and light areas of an image separately, which makes it great for correcting backlit photos like this one. It also does a really good job on over- flashed photos, which is the opposite problem to what you see here, where the main subject is too bright and the background is too dark. And it works on just lots of photos that have both dark and light areas. One thing about Shadow/Highlight adjustment is it is a direct adjustment.
There is no Shadow/Highlight adjustment layer available. And so the problem is that if you apply it directly to the photo layer, it will permanently change the pixels of the photo and we don't like to do that when we are practicing nondestructive editing. So here's the solution. Treat the Shadow/Highlight adjustment like a filter. Let me show you what I mean. I am going to go to the Layers panel and make sure that my lion layer is selected and then I'm going up to the Filter menu at the top of the screen and I am going to choose Convert for Smart Filters.
That's going to make the lion layer into a Smart Object. I will say OK at this message, and you can see the Smart Object icon on the lion layer. Now, I'm going to go and apply my Shadow /Highlight adjustment by going to Image > Adjustments and down to Shadow/Highlights. This is the default behavior of the Shadow/Highlights adjustment. First thing I do here is take the Amount slider for Shadows, and drag it to the left, because this is how the image is originally.
And then I click Show More Options. Let's find out what's here. You will notice that the Shadows controls are located in one section and the Highlights controls in another. Because this adjustment treats shadows and highlights separately, I will start with the Shadows area and I'm going to increase the amount of this adjustment and as I do, right away you can see the lion is looking better. By increasing this slider, I am just increasing the strength of the adjustment to the Shadows portion of my image.
The Tonal Width slider here controls what is considered a shadow for purposes of this adjustment. If I drag it to the left, fewer areas are considered shadows that need to be adjusted, and if I drag it to the right, more areas are adjusted as shadows. Then there is the Radius slider. The way that Shadow/Highlights works is that it looks at neighboring pixels to figure out whether it's working in a dark area or a light area. The Radius slider determines the range of neighboring pixels that the adjustment will look at when it's making that determination.
You basically just have to eyeball this slider. You don't want to drag it too far to the left, where everything will look flat, or too far to the right where not enough pixels get adjusted. So just somewhere in between where it looks good to you. The Highlights area has the same three sliders. So I will drag the Amount slider over to the right to darken the highlights in the image. And you can see the sky is getting more dramatic and dark. The Tonal Width slider determines the range of tones that will be affected by this particular adjustment.
I think I'll drag that over to the left a little, because I only want the sky pixels to be affected. And then we have the Radius slider. Do you see that there is kind of a halo or a glow around the lion? I can usually fix that by dragging the Radius slider. I am going to try to increase Radius to just smooth out that glow a little bit. When you apply a Shadow/Highlight adjustment, you usually also have to pump up the saturation of the colors a bit. You can do that using this Color Correction slider.
I will drag that to the right to increase the saturation of the image just a bit. The Midtone Contrast slider affects the contrast or the difference between dark and light in the midtone grays, like this area here. If I drag that to the right, I get a little more contrast in that area and the photo looks better. If I had a lot of photos that I shot the same way, I could save all of this as a default and apply it every time. But I am just going to click OK here and now I have my Shadow/Highlight adjustment.
But the really interesting part is that that adjustment is re-editable because I treated it like a Smart Filter. So if you look in the Layers panel down here, you can see that I have a Shadow/Highlights adjustment layer here, and I can turn that on and off temporarily by clicking the Eye icon. There is it off, as the image was before the adjustment, and on, as it is with the adjustment. There is also a layer mask that comes in automatically with any Smart Filter, and I could use that layer mask to limit the areas to which this adjustment applies, just like I use an adjustment layer mask, by painting on this mask or perhaps adding a gradient to it.
Don't hesitate to give the Shadow/ Highlight adjustment a try whenever you have an image with some areas that are light and others that are dark, which means almost any image really, and it's a must for backlit and over-flashed photos.
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