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The Shadows/Highlight adjustment is one of the most useful adjustments in Photoshop. It's designed to fix photos that have some areas that are too dark, and other areas that are too light. Which is what often happens when your subject is back lit, like this one. Unfortunately the Shadow/Highlight adjustment is a direct adjustment. It's just not available as an adjustment layer. But that's okay, because I'm going to show you a work around that will allow you to use the Shadows/Highlight adjustment in a way that's just as non- destructive and re-editable as any adjustment layer.
The trick is to convert the layer to which you're going to apply this adjustment to a Smart Object. I can either use the Convert to Smart Object command here in the Layers panel menu or I can go up to the Filter menu at the top of the screen, and choose Convert for Smart Filters. Because what I'm going to be doing is fooling Photoshop into thinking that the Shadows/Highlights adjustment is a Smart Filter. I'll click OK, and now on the Image layer I can see this symbol that indicates that I've converted this layer to a Smart Object layer.
Next I'm going to apply a Shadow/ Highlight adjustment. So I'll go up to the Image menu and down to Adjustments, and notice that none of the adjustments are available, expect for two, Shadows/Highlights and Variations. The reason for that is that you can't apply these other direct adjustments to a Smart Object layer. So I'm going to choose Shadows/Highlights. That opens the Shadows/Highlights dialog box to its default settings, and already the image looks better. Because the default setting here is to open up the shadows by 50%. Sometimes I'll just leave the adjustment at that and click OK, or I'll add a Highlights adjustment as well, dragging the Amount slider over to the right, to darken the highlight tones in the image separately from the shadows.
But for now, I'm going to take both those sliders and drag them all the way over to the left, to put things back as they were before I applied this adjustment, and I'm going to click Show More Options check box here, to reveal some additional options that I can use to fine-tune the Shadows/Highlights adjustment. First of all I'm going to move this dialog box out of the way by clicking in its title bar and moving over to the right, so that you can see the entire image. I'm going to start with the shadows area here. There are three sliders that control lightening of shadows with this adjustment.
The first slider you've already seen, that's the Amount slider. If I drag the Amount slider over to the right, I'll be increasing the strength of the Shadows adjustment, that's lightening the dark tones in the image. The Tonal Width slider controls what's considered as shadow for purposes of this adjustment. If I drag this slider to the right, I'll be including more areas in the definition of shadow and so more parts of the image will get lighter. If I drag the Tonal Width slider to the left, fewer parts of the image will lighten.
I'll put it just about here. Then I'll go down to the Radius slider. The Shadow/Highlight adjustment uses neighboring pixels to determine whether an area is a shadow or a highlight, for the purposes of the adjustment. The Radius slider controls the range of neighboring pixels that the Shadows/Highlight adjustment takes into account when making that determination. So if the Radius slider is too far to the left, like this, too many pixels end up getting adjusted, and everything looks really flat. But if the Radius slider is too far to the right, like this, then not enough pixels get adjusted, and I don't get the effect that I want.
So I basically have to experiment with the slider on each image, moving it until I like the appearance of the image. In this case I think this slider looks best over here, on the left side of its range. There are three similar sliders in the Highlights area. Increasing the Amount slider darkens the highlights in the image. In this case making the sky more dark and dramatic. The Tonal Width slider controls which portions of the image are considered highlights. So if I drag that to the left, less of the image is considered a highlight, so less of the image is darkened.
When I do adjust the Highlight sliders, I sometimes get a slight glow or halo at the edges of the objects. The Radius slider will sometimes reduce that effect. If I drag that Radius slider all the way over to the right, I'm smoothing out those halos, so they are less obvious. There are a couple more sliders down here in the Adjustments area. The Shadows/Highlights adjustment sometimes affects the colors in the image. I can use the Color Correction slider to correct the saturation of color, dragging it to the right, to add more saturation, and the left to desaturate.
In this case it's not having much of an effect, but sometimes it does. That Shadows/Highlights adjustment concentrates on the dark tones and the bright tones, but not on the mid-tones. So there's another slider here to adjust mid-tones, the Mid-tone Contrast slider. If I drag that slider to the right, it increases contrast in the mid-tone areas. In this case, in this part on the memorial, and if I drag to the left, it decreases contrast. In this case I would like it just about here. If I shot a lot of photos in the same light, and I think I'm going to want to apply the same Shadows/Highlights settings to more than one photo, I can save these settings as defaults by clicking this button. So that the next time I open the Shadows/Highlights dialog box in another image, these will be the default settings.
I'm not going to bother doing that for now. I'm just going to click OK to accept these settings in my Shadows/ Highlights adjustment. To remind you of how this image looked before this adjustment, I'm going to go down to the Layers panel, and I'm going to click the Eye icon to the left of the Shadows/Highlights Smart Filter. You can see that this is how the image was, and this is how the image is with the adjustment. So opening up the Shadows on this memorial focuses the viewers' attention on this part of the image, rather than on the background. Notice that the Shadows/Highlights adjustment is listed here in the Layers panel as a Smart Filter. A Smart Filter is basically a re- editable filter that comes with a layer mask.
I can take advantage of all the qualities of Smart Filters. Most important of which is that I can reopen the Shadows/ Highlights adjustment by just double clicking the Shadows/Highlights Smart Filter layer. So I'll do that now and the Shadows/Highlights dialog box reopens, and I can click on any one of these sliders, drag it to change my settings, and then click OK. I also can take advantage of this feature, if I Double-click this icon here, I get a dialog box where I can adjust the opacity of the Shadows/Highlight adjustment, and the blend mode of the adjustment. So for example, if I lower the opacity by moving my mouse over the opacity label and dragging the left, I'm lowering the strength of the Shadows/Highlights adjustment.
Actually I like it better at 100%. So I'm going to put it back and click OK. There is also a layer mask on the Smart Filters that I can take advantage of to hide the Shadows/Highlights adjustment from part of the image if I want to. So for example, I might click on that layer mask, and then go and get the Brush tool, set my foreground color to black by pressing the D key, and then the X key on my keyboard. Then I'll come into the image, and I'll make my brush bigger, I'll paint over part of the image; in this case the bushes, to remove the adjustment from that part of the photograph. Give the Shadows/Highlights adjustment a try to fix your own images that are back lit, that are over flashed, that are lacking in Shadow or Highlight detail, or that just have a mix of lighting problems.
You'll often be surprised at the results you get with this powerful adjustment, and don't forget to apply it with the work around that I showed you here for maximum flexibility.
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