Join Seán Duggan for an in-depth discussion in this video Setting overall tonal balance and contrast, part of Enhancing Night and Low-Light Photos with Photoshop (2014).
Some of the most fundamental adjustments you can make to any photograph involve modifying the overall tonal balance of the scene. Including setting the shadow and highlight points, adjusting the brightness of the mid-tones, and increasing or decreasing contrast. Very often, a few of these simple adjustments may be all an image needs to make it look significantly better. We're going to be working with the halloween.dng file for this lesson so this is already selected here in Adobe Bridge. I'm just going to choose Cmd > R on a Mac or Ctrl > R on Windows to bring that into Camera Raw.
And very often, one of the first things that I like to do with the photograph before I make any changes, You just stand back and evaluate it, and identify what's going on with it and what I like to change about it. And when I do that it just sort of helps me to clarify the state of the image is in now and helps me figure out the way forward, and what adjustments will best serve what I want to do to the image. So in the case of this photograph, it's kind of a strange, spooky surreal scene on Halloween night.
Overall I really like what's going on, I like the motion blur effect, the way that's affecting the lights of the house in the background. I like the relationship between the ghost woman with her umbrella and the strange skeleton guy in the background. What I'd like to change is, I really want to bring up a little bit more illumination on the skeleton man so we can see him better. I'd also like to brighten the dress of the woman, perhaps increase the contrast there so we can get a better sense of the texture in the dress. And also increasing the contrast a little bit might help some of the textural qualities of this strange blur in the background.
So if we look at the histogram we can see we do have a full range of tones extending from the shadows on the far left side of the histogram all the way up to the highlights on the far right. We do have a little bit of clipping if we look at the highlight clipping warning here. If I click on that we’ll see the highlight clipping display in the image represented in the red overlay here. I’m not really concerned about that for this particular image just because these are specular highlights which means it’s just a very bright highlight where I wouldn't expect to see any detail any way so I’m just not going to worry about that.
I think the first thing I'm going to do is just raise the exposure up so I can see what the image looks like a little bit brighter. And this is going to brighten the image overall without affecting the extremes of the highlights or the shadows. Something like that, up to about plus 1.15 is looking pretty good. The one thing I don't like about that adjustment is that I don't like the brightening effect it's having on the umbrella. So I think what I'm going to do is come down to the highlights slider and lower that down, and that is going to affect just the highlights in the image, and you can see as I move that, how it's only affecting the brightest areas, so I kind of like that because it re-introduces that sort of ghostly blue quality to the umbrella.
Next I'm going to go to the shadow slider. This is going to target the darker tones in the image. And by raising that up, over to the right here, it's going to open up those shadows. So I like parts of that, but one thing I want to point out is that if you go too far with brightening really dark tones in an image, you're going to reveal things in the shadows that you'd probably rather not see. And in this case I'm referring to, noise. So if I, zoom up to 100% view you can see that we're seeing, quite a lot of noise show up in the shadows here, by brightening it up like that.
So that's definitely not something I want to do too much, so I'm going to back off on that a little bit, maybe do about plus 33, 34, something like that. And then I'm going to come down to the black slider. So, the black slider controls the very darkest tones in the image. So I'm actually going to darken those dark tones by moving that slider over to the left because there's really nothing there that I want to see. So it's okay that I make it darker. And often times combining the black slider with the shadow slider can give you a sort of happy medium in terms of getting that balance between opening up some of the shadows but keeping the very darkest tones dark.
I'm going to boost the exposure a little bit more just because I want to see a little bit more of a skeleton guy there. And then I'll lower those highlights down just so that the umbrella stays nice and ghostly. So overall I like what's happening there. One final thing I'm going to change here is the clarity. So a lot of people think that clarity is something for enhancing texture in an image and actually clarity is a contrast adjustment. It is targeting mid-tone contrast values in the image. So wherever there is an edge between a slightly darker tone and a slighter tone, it's going to punch up the contrast along those edges.
And that's what causes textures to seem more pronounced, and more significant after you raise this. So, as I raise this up here, we can see it's brightening the woman's dress, it's brightening the highlights on the skeleton costume. And, of course, as it frequently does, it really is enhancing the textual qualities of the picture. And do to the surreal nature of this shot, I can probably get by with a higher clarity setting that I might use on another type of photograph. That's good. I'm still seeing a fair amount of noise in here.
So maybe I'll bring the shadow slider down. We'll talk about noise reduction in more detail a bit later in the course. So, one quick trick here about Adobe Camera Raw that's pretty cool is that if you tap the letter P on the keyboard it will turn the preview off and you can see the before version. And if you tap the letter P again, it turns the preview on. So overall I really like the changes here that I've made with just those few simple adjustments. I think the image is looking a lot better and I think that these adjustments really should have fit the character and quality of this Halloween night scene.
These overall adjustments are ones that you can use on many different types of images. By setting the black and white points, you establish a good level for shadows and highlights that will often address contrast issues in the photo. Starting off with an image that has these essential adjustments applied will create a food foundation for further enhancements.
In this course, photographer and educator Seán Duggan explores a range of post-processing techniques aimed at expanding your creative options for night and low-light photography—and even "shooting" stars. He'll begin in Camera Raw for general enhancements (white balance, tonal and contrast adjustments, and noise reduction) and then turn to Photoshop to capitalize on its Merge to HDR feature, which can create spectacular high-dynamic-range images. Last, he includes techniques specifically for star photography: stacking layers to create star trails, removing and replacing blurry stars, and using luminosity masks on photos of the Milky Way.
- Using neutral guides to set white balance
- Applying lens profile corrections
- Reducing noise
- Working with 16-bit and 32-bit HDR images
- Stacking layers and combining exposures
- Improving star photography