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Correcting Exposure with the Shadows & Highlights Tool

Bring out the best in your photos by correcting exposure problems using the Shadows & Highlights tool.

Introduction

Today we’re going to take a look at an incredibly useful, amazing tool: the Shadow/Highlight adjustment.

Often when taking pictures, it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to get perfect exposure on everything within the frame. Especially shooting outdoors with a bright sun and shadows on the landscape you’re bound to over—or under-expose parts of your shot. The Shadow/Highlight adjustment is another great tool to help you maximize the potential of your shots.

Let’s take a look.

Shadows/Highlights Overview

Image Description

First, this tool doesn’t come as an adjustment layer yet, so you should duplicate your image: Ctrl+J (Win) or Command+J (Mac). This way you’ll be able to work on the image and, if you need, revert back any time.

So, we have our duplicate. Let’s get to work on it.

Second, open up the Shadows/Highlights adjustment: Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights…

Image Description

At the bottom of the adjustment window you’ll see a Show More Options checkbox. Make sure it’s checked. The additional options may look a little complex to first-time users, but we’ll go over them now. And trust me, you’ll appreciate the controls.

Our third step is optional. This is what suits me. There are default values set that come with Photoshop. These are unnecessary as you’ll use different values for each image you process. I like to start my work with a clean slate so I suggest to set the Amount, Tonal Width, and Radius for both the Shadows and Highlights to 0 (all the way to the left). Set the Color Correction and Midtone Contrast in the Adjustments box to 0 (that’s in the center). Next, hit the button at the bottom, Save as Defaults. Now every time you open Shadows/Highlights you’ll have it set with no changes to the image.

Amount, Tonal Width, and Radius

You should see three sliders within both the Shadows and Highlights sections. We’re going to work with the Shadows sliders first.

Image Description

Amount

Pretty self explanatory—this is how much you’ll affect the image. (It’s also the lone visible slider when the Show More Options checkbox is not selected.) This is where you’ll lighten the shadows or darken the highlights respectively in the Shadow or Highlight sections. This slider paints with a wide brush. I doubt you’d ever want to use it alone. We’ll refine it with the next two sliders.

Image Description

Tonal Width

Here we define how much of the tonal range will be affected. Leaving the slider closer to 0% will mean only the darkest of the dark shadows will be affected. Increasing the percentage, sliding to the right, will start to affect more of the midtones.

Image Description

Radius

The radius slider will determine how the adjusted areas blend with the rest of the image. You’ll want to input a value above 0px—if not it’ll leave the image looking a little grey and washed-out. You’ll see how this slider really affects the image quite nicely. Values from 3-15px, more or less, add real crispness—a nice harshness—to the image. This look I really like. Around 20px and above the effect blends or blurs much more discreetly in the image. The higher you go, the more it blends.

Note

You may find, as I have, that you can’t really perfect each slider alone. The way I usually do it is I push the Amount slider to around 35%; push the Tonal Width slider up; and then push the Radius slider to around 5px. Then I can see what the adjustment is doing and I refine it from there.

Highlights

These work the same as the Shadow sliders—just instead of decreasing shadows they decrease the highlights. If you do find you need to work on the highlights, take it easy: Any work you do here has a large impact on the overall contrast. I find that I don’t often use the Highlight section. Find out what works for you.

Adjustments

We’ve come to the last two sliders: Color Correction and Midtone Contrast. The Color Correction slider should really be called a Saturation slider as its sole function is to increase/decrease saturation. I use it to readjust the saturation to what it looked like before the Shadows/Highlights adjustment. Further saturation adjustments I prefer to do with an adjustment layer that can be altered more easily.

The Midtone Contrast slider can be used to increase or decrease the midtone contrast. Nice and simple: aptly named this time. Again, I do the same as I did with the Color Correction slider, this time returning the contrast to how it looked originally.

Rollover Image

In the picture above, after making adjustments to Shadows, I readjusted the Color Correction and Midtone Contrast sliders to make the leaf (circled) look as similar to the original as possible. (No changes were made in the Highlight section.) After correcting the Shadows/Highlights, I can work more specificially on the Hue/Saturation or customize the image with other adjustment layers.

Examples

Image adjustments are up to the editor’s preference. So there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Nonetheless, here are a couple examples of pictures optimized with Shadows/Highlights. I’ll put my settings alongside the images, so you can see what I did. Try using this tool yourself. I think you’ll find that this is a great tool for optimizing your images and making little fixes that may make the difference between a good picture and a great one.

Rollover Image

Rollover Image

Rollover Image

70 Comments

  1. Add point Subtract point

    i luv this tutorial thanks

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  2. Add point Subtract point

    100% awesome. Great post with great info. I’ve tried it just now and it’s working just fine. Raw photos FTW

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  3. Add point Subtract point
    Vivek Parmar (1 Point) December 2, 2010 at 7:18 am

    this is something amazing and thanks for sharing this

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  4. Add point Subtract point
    artdesignstuff (1 Point) November 1, 2010 at 9:36 am

    This is awesome, especially that it works for only parts and not the whole picture. but sometimes I like the originals better than the adjusted ones….

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  5. Add point Subtract point
    gio.pan (1 Point) October 4, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    nice tutorial :)
    just a note here: i dont know which version of photoshop you’re using, but the shadow/highlights tool is also available as a smart filters adjustment (for that you need to convert your background layer, the one you want to adjust, to a Smart Object, but there is no need to dublicate)

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  6. Add point Subtract point
    david booker (1 Point) September 25, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Splendid tutorial…so that’s what you really use that tool for.

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  7. Add point Subtract point

    Nice! I’d never messed with that tool. Can’t wait to try it!

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  8. Add point Subtract point

    Very simple technique but it gives a very effective result.

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  9. Add point Subtract point
    Tutorial Lounge (1 Point) September 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

    really cool result.

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  10. Add point Subtract point
    benjie soriano (1 Point) September 2, 2010 at 12:20 am

    helpful tutorial.thanks for sharing

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  11. Add point Subtract point
    j wilson (1 Point) August 29, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Those clouds in the example could really use some highlight control. This panel really helps get good cloud detail.

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  12. Add point Subtract point
    nuinosis (1 Point) August 27, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Nice tutorial Owen, thank you. About the first step-I would prefer to convert image to smart object (and have full control over the settings when apply Shadows/Highlights) rather than create new duplicate layer, but that just my way of doing things :). Thanks again for a lot of great tips!

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  13. Add point Subtract point
    DesignMango (1 Point) August 26, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Really amazing work, I can’t believe how much this helps

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  14. Add point Subtract point

    Great tut! Thanks for sharing!

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  15. Add point Subtract point
    Johan de Jong (1 Point) August 25, 2010 at 9:58 am

    For my own photos I normally use Lightroom to do these adjustments, since it can do global adjustments based on my camera and lens. Basically I never use Photoshop when using photos, unless I need something special (like adding/removing stuff).

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  16. Add point Subtract point
    Thomas Beal (1 Point) August 25, 2010 at 4:31 am

    Great Tutorial, thanks for reminding some basic tips like these.

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  17. Add point Subtract point
    reformas (1 Point) August 24, 2010 at 3:37 am

    I’m trying to implement adobe illustrator to my website reformas.

    good tutorial!

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  18. Add point Subtract point
    Morz Project (1 Point) August 24, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Useful tutorials. Not every picture we snap is perfect. Photoshop is a rescue!

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  19. Add point Subtract point
    buzukh (1 Point) August 21, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    Nice post good work on this site
    and I work on it daily Designer & Blogger

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  20. Add point Subtract point
    AYRTON360 (1 Point) August 20, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Great !!!
    I just LOVE S&H
    If using with attention it is a GREAT tool
    Thanks for sharing
    Best
    AYRTON

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  21. Add point Subtract point
    Tutorial Lounge (1 Point) August 20, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    useful tips you sharing. thanks

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  22. Add point Subtract point
    bmlcreative (1 Point) August 20, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Great tutorial. Used to reply on curves and levels to achieve this, but his gives you way more precision. Thanks for posting.

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  23. Add point Subtract point
    Scrapsforever (1 Point) August 20, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Nice tutorial,I like the way you show the depth of photo editing.Its really helpful for fresher designers who wants to keep learning

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  24. Add point Subtract point
    Edward Black (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Nice tutorial, but I have to say, that I like every original image more than the adjusted version – sorry! :)

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  25. Add point Subtract point
    Len Currie (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Nice Tutorial! Very helpful indeed!

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  26. Add point Subtract point
    GKL Design (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Good article, if I am not doing a slight HDR I am pretty much doing this in photoshop. Thanks for sharing!

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  27. Add point Subtract point

    This is a nice straight forward tutorial. thanks for adding the information and I will soon be using this on a few new photos.

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  28. Add point Subtract point
    NIJIN.M (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 7:19 am

    Thanks…. Good tuts dude ….;-)

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  29. Add point Subtract point
    kingterrors (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 4:39 am

    Nice article, long time ago , one of my friend who like photography asked me how to make photos feel better as usual, i told him higher contrast would be better, but now better solution come out, thx for sharing~ : )

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  30. Add point Subtract point
    Warren Jerzyszek (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 3:56 am

    Great tutorial, the level of depth you have taken this tutorial to, to clearly help guide us through the key stages is great. Looking at the before and after photos of this tutorial just proves how Photoshop editing can really enhance raw photos and make up for bad lighting conditions as well as other key areas like colour correction. This tool looks like another great addition to Photoshop’s Arsenal, I have used it before but never really understood how the values work, so thanks for giving me a good understanding of each individual value.

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    Stefan Rynkowski (1 Point) August 19, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Good tutorial. You have very nice image examples…

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  32. Add point Subtract point
    IPOX studios (1 Point) August 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Nice tutorial! Would love to see more photo/ photo retouch tuts! I’m getting into photography pretty heavy. Add me on facebook and let me know what you think. Just search IPOX studios. Thanks again!

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  33. Add point Subtract point
    Diana Eftaiha (1 Point) August 18, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    love the results! nice article

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  34. Add point Subtract point
    Matt ^x.O^ (1 Point) August 18, 2010 at 11:46 am

    I needed this article! i use shadows & highlights at a good time, but did not know the right theory, and yet always had good results! thanks for the article! :D

    (I’m sorry for english, I’m from Brazil!)

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  35. Add point Subtract point
    Kathy – Chicago, IL (1 Point) August 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Question. I have Photoshop Elements 8 and this tutorial doesn’t seem to have the same location for shadow/highlights as I have in my program. I also do not have the sliders in my program. Is this tutorial for a different Photoshop program? Thanks.

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  36. Add point Subtract point

    This is a great tutorial, very helpful.

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  37. Add point Subtract point

    Like the tut, excellent job!

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  38. Add point Subtract point
    oliver (1 Point) August 18, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Nice photo edit tutorial. Thanks :)

    Photoshop Actions – An Easy Way to Advanced Photo Editing – http://www.cruzine.com/2010/08/06/photoshop-actions/

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