(Before the advent of high dynamic range (HDR) processing I used to use the following method to extract a greater dynamic range from my images. It is still a perfectly usable solution and probably much more flexible than the HDR processing, not to mention easier. Also, you will not be tempted to create “that HDR look” with everything in the mid-tones. I call them photographs with choked light. Photoshop CS3 offers a very useful adjustment tool, Shadow & Highlight which renders this method useless. However, for many users out there still using CS or CS2 this is a very useful and easy method to learn.)
I face situations where I may want to accommodate a wide tonal range in an image that has too much contrast. I picked a sample image to use here showing two garages with white paint under direct sunlight with a heavy shadow area behind a fence. (Figure 1)
In this tutorial, I will use the combined RGB channel and not be concerned with color corrections. The purpose is to illustrate a technique for controlling the range. You may save and use the image above to follow the rest of the tutorial.
Simple curves adjustment
I made a decent effort to adjust the curves to open the highlights while retaining some detail on the white parts of the garage. Here is the result (Figure 2):
I have managed to adjust the whites and, to some extent, the mid-tones but the shadow area on this side of the fence is still too dark. Here, the split adjustments of the highlights and the shadows will give me a greater control on maintaining the tonal range that I would like.
First, I need to create a mask that consists of the luminosity of the image. To achieve that, click on the “Channels” tab, then Ctrl-click on the RGB combined channel. This will select the luminosity of the image. Press Ctrl-C to copy this selection. We now need a new channel, click on the flyout menu arrow on the top right corner of the channels panel and select “New channel” from the menu, accept the suggested name “Alpha 1.” You will see a blank channel. Make sure to click on this channel and press Ctrl-V to paste the image in the clipboard. Now we have a B&W image of the luminosity of the original. Press Ctrl-D to release the selection so that no part of the image is selected. Since I want the mask to control the shadows, I will invert the image before making the final adjustment to create the mask. To do this, press Ctrl-I (making sure that you have already pressed Ctrl-D.)
To make the mask work the way we want, we should enhance its contrast. Summon the “Curves” tool, press Ctrl-M and make the curve to look as follows. The important thing to remember is to create a smooth curve. Here’s my curve (Figure 3).
After this adjustment, my Alpha 1 channel looks like this (Figure 4):
Now I have a high contrast channel that I can use, I want to use it to select the appropriate parts of the original image. Press Ctrl-click on the Alpha 1 channel to select the mask, then click on the RGB channel. The mask has created the selection on the RGB channel which will control the areas that will be affected by subsequent adjustments.
Curves, part I
Now, click on the “Layers” palette and using the black-and-white circle at the bottom of the palette window, create a “Curves” layer. This adjustment layer will only affect the shadow areas of the image and to a lesser extent some of the mid-tones. I have adjusted my curves as follows. This retains the highlights the way they were, makes slight adjustments to the mid-tones, and significant adjustments to the shadows.
The resulting image after this stage looks like this:
I can see more in the shadows, even the reddish patio tiles and other detail are visible.
Curves, part II
Now I will turn my attention to the highlights which require the exact opposite of the mask that I have created for the shadows. Using the mouse, Ctrl-click on the curves mask, which shows the high contrast B&W image on its thumbnail. (Alternately, you can switch to the channels palette and Ctrl-Click on the Alpha 1 channel.) We want to mask the exact opposite of the selection, so press Ctrl-Shift-I to select the inverse. Again, using the B&W circle at the bottom of the Layers palette, create a new curves layer which will affect only the selected areas, highlights. Any adjustments we make on this curve will affect the highlights and to a lesser extent the mid-tones. Here is my curve for this adjustment (Figure 7).
And the resulting adjusted image has the correct highlights and reasonably open shadows. Since we have both curves layers active, the image shows the combined adjustment and yields full tonal range.
If you think the same result can be obtained by using a single curves layer on the original image, you may be (may be) right. Try it and observe how fussy you have to be to make it look half way decent. Where this method of split level curve adjustments is quite tolerant of substantial adjustments on their respective curves.
I would like to hear from you, feel free to leave a comment or send an e-mail a message to me.