Photoshop Shadows Highlights

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Have you ever tried the Photoshop Shadows Highlights command?  In a word - it's totally awesome.

What the adjustment does is open up the darkest areas of an image and darken down the brightest areas of the image. Effectively it widens the dynamic range of an image and that is generally a good thing.

In that respect it's kind of a pseudo-HDR conversion.

It can also save an image that seems beyond repair with the other adjustments like Curves and Levels.  Once the initial repair is done then other Photoshop adjustments can be done.

For instance, I was asked to take a few shots of at a gas station that was closing for renovations. Most of the shots were fine but some of them were severly over or under exposed.  Happily they were rescued with Shadows Highlights.

Let's look at the panel and then a few images ...

Photoshop Shadows Highlights Palette

photoshop shadows highlightsThe Photoshop Highlights adjustment is accessed by clicking Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight ... and this is the palette that will pop up with these default settings.

It may look intimidating but it really is easy to use.

There are three main parts to the palette - one part for the Shadows, one for the Highlights and one for Adjustments.

In both the Shadows and Highlights there are three sliders ...

Tonal Width - the range covered from either end (that is the shadow or highlight end) toward the mid-tones.  The range is 0% to 100%.

Amount - specifies the strength of the lightening (for the shadows) or darkening (for the highlights).  The range is 0% to 100%.

Radius - specifies how far around each pixel is searched to determine if it falls in the shadow zone or highlight zone.  The range is from 0 to 2500 pixels.

The Adjustments part of the palette is self-explanatory - do some color correction and/or mid-tone contrast.

If you have a group of pictures that need the same adjustments then the setting can be saved one time and then loaded for the rest of the images.


I couldn't resist this shot of Libby - she was just looking so cute. Unfortunately the light was in the wrong place so her side is in shadow and the top of her head is way to bright.

photoshop shodws highlights libby

Working with the Photoshop Shadows Highlights adjustment can be a fiddly thing for sure. These are the adjustments I made in the palette ...

photoshop shadows highlight palette adjusted

And here is how Libby looks after the adjustment ...

photoshop shadow highlight libby adjusted

The adjustment certainly opened up the shadows on her side and in the background while the highlights on Libby's forehead have been darkened somewhat.

This isn't the end of the line for this image as further adjustments will certainly help - but this is a shadow highlight tutorial so we'll stop here for the time being.

Grindstone Creek Falls

A couple of months ago I went out to take some shots for HDR conversion and this is the darkest of a series of three images used for one of the conversions.

Photoshop Shadows Highlights falls

This one certainly needed a lot od adjustments to bring out some detail in the darkest shadows and that's the portion of the image I was concentrating on as the shadow sliders were moved. Here's the palette ...

Photoshop Shadows Highlights Falls Palette

And this is how the image looks after these adjustments ...

Photoshop Shadows Highlights Grindstone Falls Adjusted

This is much better than the original but the right side of the image is too bright now and the sky is kind of washed out as well.

This is the perfect place to use a Soft Light dodge and burn layer with your Bamboo or Intuos tablet.  If you're not sure how to use the Soft Light layer then click here ...

Here is the image after the dodge and burn ...

Photoshop Shadows Highlights with soft light layer

Photoshop shadows highlights is a truly great adjustment.  Two simple steps took the image from pretty much useless to much, much better with detail in the darkest shadows.


OK - so here is an image of a Gargoyle hanging off of the side of a building.  It was a difficult shot on a bright sunny day around noon so the shadows tend to be harsh.

The image, while interesting, is far too contrasty ...

The Photoshop Shadows Highlights adjustment was loaded and adjusted like this ...

photoshop shadows highlights gargolye palette

Every image is different so every shadows highlights adjustment is different and this one is no exception.  Here's our friendly Gargoyle after these adjustments ...

photoshop shadows highlights gargoyle adjusted

Now that made a difference, didn't it?  Now for a little tune-up with a Curves and Levels Adjustment ...

photoshop shadows highlights final gargoyle

This is such a great adjustment - you just have to try it out for yourself!

Page Links

Shadow Highlight Palette

Three Examples

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