Shadows Highlights

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Have you ever tried the Shadows Highlights adjustment to fix a lighting problem in Photoshop Elements?  

If not then prepare to be amazed.

What this adjustment  does is separate the brightness range of an image into three more or less distinct zones (the shadows, the mid-ones and the highlights - hence the name) which can be adjusted independently.

The end result is unblocking of the shadows, darkening of washed out highlights and modification of  the mid-tone contrast.

For all of it's sophistication (and it really is a sophisticated adjustment) Shadows Highlights is  surprisingly easy to use even with a difficult image.  With the right image and some fiddling with the adjustments and some further adjustments it's possible to give an image that "HDR" look.

Let's look at a couple of examples - one straight forward and one much more difficult to deal with.

Using The Adjustment

The Shadows/Highlights adjustment is done directly on the image so it's a good plan to make a copy of the original background.

It's accessed by clicking Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadows/Highlights ... and this is the adjustment palette ...

shadows highlights palette

There are only three simple adjustments and they really are self-explanatory ...

  • Lighten Shadows
  • Darken Highlights
  • Midtone Contrast

Make sure the Preview button is checked so the effect of the adjustment can be seen.

Here's a picture I shot a few months ago that needs some TLC ...

shadows highlights original

This one could be worked on with the Levels command but ...

shadows highlights

the darkest area on the left (from your point of view) has been opened up and the water flowing over the falls is now way too bright and the contrast is disappearing.

Here's the same shot after using Shadows/Highlights ...

shadows highlights

The Shadows/Highlights adjustment also opened up the Shadow by moving the Lighten Shadows slider up and the water of the falls was darkened with the Darken Highlights slider.

The Midtone Contrast really didn't need any adjustment.

Shadows Highlights palette

There - I said it was an easy and powerful adjustment and it really is, isn't it?

Here's another example of the Highlights Shadows ... a quick adjustment on this night shot took the image from OK to much more interesting ...

shadows highlights mall shadows highlights mall
Original Image After Highlights/Shadows

The adjustment on this image really opened up the shadows on the sidewalk and on the facings of the buildings in the mall.

Now for a black and white ...

shadows highlights

shadows highlights

It's an amazing adjustment and useful in so many different situations.

Tip - Undo History

shadows highlights undo history palette When you are working with this adjustment (or any adjustment for that matter) keep the Undo History palette open on your desktop ... because it allows you to go back in time before the change you made that you don't like.

This one shows that the image was opened, a Shadows/Highlights adjustment was made, a Hue Saturation Adjustment layer was added and finally a new layer (Soft Light Dodge and Burn) was added.

The palette makes it easy to compare the original to where you are presently and step back if the results are not what you want.

To get to an earlier time just highlight that step and there you are - it's kind of like the Doctor Who of Photoshop Elements.

Now for a more difficult situation ...

A More Challenging Image

I'm not very proud of this shot ...

shadows highlights

This Shadow/Highlight adjustment was applied ...

shadows highlights

This is the result - the elements in the shot can be seen but there is not much contrast ...

shadow hightlights streetcar

And then a Levels Adjustment ...

shadows highlights

To finally end up here ...

shadows highlights

And here are the three histograms for the thee images ...

shadows highlights shadows highlights shadows highlights
Original After Shadows Highlights After Levels Adjustments

  • The Original Histogram is clumped up in the Shadows.
  • After Shadows/Highlights the Histogram has been expanded.
  • After Levels the Histogram stretches from the Shadows to the Highlights.

Further Adjustments

It's unlikely that using Shadows/Highlights alone or in conjunction with Levels will get you where you want to be with an image.

Because of the nature of the images where Shadows/Highlights will have an effect it's likely that some Dodging and Burning will be very useful.

Another adjustment that may produce some dramatic results is to modify the individual colors with Hue and Saturation.

Let's see what these adjustments will do for an image ...

shadows highlights birdwatcher

It was one of those days - you know the one's with a dark and brooding sky, some rain and a cold wind stirring up the lake late in the fall.

In other words - a perfect day to be out with a camera!

I saw this older gal braving the elements and just had to take a picture of her.  As is often the case, the image in my mind did not match the image I downloaded to my computer.


The first shadows/highlights adjustment lightened the grass and darkened the sky and it is an improvement but the Histogram indicates that a Levels adjustment is needed.

shadows highlights

Levels Adjustment

Moving the highlight slider in to the edge of the histogram brightened the image ...

shadows highlights levels adjustments

If you're not confident with the Levels Adjustment - Click Here ===>

Hue and Saturation

This adjustment is a bit different from what you may normally do.  Rather than work with a Master modification, drop down the Edit: menu and then you can choose which color to modify.

With this image I increased the saturation of both the Greens and the Blues to add some punch to the colors.  This is how the image looks now ...

shadows highlights hue and saturation adjustment

Dodge and Burn

Finally -  a bit of dodging and burning with a Soft Light Layer - one of the really awesome adjustments you can do in Photoshop Elements ...

shadows highlights dodge and burn

If you're not sure about Dodging and Burning - Click Here ===>

There you go - that's how to use shadows highlights to fix lighting problems and then do some additional adjustments to an image.

Shadows Highlights really is one of the easiest adjustments to use and makes the most incredible changes to an image.

Photo Restoration

Shadows highlights is a very effective tool in photo restoration.

Take this image, for example ...

shadows highlights restore original

Not only are there some obvious blemishes in the image, there are also a lot of blocked shadows and a rather bland and boring sky.

shadows highlights restore palette The restore palette produced  the next image ...
shadows highlights adjusted The shadows have been opened up and the contrast was lowered.  The highlights didn't need any adjustment.

shadows highlights gradient A Soft Light Layer was added to the image and then a black to transparent gradient was added.  The gradient was drawn from the top of the image.

The black of the gradient darkened the sky even further and the transparent part of the gradient had no effect on the bottom of the image.

At this point the Spot Healing Brush was used - extensively - on the background layer.  There were lots of little spots everywhere on the image and the Spot Healing Brush  took care of them quickly and efficiently - gotta love the Spot Healing Brush.

A second Soft Light layer was added and the bow wave, the masts and the wheel house were lightened by painting with white using a brush that changed opacity with pen pressure.

Here's the image after all of these modifications and adjustments with a nice gray frame added ...

shadows highlights final restore


Shadows Highlights

Shadows Highlights
Page Links

The Adjustment

A Challenging Image

Further Adjustments

Photo Restoration


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