More Image Editing Tricks for Brightening Shadows

You already know that life is full of compromises--like the way you have to eat your broccoli before you get dessert, or promise to walk the dog in order to get your spouse to agree to let you, you know, get a dog. So too with photography: A "good exposure" sometimes means that while most of the photo looks fine, there are some deep shadows lacking in detail, like in my photo of a Coast Guard sailor protecting the Staten Island Ferry enroute to Manhattan. Last week I talked about a few techniques for brightening shadows to reveal hidden details This week, let's wrap it up with a couple more ways to selectively improve the quality of your photographs.

Powerful Shadow Controls in Lightroom

As I mentioned last week, there are some simple ways to globally brighten a photo, such as using your photo editor's brightness and contrast controls. I prefer to improve shadows more tactically adjusting the shadow itself, leaving the rest of the photo alone.

If you are lucky enough to have Adobe Lightroom, then this kind of edit is a snap. Indeed, perhaps the easiest way to punch up your shadows is to use that program's Adjustment Brush. This feature lets you paint a mask onto any part of your photo and apply selected edits to that region, like exposure, brightness, saturation, and more. Even better, the Adjustment Brush is smart enough to detect edges as you paint, so you can easily follow the contour of a subject--just like using a smart selection tool in Photoshop Elements.

In the picture linked to the right you can see how I made a dramatic improvement in the exposure of the sailor by painting him with Lightroom's Adjustment Brush and then setting the exposure correction to about 1.

What if you don't have Lightroom? Well, if you have Photoshop Elements, you can try the Shadows/Highlights enhancement I described last week. Or you can try the next technique, which works in Photoshop Elements and any other photo editor that lets you work with layers.

Working With Layers

This technique is actually pretty simple--we're going to build our own mask to selectively choose which parts of the photo to brighten. We'll just duplicate the photo in a second layer, erase the bits that don't contain the area we want to fix, and then increase the brightness of that partial top layer until we like the result. The two layers will blend together to give us a single, improved image.

Start by opening the photo you want to fix in Photoshop Elements, then duplicate it by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer, and clicking OK. You should see two layers in the Layer Palette on the right side of the screen. At this point, you could right-click the layer called Background Copy, choose Rename Layer, and call it Top Layer so it's easier to keep track of. Since we have only two layers in this project, though, that's not essential.

Now, turn off the bottom layer--the one called Background--by clearing the eyeball icon to the left of the image thumbnail. You haven't deleted or damaged the layer, but (as we'll see shortly) if you erase bits of the top layer, you won't see the bottom layer underneath. It'll just look like a white, cross-hatched canvas.

Erase the Stuff You Don't Need

Now it's time for you to practice your delicate painting skills with a mouse. Choose the Eraser tool (in Photoshop Elements, it's the eighth tool from the bottom of the toolbar) and set the size in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. The goal is to use the tool to completely erase the photo except for the shadow area that we want to correct. That means you can use a relatively large brush to make fast, sweeping erasures across most of the photo, and then switch to a smaller brush as you get closer to the shadow itself. Be careful to feather into the darker areas without erasing too much of it--but keep in mind that if you don't erase enough, you'll see an ugly bright halo in the finished photo.

In the photo linked on the left you see what my photo looks like after I've erased around the sailor.

Adjust the Shadow

Now, use the Brightness/Contrast tool to bring out the highlights in the shadowy areas. Choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast. As you increase the brightness and reduce the contrast, you should see relatively more exposure and detail in the sailor's uniform. When you're happy with the result, click OK.

Finally, turn the bottom layer back on by clicking the eye. If the effect is a bit too much, you can fine-tune the shadow exposure by lowering the top layer's opacity (in the Layer Palette, select the top layer and drag the opacity slider until you like the result).

Save the photo--you're done!

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Leading the Way" by Barbara Andersen, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Barbara writes: "I shot this in the Naeroyfjord of Norway last month while on a boat tour. We had a small break in the fog and I took some photos while panning my camera on the seagull. I used my Canon PowerShot Digital Elph, a constant companion while on vacation."

This week's runner-up: "Golden Gate Fog" by David Dickenson, Centennial, Colorado

David writes: "I took this shot of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge with a Nikon S8100 camera using the silhouette setting while moving in traffic out of the front windshield. The fog was just lifting as we approached--you can see that a few of the street lights on the left are still partially covered."

To see last month's winners, visit our September Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

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