How To Fix the Dark Shadows that Ruin Great Photos

By Eric Z Goodnight on August 8th, 2011

 

Ever take one of those photos that’s great, except for a bunch of shadows that ruin the image? Here’s how to salvage that shot and bring the detail back out of those shadows in a few quick seconds.

With this Photoshop and GIMP friendly method, you can turn those frustrating “almost perfect” photos into great images. So, let’s dive in, and see what we can do about all those shadows. Keep reading!

 

Basic: Adjusting all Shadows In an Image

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We’ll start with this image of this model. The highlights look very good, so simply adjusting the levels might cause us to lose some detail, so let’s adjust the shadows only.

For HTG readers that might have missed it, you can check out some great methods for adjusting contrast for this kind of image in our previous article, Learn to Adjust Contrast Like a Pro.

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With your shadowed image loaded, press Ctrl a to select all of the image.

With the image selected, copy the image to your clipboard with a quick Ctrl c.

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Jump to your channels panel, as shown above left, and create a new channel by clicking the sshot-303 at the bottom of the panel.

 

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Note: If your Alpha channel is black, as opposed to the white one in the example, you can double click it, and adjust it from “Masked Areas” to “Selected Areas” as shown above. If your Alpha channel is white, you don’t have to change anything.

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Paste the image into the new Alpha channel with a quick Ctrl v.

 

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Ctrl L to open the Levels tool. Adjust it similar to how it’s done in the image above, particularly adjusting white the highlights slider, blowing out your highlights entirely. Your image should look similar to the example. You want to leave heavy darks and lots of gray tones in your shadow areas, lightening them up considerably and pushing many of your highlights to pure white.

When you’re satisfied, press OK to move on to the next step.

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Hold Ctrl and click the alpha channel to load the selection of the channel you just created. In the channels panel, you can click the RGB combined channel (shown above) to stop editing your Alpha channel and return to your photo.

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With your selection created, you should have your selection overlaid on your image as shown.

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Load your Levels tool again with another Ctrl L and adjust it like you see above. Pay close attention to the histogram in the levels to see what adjustment will suit your photograph best. Press OK when you’re satisfied with your adjustment.

 

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And, without disturbing the tones in your highlight areas, you’ve adjusted the image and brought out detail in the heavy shadows.

For those image editors wishing to remove or adjust only select shadows, keep reading—there’s an alternate method just ahead to do just that.

Advanced: Fine Tuning Your Shadows

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Return to your adjusted Alpha 1 channel, which is still in your Channels Panel where you left it.

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Grab the eraser or the paintbrush and remove everything you don’t want to adjust, as shown. Providing your channel was set to “Color Indicates: Selected Areas” as shown above, the white areas represent nothing, and all the blacks and grays represent your shadows.

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You can create a rough or a rather sloppy selection as shown above; it’s entirely up to your preference.

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Ctrl + Click the Alpha channel to load the selection, and then return to the RGB combined channel.

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Notice that your selection is now limited to whatever you decided to adjust. Use your levels tool again, and adjust your shadows again.

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And, there’s the result—the image with shadows adjusted only in the model, leaving the darks in the background untouched.


Have questions or comments concerning Graphics, Photos, Filetypes, or Photoshop? Send your questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com, and they may be featured in a future How-To Geek Graphics article.

Thanks to Guillaume Boppe for this image, available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 08/8/11
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