How-To Geek

How To Fix the Dark Shadows that Ruin Great Photos


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


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.


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.


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.



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.


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



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.


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.


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


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.



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


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


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.


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


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


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


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, 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

Comments (25)

  1. ericssonfan

    The original photo looks much better!

  2. GeekAndChin

    @EricssonFan yeah, looks way less photoshopped…

  3. caincha

    I think the photoshopped version would look better if it weren’t too overdone like it was…

  4. StaffordWes

    I like it. I will try this soon.

  5. Withanamelikedave

    Why are there so many pictures of hot girlz on this site lately? More tux, less bux.


    It works! I always wanted to know how to do it like a pro and finally I found the secret it. Thank you for sharing the tip.

  7. Snert

    This is interesting and useful but could somebody explain to poor, lil. ol’ me how to take decent pictures of the moon. Off topic, I know, but…it’s not about PhotoShop or GIMP but it is photography.

    I’ve got a point and shoot Kodak EasyShare C813. It’s all I could afford.
    It seemes the sensor overlaods or some such and I get a blob of white in a dark background. I’ve changed every setting I could multiple times up to and including the Date And Time.

  8. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Snert: Send me several of the pics and I’ll see if I can diagnose what’s going on.

  9. Josh

    Curves does just as well – control (or command)-M, click a point in the middle, click a point about 1/4 of the way from the left and pull up gently until it looks better. Curves is both one of the simplest, and one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop if you know how to use it.

    @Snert – I’ve seen that happen. When I take pictures of the moon, I usually set my (nice DSLR) to Manual mode and tweak it until it looks right. Something you might try is looking for exposure compensation in your menus and put that all the way down. (It over exposes the moon because it sees the rest of the dark sky, and attempts to expose that properly.)

  10. Doug

    Great article (as usual). Maybe you could do an article on Exposure Compensation. Josh and I concur that Snert’s problem would likely be solved with a bit of exposure compensation when he took the photo.
    Most snap-shot photographers would get a lot of better exposed photos if they understood and used the exposure compensation adjustment that is available in most, if not all modestly priced cameras. Obviously there is a lot on interest in photography at HTG and from what I have seen in my brief time here, the simple tools could use more exposure.

  11. Brian

    Really useful article, thank you!

    I wonder – will this technique be useful for a picture I have where the flash didn’t bounce as well as I wished, so one side of the photo is too light, and the other side too dark. Is there a way to apply a steady gradient of correction across a picture?


  12. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Doug: That’s a good suggestion, thanks.

    @Brian: This technique is perfect for scenarios like that, although, as commenters have said, you can make some good adjustments with the Curves tool. Check out this older article I did on adjusting contrast:

  13. David Lovering

    While I’ve no doubt the methods described are effective, it should be noted that beginning with Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 there is no longer any pretense of “channels” vis-a-vis color editing.

    Presumably something comparable could be done with layers and/or spectral/contrast editing methods – but a newbie would probably throw up their hands and walk away.

  14. Dan

    Too anyone that like’s the orginal, I agree cause everbody preference is’nt the same. Although someday you may come across a photo with darker shadows and say Hmm? I like this and numerous of other HTG tips, and trick-out-idea’s the HTG Squad put out. I’ll download this and other comments to my flash drive, so I can help others and they can have this info on their PC. Thank You HTG

  15. Mike

    @Snert The reason your moon shots aren’t working out is because the camera sees a LOT of black and decides that it needs to do a long exposure. Problem is that the moon is lit by the sun, so a long exposure means that it turns into a white blob.

    How much of the frame is taken up by the moon? (I’m guessing not that much). Let’s say you’re zoomed in and the moon is taking up 1/8th the frame. I don’t know the details of your camera, but basically you have to tell it to ignore the black sky. If you have a manual mode, go there. With an iso of 400 try aperature of f/16 and exposure of ~ 1/250 sec. Or f/8 and 1/500 sec. That should get you in the ballpark.

    The moon is very bright – and the sunny 16 rule applies. f/16 and 1/iso sec. This varies depending on how full the moon is….but the fact is that it has to be shot as if you were shooting something outside on a sunny day.

    ps – send me some shots :

  16. dee

    I have Paint Shop Pro X3 – can I use it to fix shading?

  17. TechNetizen

    In Adobe Photoshop Elements 6.0, I see an option like this; Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadows and Highlights

  18. Richard Green

    Hey Dee, WTF do you think

  19. swapmeet2011

    xnview for windows free program install, pull up picture, go to pull down IMAGE down to adjust click on brightness/contrast/gamma/balance

    increase gamma then increase contrast fiddle with the two and even brightness and you will remove shadows and have a great picture

  20. phill avery

    I just use Photoshops ‘Shadow/Highlight’ feature – simple to use and very effective and no stuffing around with all these alpha channels. – works for me…

  21. Cherie

    This looks really easy but I’m having no luck with this in Gimp 2.6. It keeps making my whole photo black or just disappear entirely. Once I paste the new image into the alpha channel everything goes wrong. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that the Alpha channel options do not look as pictured in this tutorial. I only have one check box that says “Initialize from selection”. I don’t have the box the options that say “Color indicates: Masked areas, selected areas, or spot color.” If a tutorial is going to claim it’s for gimp too then it should have examples of how it looks while going through the steps not just Photoshop.

  22. tony

    Or maybe you could just pay attention to your light sources, use flash when appropriate, and shoot better.

  23. Mike

    Great tip. I have some images that need some help but had not been successful previously

  24. DCJ

    I appreciate all of the photo tips and I have one basic request….being ‘mouse’ oriented I (and I assume others) use the keyboard as little as possible for a variety of reasons, some physical. Would you please show the cursor paths as well as keyboard shortcuts. Thanks

  25. Justin Schellenberg

    Adobe Lightroom has a slider that does this in one fell swoop. I highly recommend.

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