Looking into Shadows

There are many occasions when an outdoor photo with the sun at your back is just not right, and with the sun in front the shadows are inky dark. It is especially troublesome when you have friends or relatives in the photo and can hardly discern their faces. There is not much you can to when taking such photos. When you are close to a subject fill-in flash will help, but with a larger scene you just can’t compete with the sun. This is when we turn to post-processing tools.

This article looks at several tools for bringing out the detail in the shadows. My illustrations here are meant to illustrate the effect of the tools that I investigated. They do not show how additional tweaks can make such photos even more appealing.

Let me start with a full frame photo of a street scene from the Norcross Art Fest 2014.

Original - straight from the camera

histogramA pleasant scene but all you can see is sky and pavement. The histogram shows that the exposure was as good as you can get. Just a tiny bit of the cloud at the right top is “blown out”, completely overexposed. With the sun in back of the people their features and faces are totally shadowed. The tent shadows at the right make it hard to discern that there are people there.

My first tool is Photo Gallery. I use it to import my photos to my computer, to organize the photos, and to make many of my enhancement adjustments. To help with the shadows the “Shadows” slider is the primary tool. For this next illustration I moved the Shadows slider all the way to the right (maximum shadow lightening) and also set the Highlights slider to the left, minimum, setting. This made for a photo that is acceptable even without any other adjustments.

Photo Gallery - Shadows and Hightlight adjusted

When using Picasa there is a “Fill Light” slider. The effect of this control is more aggressive than the Shadows slider in Photo Gallery. For the next image I set the Fill Light slider half way up. Any more and the photo gets washed out. Picasa has a Highlight slider but it can’t reduce the highlights, it can only increase them – not what is needed here.


The third tool I want to illustrate here is really my favorite, onOne Perfect Effects. The HDR Effects tool has a number of presets. I really like the Surreal effect. There is a Compression slider that can adjust the effect to your liking. This effect not only brings out the details in the shadows it also brings out details in the highlights. Note the beautiful sky here. Also note that the pavement has been darkened yet the people appear very pleasant. There is not the “HDR look” with those cartoonish enhanced edges that is the bane of HDR over processing.

onOne Perfect Effects HDR

The remaining illustrations are all done in PaintShop Pro. The next one is one of the HDR presets in the PaintShop Pro “HDR – Single Raw Photo” tool set. Here too, there is a great deal of control available to modify and adjust the effect. I just used one of the presets without further adjustments. It might be just a wee bit too much. The sky has some unpleasant drama in it and the edge lightening of HDR processing is becoming way too obvious.

PaintShop Pro HDR

I have two more illustrations. These are here to show the effects that can be pretty much accomplished by any good photo editor and will be pretty much the same regardless of tool.

The next one merely adjust the “gamma”, the tonal compression, of the image to a value of 2.5. This does lift the detail out of the shadows but does nothing for the highlights.

PSP - Gamma 2.5

Lastly, still in PaintShop Pro, I used the “Fill Light” control, set to 100, and the “Clarity” control at 50. 

PSP - Fill Light

None of these images completely satisfy me. Normally I would make additional adjustments to bring the image to what I like best. I just wanted to illustrate here that there are many tools and numerous approaches available to “bring light to the shadows”. Don’t be afraid to shoot into the sun. Just make sure that the camera exposure does not allow many over-exposed details or yields overall under exposure. There is a price to be paid when the shadows are lightened in post-processing: there will be increased noise. It may not be apparent in photos from some of the more capable cameras, and in most cases it will be quite tolerable.


© 2014 Ludwig Keck

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