Shadows in flash pictures

Bring out what’s hiding in the shadows

Pictures taken indoors with on-camera-flash usually have dingy, dark backgrounds. There is little that can be done about the behavior of light. An object at twice the distance from the flash will get only a quarter as much light. That means it will be darker in the picture.

There is no need to live with that problem. Post-processing, just a little bit of adjustments, can substantially enhance such photos. That is what the Shadows slider in Photo Gallery can correct substantially. With some judicious use of the Hightlights slider, and maybe a bit of adjustments with the others, a flash photo can be made to look quite good.

Here are a couple of screen shots to illustrate what can be done with a flash picture.


This is the oroginal photograph, just the way it came from the camera. It looks like what you expect from a flash picture, the objects close to the camera, the table and chairs here, are properly exposed, things farther away look progressively darker.

Next the picture with some enhancements.


The Shadows slider was moved all the way to the right to make darker areas of the photo lighter. Sometimes such a drastic adjustment may turn out to be way too much, but for this picture it worked well. The Highlights slider is moved a little to the left to make the lightes areas a bit darker. The Contrast slider was also moved to the right jut a little bit to increase contrast.  Note how much lighter the far wall is, it looks almost normal they way you would see it.

Other photo editors have similar tools. Sometimes they have different names. In Picasa the Fill Light slider brings the details out of the shadows. The Shadows slider makes intermediate toned areas darker. Careful use and a little trial and error will help you get the best pictures out of your flash photos.



© 2016 Ludwig Keck

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

Lost your friends to the shadows?

So often I see photos that show people almost totally lost in shadows. Maybe a group standing in front of the Eiffel Tower – beautiful detail in the landscape, but the faces of the people are totally unrecognizable because of the shadows falling across their faces. LJK11511-P7

Especially in photos taken with on-camera flash, the folks in front are way overexposed and the ones in the back row lost in the dark. It need not be so, there is help my friends! Some times all it takes is to let Auto Correct in Photo Gallery or a small move of the Shadows slider over toward the right to set matters right. In PicasaI’m feeling lucky” may do the trick or the Fill Light slider.

The dark areas of our photos hide a lot of detail that is often totally unrecognizable. Those details can be brought out. It may not result in award-winning photos, but it may make all the difference at a family gathering.

The photo above won’t let you bring out any detail in the figure, so don’t bother to try. It is a “doctored” photo, I made the figure, actually a flat sculpture, totally black.

I did make some experiments to see just how much information can be extracted from a painfully underexposed photo. I used a white cloth with a near-white plate and a white egg on that. The lighting was very soft, diffused window light so there would be hardly any shadows. My camera decided that the exposure at f/11 should be 1/15 of a second. Now we all know that cameras can’t tell an all white subject from a normal scene. You have seen photos of those white dogs romping in snow – they are just a dingy gray all over. So I over-exposed by 2 1/3 stops – used a shutter speed of 1/3 second. Here is my photo as seen in Photo Gallery.


Note the histogram chart on the right. It shows the relative number of pixels of each shade, from totally black on the left to totally white on the right. There are just a few pixels that are below the halfway mark on the chart. The most pixels are bunched up near the right, the white, end. The cloth is not completely white and you can make out some texture in it. But looking at the photo you would conclude that indeed I had used a white cloth, a white plate, and a white egg, and the photo fairly represents my subject.

The next photo here shows the same scene but photographed at 1/250 second – four stops under the camera selected exposure, 6 1/3 stops below the photo above.


Hopeless, wouldn’t you say? Take a look at the histogram. All the pixels are bunched up tightly on the black end. But note that they are just a tiny bit above the left end. There must be some data there.

Photo Gallery offers a number of sliders in the Adjust exposure panel. Those little doohickeys under the histogram are sliders too. They can be used to tell Photo Gallery to spread out the data. By sliding down the one on the white end you can tell Photo Gallery which pixel value to amplify up all the way to the white end, the rest will be proportionally lightened too. Lets see what happens when the “white” histogram slider is moved way left to just above where there is pixel data.


Look at the picture. Amazing, isn’t it? Not quite as white as it should be. So let’s use the Brightness slider to finish the job.


Well, what do you think? Yes, it is astonishing how much useful picture information can hide in shadows. I hope I have convinced you that you should take another look at your “uselessly underexposed” photos. As I said, maybe not gallery quality, but certainly very much worth doing.

For a bit more background on the histogram, see my post in Photography Notes & Tips Use the histogram to improve your photos.


© 2014 Ludwig Keck

The making of a Photo

When you are out and about enjoying the world you may come upon a site that appeals to you. You may want to share the feeling of joy and you take a picture. The camera does a fine job of recording what it sees. But the camera cannot capture the warmth of the sunlight, the chirping of the birds, the rustling of the breeze. It cannot add how you feel to your picture.

“Post-processing”, editing, enhancing, your photos can bring out the “essence” of what you tried to convey. Here in four steps the “creation” of a photo.

First the picture as it came from the camera.


There are some reflections of man-made objects that detract from the photo. In the real world these were ignored when I saw the scene, but in the photo they are bothersome. The clone tool in PaintShop Pro is what I used to remove these flaws.


I remembered the scene, and especially the soft evening sunlight, as much brighter. The next editing step was to bring out the light by increasing the contrast and color saturation. There are many tools for doing this. Most of the time the sliders in Photo Gallery get me just what I want. Sometimes I will use Picasa and play with the “Boost” tool as I did for this photo.


Still not totally convinced that the resulting photo presents the mood of the scene I decided to add some vignetting, darkening the sides. This step I like to do in PaintShop Pro but occasionally I will try the “Lomo-ish” tool in Picasa. I did so for the final touch.

Last Evening Light

I hope you can now see and feel the scene almost like I remember it.


© 2013 Ludwig Keck

Enhancing photos with Picasa effects tools

Rarely is a photo coming out of the camera so good that it cannot be improved. Photo managing and editing programs provide a variety of tools for helping to get the best image out of every photo.

Two effects in Picasa have become mainstays in my “quiver” of tools that I reach for when my initial edits don’t quite reach the “sparkle” I wanted. The effects are “HDR-ish” and “Boost”.

Picasa 3 - Effects

The “Boost” effect increases the contrast of the photo and the saturation of the colors. The “HDR-ish” effect makes dark features lighter and light areas darker and boosts the edges by making the lighter side even lighter and the darker side darker. Both effects are easily overdone. Here is an illustration of Boost:

Picasa 3 Boost effect

The modified image is on the left, the original on the right. Note how the colors appear brighter. This can help a lot of photos. The “Strength” slider sets the amount of "Boost”. Going too far will make the picture look unnatural and gaudy, so use it with great care.

The “HDR-ish” effect is even more easily misused. The “HDR” part of the effect’s name refers to “high dynamic range”, a technique that normally requires several exposures of a scene which are then combined with the dynamic range, the darkest parts to the brightest areas, toned done so the highlights still show detail and the shadows are lightened to show what’s in them. The technique is often overdone with the result that the picture looks more like a drawing than a photo. The Picasa “HDR-ish” effect emulates that garish look.

Picasas 3 HDR-ish effect - landscape

Here is the same photo with the “HDR-ish” effect applied rather heavily. Note how the lighter clouds are surrounded with a dark edge and how the green trees now have a white halo around them. Clearly for this photo that is too much – unless you want such an effect for some special reason. The “Radius” slider defines how wide the halo effect is and the “Strength” slider controls just that, the strength of the effect.

With the “Radius” slider almost all the way to the left, just off the peg so to speak, the halos will be very narrow and almost invisible. However, the effect will sharpen the photo noticeably as you can see in the next illustration.

Picasas 3 HDR-ish effect - hover fly

In the above illustration the “Strength” slider is on the high end and this will cause uniform areas to show “noise”, a grainy appearance like sand on a beach. For best results the strength needs to be applied carefully, rarely more than half-way up.

Below are photos that were made sharper and brighter with these two effects. You can see that this technique might be something that you can also use to bring out the best in some of your photos.


© 2013 Ludwig Keck