It’s very easy to lose extreme shadow or highlight detail when you’re shooting high-contrast scenes, and that’s one of the reasons for shooting raw files – they contain additional highlight detail, especially, that you may be able to bring out during processing. Shadow and highlight recovery is not always possible, but I usually reckon that decent cameras have about 1EV of extra highlight detail you can bring back in Lightroom, Capture One Pro or any other decent raw converter.
At the same time you’ll often discover a lot more detail in the shadows than you ever suspected existed. Here, the latitude is much greater – maybe as much as 3-4EV. Some cameras are quite noisy in the shadows so very large adjustments can bring some image degradation. Other models can be amazingly good, so you should try it out with your own kit to see what you think.
So here’s a guide to raw shadow and highlight recovery, how to get it right and how to tackle some of the issues arising. I’m using Lightroom, but the same broad principles apply to other software too. I’ve set Lightroom up so that you can see the before and after images in a left/right split screen view.
Step 01: Switch on the shadow and highlight warnings
These are the two buttons in the top corners of the histogram display. When these are switched on, solid black areas of the photo will appear a bright blue, while solid white areas will appear red. It’s a quick and simple warning for when shadow and highlight detail is being clipped.
Step 02: What the shadow and highlight warnings look like
I’ve exaggerated the effect here by moving the Whites and Blacks sliders in the Basic panel. I’m not going to leave them at these settings – this is just to show you what to look for. We don’t really want to see either red or blue clipped areas from now on as we adjust our photo.
Step 03: Pull back the highlights
If the photo’s exposure broadly looks OK, as ours does, but the highlights are blown out, drag the Highlights slider to the left to recover those lost highlights without affecting the rest of the tones in the image. Lightroom is pretty good at this, and you can see how much colour and detail has reappeared in the sky. We’ve used the full -100 adjustment here, but you often don’t need to go that far. The main thing is to make sure that the right-hand end of the histogram is no longer cut off sharply.
Step 04: Bring up the shadows
I quite like the fact that the girl in this picture is silhouetted against the wet street, but let’s see what happens if we try to bring up the shadows. Again, I’m going right up to +100 here – and there’s a lot more detail in that dark coat than I thought. I can even see raindrops now. This has all worked pretty well except for one thing. I’ve got plenty of highlight and shadow detail now, but the picture looks as flat as a pancake. This is one of the main issues with shadow and highlight recovery – a loss of overall contrast and impact. So now I’m going to look at some ways of putting this right…
Step 05: Increase the contrast
Boosting the contrast might seem like the obvious solution and it does help a little, but the more contrast you add, the more you undo all the work you’ve done with the shadow and highlight recovery. This isn’t a bad result, but it’s still not right.
Step 06: Increase the clarity
So let’s try a more intelligent solution. The Clarity slider in Lightroom increases localised contrast around object edges without having a major impact on global contrast. So here it has given our photo a little more ‘punch’ without losing any of the highlights and shadows – but it still looks a little weak.
Step 07: Contrast and clarity combined
This is better. I’ve added some clarity and an overall contrast increase, and the photo is now looking a lot better. The sky detail is starting to disappear again, but’s a delicate balancing act – if you get too greedy with the highlight and shadow recovery it becomes a lot more difficult to achieve satisfying midtone contrast. So far, these are tools you might find in most decent photo-editing apps, but maybe we can do even better using Lightroom’s secret weapon…
Step 08: Use the Dehaze effect
This effect has a misleading name. It makes you think it’s just for fixing misty landscapes, but it’s actually much more useful than that. It’s like a localised contrast adjustment but on a much broader scale. If I apply it to this photo you’ll see just how effective it is. It’s enhanced the contrast in the sky and the foreground separately to retain a rich range of tones in each, and it’s also preserved strong midtone contrast.
Step 09: Contrast, clarity and Dehaze
This has now prompted me to go back to the Basic panel and add some contrast and clarity again – but this time with much lower values because the Dehaze filter has done so much of the work. The picture is at last looking as I hoped it would, but rich (but not solid black) shadow detail and a full ranges of tones in the sky.
So just to finish off, here are full size versions of the before and after shots. The camera, incidentally, was Nikon 1 J1. Who’d have thought that Nikon’s rather poorly-received little compact system camera would have this kind of dynamic range?