This is the first in a series of Photoshop tutorials which will detail how I like to spice up (“let’s enhance!”) my photos.
The very first thing I like to do to just about any picture I edit is to hit it with some Shadows/Highlights. This option can be found under the Image -> Adjustments menu. What it does is brighten up the darker areas of your photos (that’s the “shadows” part), and darkens down the bright areas (that’s the highlights part). You might say, well, I already do that with the ‘Curves’ or some other adjustment. As with many image adjustments, there’s a hundred ways to roughly accomplish the same thing. Personally, I feel that Shadow/Highlight gives the most pleasing appearance, and allows me to push the levels as hard as I want without making the image look obviously altered.
The more important of the two options is definitely shadows. There’s three sliders here: Amount, Tonal Width, and Radius. Amount is how hard you want to apply the overall effect, and Tonal Width is how wide of a range of the dark colors do you want to apply it over. A small Tonal Width would affect only the darkest of the blacks, versus a wide Tonal Width which would affect dark blacks and some medium blacks. There’s really no golden formula with these; I think every photo I do has slightly different settings. A good basic guideline is simply to get a noticeable boost of detail in the dark areas of your picture without making it look like it was edited. Notice in the tire above, you can start to see some detail there, but it’s not bright as daylight. That’s what you want; a little extra detail. If you crank the sliders your picture will start to look like one of those overdone HDR pictures that everyone loves to hate on. Don’t crank the sliders. Don’t be that guy. Remember: just because you CAN get detail inside every shadow definitely does not mean that you SHOULD. Such a photo will look unrealistic, like a special effect in a movie that sticks out because it’s just too clean looking. Get a modest boost in the detail, and then start adjusting your Radius slider. The image below shows TOO MUCH of a good thing. Drowning your steak in steak sauce does not enhance the flavor.
The Radius controls how small regions adjacent to one another will be affected. Start moving it around and you’ll see what works best. What you want to avoid is what I’d call “bloom”. That is, gradients which are obviously caused by some kind of brightness editing, such as a noticeable brightness shift at the horizon in your sky. Again, the results should look natural.
The same concepts discussed above apply to the Highlights section. The main thing I’ll say about highlights is that I rarely use it! And if I do, it’s usually with a small Tonal Width and a small Amount. Only few and far between will come the photo that actually benefits from the Highlights enhancement. Even if you’ve got a strongly overexposed image, it often looks better to just make it look like you’re intentionally blowing things out, rather than trying to tame it into being a normal exposure. The above image of the Metra train was made with excessive highlights applied, creating the halo effect that plagues so many poorly done HDR images. Avoid that halo whenever possible.
Lastly, the controls at the bottom of the window midtone contrast and color correction are best left at neutral settings. Maybe a mild color boost through using the color correction slider, but please, go easy. You can get far, FAR superior color using selective color, which we’ll talk about soon! As for contrast, the best way to adjust that is in the curves dialog, and I think it makes the most sense to do that at the end, when you’re done tweaking other things like color and sharpness.