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Bring out the detail in your overexposed images with customized layer masks

Added on Thursday 22nd of June 2006 06:32 am EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows

Poor lighting conditions—while sometimes unavoidable—often result in underexposed, muddy, or overly dark images. But don’t toss those images out. We’ll show you how to rescue the detail and tonal contrast you thought was gone for good using the Curve command with layer masks.


To restore detail and tonal contrast back into your dark images, we’ll:

     Illustrate why we choose Curves over the Shadow/Highlight command and Levels for this type of adjustment.

     Explain how to bring your image out of the shadows with a Curves adjustment layer.

     Show you how to mask out some of the layer adjustment effects to compensate for blown-out highlights.


Every image demands individual treatment when color correcting, and there are many ways to accomplish the same task in Photoshop. For example, you can bring lost detail back to underexposed images through the Shadow/Highlight command, Levels, or Curves, just to name the most popular methods. Which one do you choose? We’ll explain the advantages of each tool, and show you why we choose Curves for the better control and flexibility they offered for our lily image in Figure A. 


Dig up your dark images

To get started you’ll need an underexposed image to work with. To follow along with our example, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article, then extract and open the file lily.psd. (Images provided by PhotoSpin. Some images modified for educational purposes.) Before we show you how to bring the detail back into our sample photograph, we’ll show you our first attempts with the Shadow/Highlight command and Levels.




Shadow/Highlight and Levels

Before we get into our curves adjustment, let’s take a look at our correction attempts with the Shadow/Highlight command and a Levels adjustment layer, and explain why we ultimately chose to make the adjustment with Curves.


The Shadow/Highlight command

The Shadow/Highlight command is available in CS/CS2. While Curves and Levels are designed to adjust the entire image or a selected area of an image, the Shadow/Highlight command looks for discrepancies between light and dark areas of the image.

The Shadow/Highlight command works best in images that aren’t totally in the dark; for instance, images that are well lit in some places but need help in others, which is why we initially considered the lily photo a good candidate. However, as you can see in Figure B, our image still lacks the tonal range that we were able to obtain with the Curves command, as shown in Figure A. In the end, it looks too flat.




Levels adjustment

You can use the Levels command to lighten images, as shown in Figure C. The major problem that arises is that levels don’t allow you to have as much control over the areas you want to adjust. So, while our image is satisfactory, the tonal range is still a bit flat.




Curve control

Now we’ll show you our preferred method, which is using Curves. Curves provide greater control and flexibility than both Levels and the Shadow/Highlight command. While Levels limits the adjustments to only three variables (shadows, midtones, and highlights), you can place up to 16 points on a curve for adjustme...