Anything Photoshop or Photography

Using Curves Adjustment Layers to Get Rid of Shadows and Highlights

This may be my very favorite method of evening out an images tonality. Usually I am not shooting during the Golden Hours and my images have a lot of bright spots in the highlights or huge and dark shadows. The following technique may not cure all the problems, but it can certainly help draw the eye to other areas so the picture is saved. I learned this great technique from David Nightingale‘s CreativeLIVE course called Dramatic Post-Processing. (Check out David’s Photoblog – he has some great images posted. Also check CreativeLIVE for other interesting courses – the site has free live broadcasts running around the clock on a variety of topics.) He sometimes uses as many as 20 Curves Adjustment Layers to fine-tune an image. My image above used three. This is Navajo Horsehair Pottery by Matt Vail, a Navajo potter and artist (unfortunately he does not have a website but sells his wares with a vendor at the local Native American Festivals held around the country), who uses the golden sunset colors  Each piece is hand-etched. The horse hair is from the mane and tail that burns when it touches the hot pottery leaving a light stain cooked into it. This makes unique patterns on each piece. The colors are absolutely beautiful, and I actually bought the purple and gold one in the center. Some have turquoise added to the pottery and can be quite expensive.

Let’s start with my pottery image that had too many highlights issues.

1.  Add a Curves Adjustment Layer (click on half moon icon at bottom of Layers Panel and select Curves) and click on the Adjustment Eyedropper Tool icon in the upper left of the panel under the word Preset. This creates an eyedropper that can be used for sampling the image.

2. With the eyedropper active, click on the part of your image with a problem area. In the case of my pottery image, the front red and blue pottery piece near the blue ring where the highlights are blown out was sampled in the top left image below. If a shadow needs to be lightened, sample the dark area of the shadow, but only choose one area at a time. A white point will appear on the Curves Adjustment Layer showing the point that was sampled with the eyedropper on the straight diagonal line curve.

3. Underneath the RGB curve there is an Input field  and an Output field showing the same number relating to this point on the curve.

4. Move the Adjustment Eyedropper Tool back over the image again. As you move over the image, a little white circle moves up and down on the curve diagonal line showing what tone is under the tool. The numbers in the Input/Output fields are also changing as you move over the different parts of your image. This time just hover over an area that represents the new tone and/or color for the blown-out highlights or deep shadow areas, but do not click! Look at the new Input/Output number and remember it – this is the number to be placed in the Output field.

5. Unfortunately once you click back in the Curves panel, the field spaces disappear. To open them up, place your cursor over the white point so it turns into a cross hair and click on it – the fields will open up. In the Output field enter the new number from Step 4. There will now be a rounded curve with a new white point shown – although if the numbers have very different amounts, the curve may turn into very straight lines. You can always manually adjust the curve to get the effect needed, even adding extra points or sample again. Sometimes it is necessary to create two Curves Adjustment Layers and increase the tone in two different steps. For my pottery image a whitish color located in my purple and yellow pot was used for the Output field. To toggle between the Input and Output fields, just press TAB.

6. Fill the Curves Adjustment Layer mask black (by clicking inside it and pressing CTRL+I) and with a low opacity (like 12-30%) soft white brush, paint in the areas that need the new tone applied. Just build up the area until it blends in nicely with the other parts of your image.

The Curves Adjustment Layer technique can be used as many times as needed on different parts of your image. And the Curves can always be adjusted after-the-fact by clicking on the Curve icon in the Layers Panel – your settings will reappear. If you want to see a larger view of the image below, click on it for Flickr view.

The bottom row of images above is changing the Red Curve to darken the foreground tablecloth color. To do this, just open up the RGB field drop-down and find the color to blend in. You can manually change the curve or you can use the Eyedropper and place the point on the Red Curve, then find the output color number. This can be done using all three color channel curves and the Info panel, but it can get a little tricky. I use a Curves Adjustment Layer when I just need a small color change as shown above where the Red Channel Curve was manipulated. If a large color shift is required, the Hue/Saturation or Selective Color Adjustment Layers are easier to use.

Here are what the curves with the Input and Output fields included looked like for the two changes above. The white parts in the Curve Layer Masks are the areas being affected by the change. (White reveals and black conceals.) Click on the image below for a larger view in Flickr.

This technique can be used on a landscape as well as close-ups or portraits. It can really improves an image using very subtle changes and it is easy to do once you get the hang of it. This is one of the reasons that Curves in Photoshop is so powerful. Some people actually take their images into Photoshop just for this blending feature as Lightroom and ACR’s Tone Curves can not be manipulated like this. If you cannot get it matching completely, create a New Layer and just sample and paint with a low opacity brush to finish the clean up – see Getting Rid of Those Blown Out Areas in Your Image. (Just to give credit where it is due, the pottery image used Topaz (for website link see my Tidbits Blog sidebar) Adjust 5’s Spicify preset and Topaz Detail 3 – best sharpening program around. Kim Klassen’s beautiful textures Desert at 78% layer opacity and Archived Set-printed set to Hard Light blend mode at 70% layer opacity. Sign up for Kim’s newsletter and get several of her beautiful textures including the Archived texture used on top in the above.)
My images taken at the 24th Annual Native American Festival in Ormond Beach, Florida, were all taken in very bright sunlight at around high noon so there were heavy shadows everywhere and lots of strong highlights. This next image of a large stuffed brown bear was another example where two Curves Adjustments Layers were applied to get more detail and to even out the coloring of the fur.
Topaz Detail 3 was applied using the Overall Medium Detail II preset and the Tone preset Skin Brightening II (check out the new drop-downs on the right side panel sections). Next a Curves Adjustment Layer sampling the dark area as an Input Amount (8) on the right side shoulder and using a setting from the chest for the Output amount (28). The Curves layer mask was filled with black by clicking inside and pressing CTRL+I to make it black. Then the shadow areas were slowly built using a white brush at 30% opacity. Since this was such a drastic change as can be seen in the before and after above, a second Curves Adjustment Layer was applied again sampling roughly the same area, but this time the Input Amount was 29 (close to the Output Amount with first curve) and an Output amount of 56 was used. This does not have to be exact. But you can really see the shadows and color open up! Another Curves Adjustment Layer was applied but for colors, not tone. The Red Channel Curve was pulled up slightly to return some of the reddish tone to the image. A Levels Adjustment Layer was applied and the contrast was increased slightly with the Output Level set to 34 to add a softer, more hazy look to the image. The Sharpen Tool was used on the eyes and mouth areas just a little. 2 Lil’ Owls Mosaic Set Aveline texture (see my Tidbits Blog sidebar for website link), a basic light cream color, was set to Multiply blend Mode and layer opacity. Next French Kiss’s free Glorious Grunge Edging Overlay was added. A red color from the skin was sampled in yet another Color Adjustment Layer to get the matching red color. I also created both a Darken and a Lighten layer following my The Best Dodging and Burning Technique! blog to finish up.

These Curves are major powerful and it is definitely worth time to try them out – it can totally save an image. I use this method at least half the time when processing my images – most people do not take the time to learn how to do this and their images look like it. Give it a try and see if you don’t immediately see improvements in your images!…..Digital Lady Syd


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