Photo Tricks for Free - 2: Out of the Shadows...

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 27 August 2013 |

So, moving onto Part 2 of my Photo Tricks for Free series, I’d like to pass on a pretty cool three-stage process for dealing with nasty, heavy and oppressive shadows in photographs.

Some scenes which have important elements in shadow, or partly in shadow, can be an absolute pain to capture – especially if you’re using a more humble digital camera. Many compact cameras render bold contrast without much finesse, and that can make your shadow areas overly dark – almost black. But using the free editor Photoscape, you can attack this problem quickly and easily, to produce attractive images which look a lot more like they do to the human eye. Here’s the ‘before and after’ – before on the left, obviously...

Natural Shadow Comparison

Incidentally, when I'm faced with a scene like this (semi backlit with strong shadows), I tend to deliberately under expose it a little, because it's normally easier to rescue dark shadows than the burned out highlights which will probably result if you expose to the default. To under-expose with an auto camera, just tilt up to include more of the sky than you intend to, then half-press the shutter button to lock the exposure, then tilt the camera back down to the exact framing you want, before fully pressing the button to take the photo. Try it a few times, monitoring things on the LCD screen, until you can see you've just about retained all the highlights (make sure you've kept your main subject in focus too!).

Okay, the processing... so if you don’t already have Photoscape, I’d highly recommend you get it. It’s completely free, and I use it for almost all of my quick enhancements – in preference to Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, and even my beloved ‘90s classic Photo Soap. For major edits, I of course turn to the more powerful packages, but Photoscape is hard to beat for the basic stuff.

To begin this exercise, you’ll need my secret weapon. It’s a very small ‘.curves’ file, into which I’ve saved a dynamic compression algorithm for Photoscape. You can make these files yourself by saving your Curves settings from the Photoscape Curves dialogue box, which is exactly what I’ve done to produce my file. First, download the file via the link below…

Compressor.curves image dynamic compression file

… And then store it in a folder you can easily navigate to. You’re now ready to go…

Open your heavily-shadowed photo in the Photoscape Editor screen, click the arrow to the immediate right of the Bright,Color tab, and select Luminance Curve from the popup menu. You should now be seeing the dialogue box below, but with a straight line rather than the curved, dotted line in the screen capture (don’t worry, your line will look exactly like mine in a moment)…



Now click on the Load (Curve) tab, and navigate to the Compressor.curves file you just downloaded. Load the file, and you’ll see the line in your dialogue box change to the pattern shown above. But more importantly, you’ll see your photo change too. What’s happened is that the dynamics have been compressed or squeezed, especially in the dark areas of the image. This opens up the shadows, making the detail within them look more natural. Unfortunately there’s a side-effect with this process, which is that the photo loses contrast. That’s no problem though – you’re only two clicks away from correcting it…

So next, click on the arrow to the immediate right of the Bright,Color tab again. This time, however, you should go to Contrast Enhancement in the popup menu, and choose either Low, Middle or High. I normally find Middle works best, but see what you think. You can use the Undo tab to step back if you want to do some trial and error. This part of the process restores contrast to the image without plunging the shadow areas back into their original state. See below for the illustration…



Finally, it’s time to round off the enhancement with a set-piece correction. Click the arrow to the immediate right of the Backlight tab, and select either 25% or 50% from the top of the popup menu, as shown below...



Again, use trial and error to determine which one works best. What this final step does is to push up the shadow detail a little further and even out the balance in the darker areas of the image. The result should be a natural looking scene which appears very much as you'd see it in the moment...

Class 90 Electric Locomotive - Birmingham New Street 2005

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