There are many things you can do in Photoshop to make the most of shadow and highlight detail in images, even if you didn’t bracket exposures for HDR.


Curves, the most precise tool for modifying brightness and contrast, allows you to target and adjust shadows and highlights independently of one another. You can use it to reduce contrast and render more detail in very bright highlights and/or very dark shadows. The Curves interface has a feature (The icon looks like a finger with up and down arrows.) that allows you to click on any area of an image to place a point and adjust those values. If you’re adjusting highlights and shadows, it’s quite likely that you will also have to adjust values in the other end of the tonal scale and possibly midtones to generate the best results. Keep it simple; it’s surprising what you can do with just two or three points. Keep it smooth; avoid posterization by not flattening areas of a curve. The Blend Mode Luminosity can be used to remove any unintended shifts in saturation; more contrasti increases saturation while less contrast decreases saturation.


Curves can be used to lighten shadows and/or darken highlights


Before Curves


After Curves


The Shadow / Highlight feature in Photoshop (Image > Adjustments > Shadow Highlight) can be very useful for more challenging images. It cannot be applied as an adjustment layer but it can be applied as a smart filter. To preserve future flexibility, apply Shadows / Highlights applied to the Background Layer converted to a smart object or to a duplicate Background layer if you plan to use Blend If sliders.

At first glance, Shadows/Highlights appears to offer two simple Amount sliders. Check Show More Options and you’ll find more sliders. The Tonal Width slider specifies which values are and are not affected, similar to a luminance mask. The Radius slider applies a sharpening affect, similar to High Pass filtration, to the affected areas only; this is the slider that does what no other tool does. Additionally, you can apply Color and Midtone adjustments – but there are other better ways to do this.


The Radius slider in Photoshop’s Shadows/Highlights provides affects not found in other tools


Before Shadows/Highlights


After Shadows/Highlights

Screen / Multiply

You can make industrial strength adjustments to an image using the Blend Modes Multiply and Screen found in the Layers palette. (Use the pull down menu that defaults to Normal.) Multiply dramatically darkens an image; it’s like registering two transparencies on a light table. Screen dramatically lightens an image; it’s like registering two projected images on a wall. These effects can be very helpful in making very bright highlight and very dark shadow detail more visible. Blend modes can be applied with any layer. They can be combined with Curves adjustments for even stronger effects. Because their effects are so strong you’ll want to modify their intensity using the Opacity slider or restrict their effects using Blend If sliders or a contrast mask.

Read more about Photoshop Blend Modes here.

Blend If Sliders

To restrict an adjustment to either the shadows, midtones, or highlights, you can use the Blend If sliders found in the Layer Style menu. Double click on the layer (Not the icon or the name, but the area to the right of them.) to activate the Layer Style menu. Then use the sliders in This Layer to remove the effect on the background layer. For smoother transitions, feather the effect by holding the Option/Alt key and splitting the sliders apart.


T Layer Style dialog with Blend If sliders set to target shadows


The Layer Style dialog with Blend If sliders set to target highlights

Luminance Masks

To more precisely target a specific range of the tonal scale, you can quickly make precise luminance masks in Photoshop. Simply go to the Channels palette and Command/Control click on the RGB channel. This will load a selection of the highlights. If you want to create a selection of the shadows go to the Select menu and choose Inverse. Then simply make an adjustment layer and the selection will automatically become a mask or target a layer and click the mask icon at the bottom of the Layer palette. You can further modify the brightness and contrast of the mask by applying Curves to it (Image > Adjust > Curves).


Highlight mask shadowmask

Shadow mask

Read more about luminance masks here.

Blending Channels

Do you still want more? If dynamic range issues persist in one channel (or even two), you can use the information in the other channel(s) to improve it. Use Photoshop’s Channel Mixer or use a duplicate layer’s Layer Styles. It’s a complex technique, but it’s there when you really need it.

Read more about blending channels here.

For even more dramatic effects these methods can be used in combination with one another.

To Merge Or Not To Merge

All of this might make you wonder why you’d ever need to bracket exposures for HDR merges. Actually, there are plenty of times – when the dynamic range of a scene far exceeds the dynamic range of a camera’s sensor. You can use all of these techniques in combination with HDR merges to get optimum results. Knowing why and why not to use HDR merges, when and when not to use them, and how far to go or not go with them will help you master them.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.

Insights on Chris Burkett’s photographs from his wife Ruth.

Read our conversation here.

View 12 Great Photographs by Chris Burkett.

View more in The Essential Collection Of Photographers Videos.


Two exposures blended


Dark exposure


Light exposure


The layer stack

Sometimes Two Exposures Are Optimum

There are a variety of ways to extend the dynamic range of a camera. The four classic ways are selective adjustment, double processing a single file, layering two exposures, and merging multiple exposures with HDR software routines.

Layering two exposures produces the best results when a scene has areas of dramatically different brightness separated by clear contours, like but not limited to horizons. For these types of scenes, layering two exposures avoids artifacts that are common in HDR merges, such as saturation distortions, midtone compression, localized vignetting, and detail / noise exaggeration artifacts.

Make Two Exposures Each Optimized For Select Areas

To exceed the dynamic range of a camera’s sensor (or film) you need to make at least two exposures. During exposure(s), rather than rather than striking a compromise between very different brightness values, instead optimize one exposure for each area of brightness, the highlights and the shadows. For each area, expose to the right. Monitor clipping differently. The exposure for the highlights will be clipped in the shadows. The exposure for the shadows will be clipped in the highlights. (If this is not the case, then you may be able to use a simpler technique such as selective adjustement or double processing.)

For this technique you only need two exposures, a very dark and a very light one, but to be on the safe side, make additional exposures in between them. It doesn’t matter which end of the tonal scale (dark or light) you start with. Simply work your way up or down from one to the other. Remember, using a tripod, locking down zoom lenses, and turning off auto focus will all help you register the two exposures more easily.

Process the Two Files Independently

Process the two exposures independently to optimize brightness and contrast separately. In most cases, you’ll want to render color temperature and saturation consistently between the two versions.

Make Each Exposure A Photoshop Layer In A Single File

You can use layers in Photoshop to combine the best information from both light and dark files. Simultaneously highlight the two files you want to use and create layers in Photoshop. Using Lightroom, go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop. Using Bridge, go to Tools > Photoshop > Load Files Into Photoshop Layers.

If you want to use Smart Objects, using Lightroom or Camera Raw, open the files separately as Smart Objects into Photoshop. In Lighroom go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Smart Object in Photoshop. In Camera Raw hold the Option/Alt key to Open Object. Then, holding the Shift key to register them, drag one image into the other. It doesn’t matter which layer you place on top. What matters is how you blend the two.

Registering The Two Layers

If you’ve used a tripod during exposure the two files will register instantly. If you’ve hand-held during exposure, they may not. If the layers don’t register you can highlight both layers and choose Edit > Auto-Align Layers. Alternately, use the Move tool and arrows to align the layers manually. Change the blend mode of the top layer to Difference and you’ll see lines around contours, which will disappear when the two layers are perfectly aligned.

Adjust The Mask

Double click on the layer mask and you’ll be able to access the Properties panel, which will allow you to refine the mask. The Feather slider will allow you to soften the edge, but be cautious if you do this as too high a setting will create a soft-edged halo. Click the Refine : Select and Mask and you’ll reveal more options, including the Shift Edge slide, which will allow you to reposition the mask’s contour.

In some cases, light spill or a soft haze of light may extend over the horizon. This may require selective adjustment. Adjust your mask accordingly.


The layer mask

The Properties panel for the layer mask

Adjust The Mix

Once the best blend is achieved, you can further enhance it with adjustment layers. Curves and Hue/Saturation are the two most useful types of adjustments.

To affect both layers withone adjustment, simply highlight the top layer and create an adjustment layer. To affect the bottom layer only, first highlight it and second create and adjustment layer, above it and below the top layer. To affect the top layer only, first highlight it and when you create the adjustment layer check the box for Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask. (If you’re using the adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, to access this dialog box, hold the Option/Alt key before creating the adjustment layer.) You can clip or unclip an adjustment layer to a layer at any time by holding down the Option/Alt key and clicking on the line between them in the Layers panel.

Stay Flexible

Use a flexible workflow. Keep your layer stack in tact during editing and when you save your file (as a TIFF or PSD) to preserve your ability to make future improvements. Don’t flatten.

Be As Dramatic As You Want To Be

Using this technique difficult shooting conditions will become much easier for you. Many more image making opportunities will become available to you. It’s well worth investing the time to master these techniques as the versatility they will afford you will be both rewarding and profitable.

The images you create with this technique can be quite dramatic. They can exceed the dynamic range of cameras and sometimes even the human eye. You’ll be challenged to see in new ways. It’s your choice to render realistic or hyper-realistic results. Whatever you choose, your images will provide you and your viewers with a new window on the world.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.


Enjoy this collection of quotes on Success.

“Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time.” – Arnold H. Glasow

“For success, attitude is equally as important as ability.” – Harry F. Banks

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” – Zig Ziglar

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Albert Schweitzer

“Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.” – David Frost

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” – Pablo Picasso

“The first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself.” Mark Caine

“Success is loving life and daring to live it.” – Maya Angelou

“The whole secret of a successful life is to find out what is one’s destiny to do, and then do it.” Henry Ford

“Success means having the courage, the determination, and the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.” – George Sheehan

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you. ” ― Oprah Winfrey

Read more

“Eric Meola talks about his photography, his passion for color, and how he approaches the challenge of making authentic photographs when working in indigenous cultures.”

View 12 Great Photographs By Eric Meola here.

Find out more about Eric Meola here.













Read our conversation here.

View 12 Great Photographs Collections here.

Read more in The Essential Collection Of Photographers’ Quotes.

View more in The Essential Collection Of Photographers Videos.

Condensation X - Prelude

1 exposure – scenes like this won’t benefit from HDR

Incubation II

3 exposures – scenes like this may be made with 1 exposure but benefit from more

Antarctica CXXX

5 exposures – scenes like this require HDR

How many exposures do you need for HDR images?

It depends.

It depends on the contrast ratio of the scene you’re photographing.

Ideally, you’d make one exposure per stop of dynamic range in the scene. In your first exposure place the shadows in the top stop of the histogram (to the right), without clipping. Then in subsequent exposures reduce exposure in one stop increments, making a new exposure each time, until the highlights are placed in the top stop without any clipping. Then stop. Making more exposures is unnecessary and won’t improve image quality.

1_sequence 2_sequence 3_sequence 4_sequence 5_sequence 6_sequence 7_sequence copy

Some scenes have so little dynamic range (one, two or three stops) that you only need one exposure. (Remember to expose to the right to get the best bit depth.) For these types of images, using more exposures and processing them with HDR software routines may actually cause problems like posterization.

Surprisingly, some images that look ‘normal’ and don’t need HDR can actually benefit from additional exposures; images where shadows are close to the left of the histogram; the last three stops to the left have dramatically less data to render tonal values and are prone to excess noise and posterization.

For scenes that exceed the dynamic range of a camera sensor and can’t be captured without clipping in a single exposure, the number of exposures needed to render them depends on the contrast ratio of the scene – some need two, some three, some four, some five …   

The number of exposures you need also depends on the number of stops of difference you choose between exposures. Using exposures one and a half stops apart usually produces results just as good as those made with one stop apart.  Using exposures with two or more stops of difference between them may cause posterization, which is most visible in smooth gradations, like skies. Using exposures less than one stop apart usually does not produce better results and in a few cases using too many exposures can produce artifacts similar to using two few exposures.

In the end the number of exposures you use matters because if exposures are too close or too far apart results will not be optimal, nevertheless the final number of exposures you need depends on the scene you’re photographing.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.

“Meet Seymour Bernstein: a beloved pianist, teacher and true inspiration who shares eye-opening insights from an amazing life. Ethan Hawke helms this poignant guide to life.”

Find Seymour An Introduction here.

View You & The Piano – 4 Lessons – Seymour Bernstein here.

View more in The Essential Collection Of Creativity Videos.

Seymour Bernstein’s philosophy that playing beautifully starts with living beautifully, extends the wisdom of his music lessons into every creative discipline – and to everyone.

View more on the documentary Seymour An Introduction.

View more in The Essential Collection Of Creativity Videos.

Get to know photographer Jock Sturges better with this video interview.

Read my conversation with Jock Sturges here.

View 12 Great Photographs By Jock Sturges here.

Read 25 Great Quotes By PhotographerJock Sturges here.

View more in the Essential Collection Of Documentaries On Photographers.

keep looking »


Get the RSS Feed  

Subscribe by Email