Today’s blog is more technically oriented and presents a technique to improve your shadow detail areas for images similar to the ones below. The two images below are actually from the same file produced from a full frame digital camera – A Nikon D610. However, this technique I describe here to improve your shadow details will work with any full frame digital image from any other camera. The technique I describe below will work to a lesser degree on files from the smaller sensors in other cameras. Beware and read on.
Those of you who own cameras with the full sized sensors know who you are because you bought that beast for the specific purpose of producing a superior image. The best way to realize the potential you have in that full framed sensor digital SLR is to make a large print to view all the wonderful detail those cameras are capable of producing. However, it’s not just a matter of shooting, capturing that image and printing to get that sort of quality. There are times when you have to work to get the details out. Much of the detail I remember from shooting this image is lost in the first image. Not lost actually but latent. Kind of like the latent image we remember from analog (AKA film and darkroom) photography. Take a close look a the first photo. Lots of detail hidden in the shadow. Lots of color lost. Kind of “Meh” overall, actually. Somehow I knew that with a little work and the right technique I could achieve a much superior image. It’s not always a matter of the more expensive camera automatically producing a better image. An image like the one below requires some fine tuning.
This is a photo that I knew had a LOT of potential if only some of the color and detail could be dug out of the shadow areas. It’s not the image I remember shooting. Now here’s the trick to get the photo to really shine like the completed version below. This is a good technique and one you should employ whenever possible. Read on.
Here is the trick. That full framed sensor serves us best by it’s ability to capture a wide dynamic range. Remember that. Full frame sensors capture a lot of information in all the areas from bright to dark. And using Photoshop is the way to recover this detail. You’ll need a digital pen and tablet like a Wacom. If you don’t already have one, GET ONE! There is nothing like using many of Photoshops tools with a digital pen and tablet vs using a mouse. You take that pen (Or mouse if no other option) and open the dodge tool then start working the shadow areas back and forth with the dodge tool set to midtones. You set the dodge tool to dodge midtones at about 5%-10%. You keep working that pen over your shadow areas to slowly bring out more and more detail. You keep working that pen (Still set to dodge midtones) in the shadow areas until you begin to see details you thought were basically lost in the shadows. Keep at it. Soon you will achieve a greater legibility and then it’s time to switch the dodge tool setting to dodge highlights. Keep working the shadow areas. Here you’re going to work on individual details you would like to see with more luminesence. The ferns above in the second image are a good example of items you want to dodge using the highlights setting. This is a two step process. Dodge the midtones first then switch the tool over to the highlights setting. All the while you’re working in the shadow areas. It sounds a little bizarre and counterintuitive but it’s something that really works. Beware of overdoing the dodge work. If you begin to see noise (That ugly speckled mess) in areas you’ve been dodging you’ve gone too far. Dodge, view your handiwork and undo if necessary. This is a subtle process. Look at the ferns in the second image. Look at the yellowish log. Look at trees in the background. All these areas became much lighter and more natural looking – just as I remembered them. Here’s another point to keep in mind. We are not adjusting the exposure, highlights or shadow sliders in Lightroom or ACR to achieve these results. Those are global adjustments. The dodge tool is being used to make local adjustments in shadow areas. I think you will be amazed at the colors and quality that you can squeeze out of one of these full sensor image files using this technique. It bears repeating that this technique works best with files produced from the full frame sensors. There just isn’t enough information captured from the smaller sensors in other cameras to pull this off. And while we’re talking about the advantages of full frame sensors don’t forget you have the ability to recover highlight info pretty effectively using your highlight reduction slider in Lightroom. That is, of course, a global adjustment. That is totally a different technique but for an image like the one above it comes in handy in recovering some of the highlight data. Even when highlights appear blown out -you can recover significant information – up to a couple of stops worth of info. That said, the above image is now printed 13×19 and it’s really nice. I love it after bringing out all that shadow detail. The whole process can take a while but it’s worth the time. I probably sat here an hour or more woking this image but I knew it would pay off in a great print. If your images disappoint at times because they don’t look “As you remembered them,” think about using this technique. As always, please visit me at West Sac Photographer. Till later, enjoy!