How to Extract Highlights & Shadows in Photoshop

Written by steve heap
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How to Extract Highlights & Shadows in Photoshop
The highlights and shadow tool in Photoshop can brighten dark images. (contrastes image by ANGEL MANUEL FERNÁNDEZ from

Adobe Photoshop has powerful tools for improving digital photographs and the highlights and shadow tool is a very good way of improving the overall look of an image. A quick and easy way of getting a better photo is to combine this tool with layers and masks to improve the shadow detail without losing contrast and sparkle. Unlike most Photoshop tools, this can't be added as an adjustment layer, but the process works on both landscapes and portraits, especially if the picture is taken against the light.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Digital image

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  1. 1

    Open the digital image in Photoshop. Drag the background layer to the "New Layer" icon to create a duplicate of the picture in a layer. With the Background Copy layer selected, click "Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights..."

  2. 2

    Leave the default settings in the pop-up window and click "OK." The layer will be considerably lighter in the shadow area than the original as the default settings are more appropriate for backlit images. Adjust the "Opacity" slider for this layer until the photo looks well exposed. In many cases, this is all that is required to open up the shadow detail.

  3. 3

    For more complex images, adjust the "Opacity" until the shadows look properly exposed. Ignore the highlights or overall exposure of the image. Click the "Add layer mask" button in the Layers tab. Click "Edit > Fill..." and in the pop-up select "Black" and then "OK." The adjustments to the shadows will disappear.

  4. 4

    Select a large brush with a soft edge and make sure the foreground colour is white. Set the "Opacity" for the brush at 20 per cent. Lightly paint over the shadow area of your photo. Each pass will slightly lighten the shadows and brighten the image. Continue until the picture meets your vision.

  5. 5

    Save the image as a ".PSD" to maintain the layers and allow you to edit the effect later if required.

Tips and warnings

  • Adding some extra contrast using "Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast..." can add sparkle to the photograph.

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