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Balancing Shadows/Highlights

Last update:  12-31-1969

Submitted by Flora

One way to balance Shadows/Highlights, Contrast and bring out Details for Photoshop CS/CS2

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Overall Recommendation





Expertise     6.1
Utility     5.7
Clarity     4.9
Relevance   6.4


In my opinion, balancing Shadows and Highlights in a picture is vital to get good results indipendently if you work on a Colour or on a Black&White image … 

Beside looking much better, a well 'balanced' picture is much easier to restore or retouch because all the possible details are more clearly visible,  also, 'balancing' an image first, can be an enormous help if you wish to colour it … How often do we try to apply colour to nearly white Highlights or nearly black Shadows only to realize that the colour won't show at all or barely so? That's because, in PS, you can't colour black or white …

I have been asked if  by 'balancing Highlights and Shadows' I mean brightening the Highlights until they are just below the 'pure white' mark and darkening the Shadows until they are just below the 'pure black' mark … No… I don't mean that ... this would only increase the contrast and in most cases it would lead to further loss of details in parts of the corrected areas.

'Balancing' Shadows and Highlights, for me, means getting darker and lighter areas of an image 'closer' to each other in other words 'decreasing' the contrast (which can always be adjusted later… ).

There are many ways for 'balancing' a picture … Levels, Curves, Brightness/Contrast,  and several others … but what I will use here, is the new 'magic' Option Shadow/Highlight (found under the Image>Adjustments Menu) first introduced with PS CS.

But let's get down to 'work' …

Thank you Nebgranny for sending and allowing me to use this picture!!!

  • Open your image in PS.

TIP:I know I'm repeating myself, but I'll never tire of saying to never work on the original … always make a working duplicate of your image and rename it immediately just to be on the safe side…

  • As you can see, this image is 'unevenly' faded … meaning the shadows are still OK but the highlights are too bright and faded so very few details are visible in them … (the little girl's face/skin, dress and the dog's coat)(Image 1)


Image 1




Image 2


  • The  default Shadow/Highlight dialog box will open: check the 'Show More Options' box …  (Image 3)


Image 3


  • after which you'll get this... (PS Default Values)… Wow, look at that … you have now the possibility to individually tweak/correct Shadows, Highlights, Saturation/Colour (for the corrected parts only) and Midtones Contrast … all in one 'go'!!!!: (Image 4)


Image 4


  • Make sure your 'Preview' box is cheked so you can see the changes immediately… The PS default values in some cases are just perfect … but not always … like in this case where the shadows were 'lifted' but the highlights hadn't changed at all (Image 5)


Image 5


  • Actually, here, the lifted shadows didn't reveal anything interesting … on the contrary … So I tweaked the default values … (practically all of them) until I was satisfied with the result … As usual, it's a matter of trial and error … (Image 6)


IMPORTANT: the following values worked well for this picture only … You'll have to 'tweak' the default values until you are happy with the result for each individual picture…

Tweaking the 'Amount and Tonal Width' in the 'Highlights' box will darken the whites in your picture showing more details and allowing you to colour the lightest parts of your image in a satisfactory way …

Tweaking the 'Midtones Contrast' in the 'Adjustments' box will help with the contrast…


Image 6


  • don't worry if the image looks a bit on the dark side … you can brighten it up again later with whatever Tool you feel comfortable with… but look at how many more details are now clearly visible … particularly in the little girl's face, dress and in the dog's coat! (Image 7)


Image 7


  • Amazing … isn't it … Now that your image is 'balanced' (no more blown-out highlights and no more solid black shadows) you can proceed to colour it at your desire, to just apply a sepia tone to it, or simply leave it Black&White … I lightly coloured it to show how nice the colours look on a balanced picture … (Image 8)


Image 8

Just one go with the SHADOW/HIGHLIGHT Option can also be a great help in 'bringing back to life' evenly, strongly faded images .... (Image 9)


Image 9

....giving a very good start for an easier restoration!

Ciao... ciao