|Using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Sheppard makes adjustments to the dark areas of the image via the Darks slider in the Tone Curve adjustment window. Some will argue that making adjustments on the curve itself is more precise, but the parametric sliders actually do a solid job quickly and intuitively. Other programs like Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop also have parametric slider controls that work the same way. Be sure to have the Linear box activated for best results.|
Digital photography vastly expands our opportunities for better pictures. We can now shoot in lower light with higher quality results, instantly see our images as we capture them and easily process those images for the best results. Despite the huge amount of information about digital photography, there's something I've found to be consistently missing—a dark secret of digital photography. This secret element can affect all images, but is most noticeable with photos that include a lot of dark tones and dark colors in them.
Simply put, digital camera sensors don't do their best work with dark tones and dark colors. The best rendering of brightness values and color quality comes in the sensor's midrange. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the challenge that dark areas simply don't have as much "energy" striking the sensor as bright areas do.
So what happens? When printed, dark parts of photos are rendered murky and muddy in tone and color. That's a problem because it's not how we see the world at all. Much has been written about the fact that the camera sees a fraction of the range of brightness that our eyes can see. That's definitely an issue and a good reason to consider shooting high dynamic range (HDR) photography, but that's not the issue here. I'm talking about the dark tones that the camera does see, parts of a scene where both the sensor and our eyes can see detail.
The problem becomes one of how well the camera sees these tones. Yes, the camera records the tones, colors and detail, but not nearly as well as our eyes. We can easily pick out tonal or brightness differences, even in dark areas of a scene, plus, we can see color equally well in bright and dark parts of a scene. The camera struggles to do that. It definitely doesn't see things equally, even within the range of detail it can handle.
The result is a photo that expresses the midrange to brighter parts of the subject or scene just fine, but the dark areas are out of balance. Their murkiness gives a heavy quality to that part of the composition and drags down the rest of the image. You'll see this on your monitor, but it's much more visible and objectionable in a print.
Some photographers have taken to slightly overexposing images shot in RAW format, often called exposing to the right, to get better detail in the dark areas. Then they process the RAW image back to normal tonality in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw or other RAW-processing software.
I'm not crazy about exposing to the right. First, it affects colors in bright areas. The sensor can actually handle brightness that's a little overexposed, except that the chroma or color quality isn't handled well in those bright areas. You often lose subtle colors that can't be brought back by any work in Lightroom or Camera Raw. For some subjects, such as outdoor scenes with bright colors in the sky, that can be a serious problem. Second, it can add significantly to the workflow and increase time you must spend processing images, and time spent struggling with an image in the computer is better spent outside shooting.
So what can you do? Lightroom and Camera Raw both have a simple solution—move the Darks slider of the Tone Curve to the right. Even if you know and use the Tone Curve as a point curve, i.e., clicking and dragging points on it directly, it's so easy and quick to use the parametric sliders (Highlights, Lights, Darks, Shadows) that it's really worth checking out.
And for the dark secret of digital photography, a simple use of the Darks slider does work. I find that for most photos I shoot that include dark areas in the composition, I can open up those areas, reveal detail, and give them more guts and strength, yet without making these areas too bright, just by moving the slider to the right. How much totally depends on the photo, but typically, I find most digital images need 20-40 points of adjustment.
This is important—you're not trying to make the dark areas bright! You're only working to bring their brightness values up a notch so the colors and tones display properly in an image. You're trying to gain some liveliness and strength to these areas so they don't look muddy and murky.
One thing to watch out for is the Point Curve setting for the Tone Curve. Lightroom and Camera Raw use Medium Contrast as the default for the Tone Curve. I think this is a mistake. Yes, the Medium option does make for a snappier image, but it also usually makes the dark tones less clear. That could sort of be considered a solution to the darks dilemma—it can make them dark enough that you can't see any tones or colors there, so you don't care! But for most outdoor photography, that isn't a good solution.
So I change the Point Curve setting to Linear. That immediately helps bring out the dark tones better. This will make your photo look "grayer," but with the proper use of the Blacks slider in Basic, and sometimes a little help from the Shadows slider, you'll get both more tones and colors with a good-looking image.
Much of the time, the Darks slider is all you need. Sometimes you need to add some Shadow adjustment, but this isn't an automatic, more or less. Sometimes it helps to increase the Shadow adjustment to bring out darker tones; sometimes it helps to decrease that adjustment to put a little contrast in the dark parts of your photo.
You may be wondering, what about Fill Light? Fill Light is an important slider just above Blacks. It helps bring out the darkest detail in the image. However, you have to be very careful in using it. As you increase its setting, the image can start to have an unnatural-looking balance of dark tones because the darkest tones get too bright before the less dark tones do. In addition, Darks does a better job of bringing out the best of all dark tones and colors with a nice blending among them for a more natural look.
Another option is judicious use of the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom and Camera Raw. I find it works best, when lightening dark areas, to set it to plus Exposure. I'll usually set it too high to start so I can better see the adjustment as it's painted on. Then I tone it back to a normal level when done.
Great darkroom workers used to talk about luminosity in a print. This referred to how lively the tones looked throughout the image, from dark to light. This is definitely possible with digital images, but the straight-from-the-camera image rarely will give you this. Just a little effort working on that image to clear up the dark tones can make a big difference in the final photo.
|How (And Why) To Set Your Black Point
Digital cameras don't automatically give you an image with the best blacks. There are a number of reasons for this, though it partly has to do with lifting dark tones in a digital file because digital cameras can have trouble there. When blacks (meaning all the areas of pure black) in a photo aren't black, an image won't print or display with the best contrast, tonality or color. While some images won't have blacks (such as a foggy day), most do and need them in the photo.
Setting blacks is very visual with Adobe products. Start with the left, black slider of Levels in Photoshop products. For Lightroom and Camera Raw, use the Blacks slider in Basic. Important: Hold down Alt or Option as you click and move the slider. The Blacks Threshold screen will appear, showing pure blacks against white when you get a pure black. Maxed-out color channels on the dark end appear as colors. You usually want at least some black to show up. If your image is filled with color, this might mean adjusting until areas of color show up.
A pure white screen means you're not using the entire range of tonality an image is capable of for most media. Use Fill Light to open dark areas slightly, but mainly use the Tone Curve.
Check your whites. With Adobe products, use the Alt or Option key with the white or right slider in Levels for Photoshop or the Exposure slider in Lightroom or Camera Raw to see a Whites Threshold screen. Usually, you barely want a white or color to show. I find that you have to be especially careful with Lightroom doing this, and sometimes seeing the whites in the Threshold screen goes too far.
You can see more of Rob Sheppard's photography, find his book and learn about his workshops on his website, robsheppardphoto.com.