Brightening Shadows & Darkening Highlights in Adobe Camera Raw

  • Thread starter LukeLewis
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May 7, 2021
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I just couldn’t help it. As I was browsing through photos for my last post, I came across one that would be just perfect to use in this post. It’s a picture of a woman on a beach, facing the sun. The sun is so bright that it’s completely darkening the woman, hiding most, if not all, of her details. Cameras have a tendency to do this in very bright situations because a camera’s dynamic range is limited. It has to choose between offering details in shadows or keeping things not so bright that the entire photo is lost. In the case of this photo, the camera chose to keep the brightness in check, but the result was that the woman’s figure is essentially a silhouette. Luckily, we can fix this.

In today’s post, I’m going to quickly run through two primary sliders that can immensely help in situations like the one in this photo. I’ll use Adobe Camera Raw to brighten the woman, which will reveal her details and I’ll also reduce some of the brightness around the sun. These tips are critical because so many pictures that are taken every single day end up looking like this one below. Either the subject is almost black or the sun is completely blown out. This is what Camera Raw was made for. And by the way, if you’re using Lightroom, you can push the same sliders over there as I do here. Both Camera Raw and Lightroom are essentially identical in this respect.

The Original Image​

How many times have you see something that looks like this?


I mean, really. Almost every photo ever taken has some issue that reminds me of this picture. It’s so common. It’s a shame really, because this type of thing is so simple to fix. Notice the dark woman and the bright sun.

The Shadows Slider​

I have no idea how Camera Raw knows what a shadow is when compared to other dark areas in an image, but it does. And it does a wonderful job of brightening and darkening those shadows on command. Check this out. For this next version of the photo, all I’m going to do is push the Shadows slider all the way to the right, so the value is 100%. In reality, I should probably only go to about 85%, but let’s just play around for a minute.


I mean, look at this difference. We can now see the woman!


The Highlights Slider​

So that was the Shadows slider. The next most important slider there is in situations like this is the Highlights slider. Because I raised up the shadows, the highlights were slightly brightened as well. This isn’t to say that we didn’t have to deal with their original brightness, but things just got worse. To deal with this, I’m going to push the Highlights slider all the way to the left, so the value is 0%. I pretty much always do this anyway, but because this case is so severe, I’ll make sure to do it.


Take a look at the difference now.


I know things look a bit bland after this last change, but that’s what the rest of Camera Raw’s sliders are for. I can tell right off the bat that the image needs more contrast. Let’s see if I can’t push some additional sliders around to make the photo look the best it can.

The Final Image​

Take a look at the Basic panel. I’d say the Whites and Blacks sliders played a critical role in bringing out the contrast I was looking for. A few others were important as well, but not as important as these two.


Let’s take a look at the final photograph.


I’d say that looks pretty good. It’s a far cry from the original and all it took was about 30 seconds of moving some sliders. Again, remember that in cases such as this, it’s the Shadows and the Highlights sliders that will save the day.


I hope I clearly explained how to deal with a dynamic range that doesn’t capture the entire range of light in a photograph while using Adobe Camera Raw (or Lightroom). If you have any questions regarding this post, please leave them in the comment area below. Thanks for reading!