A Photoshop Plug-In
When working with outdoor landscape and nature subjects we have a number of different ways of dealing with contrast. If we shoot film we can use graduated neutral density filters to try and tame the extreme contrast range between the sky and foreground. Dodging and burning are methods used in traditional printing, and if we shoot digitally (or scan) we can shoot multiple frames with different exposures and blend them in Photoshop.
But sometimes the effect that we need is more subtle than this, and our corrections need to be local and selective. Masking in Photoshop is the usual technique, but it's not easy, and many photographers are reluctant to put in the time and effort to master it. There's a solution, and it comes in the form of a new Photoshop plug-in called Shadow Control.
Canon 1Ds with 16-35mm f/2.8L lens at 23mm. 1/10sec @ f/16. ISO 100
This photograph was taken about 20 minutes before sunset on a cold December afternoon at White Sands, New Mexico. Several workshop members had spotted this plant and the lovely evolving sky behind it. I thought that they had identified a great subject and decided to take a shot as well. When they were done, (and most were shooting from a distance with slightly longer lenses) I stepped in with my very wide angle zoom and framed a composition. This is the image seen above. Spot metering and a look at the rear panel LCD's histogram showed that I could just capture the full dynamic range with my Canon 1Ds, and so I didn't bother with bracketing for a possible digital blend, or bother to use fill flash.
But when I saw the image onscreen for the first time I realized that the foreground cactus leaves at the base were simply too dark. I really should have used fill flash.
The Shadow Knows
Chroma Software has just introduced a new product that solves the problem and does it very elegantly indeed. The Shadow Control plug-in works by selectively increasing gamma and contrast on dark areas of deep shadows using an automatic mask. It analyzes the image and creates the mask showing which areas of the image will be affected by processing (appearing as a dark area on the Mask view). After the mask is created the plug-in applies the desired correction to the affected areas of the image and displays the result. You can then adjust the settings and preview the result in real-time.
This is actually easier to do than to read about. Once the plug-in has been copied into your Photoshop plug-in directory (PC only) it is accessible from Photoshop's Filter drop down. Select Chroma / Shadow Control and you will see a control window similar to that below. You'll notice three options at the upper right — ORIGINAL / MASK and RESULT. Select MASK and then move the SEPERATION slider so that the preview window shows what you want to work with. Now click on RESULT and the window will change to show you a dynamic view which changes as you now move the Gamma and Contrast sliders. This is seen in the frame below right, which I have exaggerated so you can see what's possible.
Mask Mode Selected
Gamma & Contrast — Exaggerated
That's it. Click OK and a few seconds later the correction is made. You can work on both 8 bit and 16 bit files, with of course 16 bit being preferable.
Below you see a detail of before and after using the photograph at the top of the page . As with all such controls a subtle hand works best. Notice as well that the changes are applied to all area of the image that have similar brightness levels. Thus the smaller plants in the background have also been corrected — something that fill-flash would not have been able to accomplish.
Before Shadow Control
After Shadow Control
Most digital photographers know that while blown-out highlights are gone forever, shadows (especially with the better cameras) have tremendous detail hidden in them. Shadow Control is an excellent tool for delving into these shadow areas and salvaging valuable detail.
At $34.95 this plug-in is well priced and worth every penny. You can download it and try it on 30 images at no charge. There are versions for Windows and Macintosh. Highly recommended!