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Brighten Unwanted Shadows in Your Photos

Use Adobe Photoshop Elements and other image editors to enhance details in the darkest parts of a photo.

Despite what your camera might have told you, there's no such thing as the "perfect exposure." Unless you're taking a picture of a completely uniform scene (like a wall that's been painted a single color), every combination of shutter speed and aperture is invariably going to favor one part of the photo over another. So even if you learn the basics of exposure using an online camera simulator and go on to master the hidden potential of your camera's Program mode, odds are good that everything won't be properly exposed.

One of the most vexing problems you'll run into is deep shadows in otherwise well-exposed photos. Consider, for example, the photo linked to the left. What you see here is one of the Coast Guard escorts who protected the Staten Island Ferry I rode to Manhattan on the 9-11 anniversary several weeks ago. The overall exposure is fine, but you can't see any detail in the sailor's uniform. Believe it or not, the uniform isn't black--and he has all sorts of fascinating gear strapped to his torso. It would be a shame if we couldn't see some of that stuff.

Lots of Methods to Choose From

The great thing about photo editing is that there are so many ways to do almost anything. Want to brighten the shadows in this photo? I can think of a half-dozen methods without even breaking a sweat. For example, the easiest solution, and one that works in any photo editor, is just to brighten the whole photo. In Adobe Photoshop Elements, you could choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast. As you increase the brightness and reduce the contrast, you'll tease out more detail in the sailor's uniform, as you see to the right.

Unfortunately, that certainly pulls details out of the shadows, but it blows out the rest of the photo, which was properly exposed to begin with.

Here's a better approach: If you have Photoshop Elements, you can take advantage of a special feature that lets you control just the shadows in a photo. Choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Shadows/Highlights. By carefully moving the Lighten Shadows slider to the right, you can add a lot of detail into dark areas without damaging the rest of the photo. If you do see other parts of the photo getting too bright, you can use the other sliders to darken the highlights.

Getting Even More Selective With Dodging

All that's well and good, but what if you want to improve a specific shadow without mucking around with the rest of the photo? There are a slew of methods you can use for this as well.

For example, you could use the Dodge technique left over from traditional photo finishing. When you "dodged" a photo that meant you lightened an image by shielding areas of it from light while it was being processed in the darkroom. You can simulate that effect in Photoshop Elements (and many other image editing programs) by applying the Dodge brush to the part of the photo that you want to lighten.

To try this in Photoshop Elements, choose the Dodge tool (second from the bottom of the toolbar) and set the size of the brush in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. You'll want to make the brush small enough to comfortably paint inside the shadow region. Every time you dab the area with the brush, it'll get a little lighter. The photo on the left shows my sailor after a bit of dodging.

That's not all. There are a few other techniques I'd like to show you, so tune in again next week.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Crow" by Holly Amber, Plano, Texas

Holly writes: "I chased this poor crow all day long. My camera doesn't have much zoom, so I had to get very close to get this shot. I used a Canon Digital Rebel XS, and then converted it to grayscale in Photoshop. I edited the contrast and brightness levels, cropped and tilted the image so the horizon was straight and symmetrical, and finally added the vignette effect."

This week's runner-up: "Loose and Free" by Ryan Kuster, Potosi, Wisconsin

Ryan writes: "I shot this with a Canon T3i and didn't do any editing. The scene is our town's own peninsula into the Mississippi River, and the two girls are my best friends -- I told them to be loose and free and to do what they wish. I captured them in this silhouette."

To see last month's winners, visit our September Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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