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Dealing With High Contrast Images in Photoshop

A simple HDR imaging tutorial for Adobe Photoshop

Dealing with high contrast images in Photoshop (a beginners guide). Sometimes, when shooting landscapes for example, you come across a scene which you think will make an excellent photograph. By using this technique, as just one of a few, you are able to usually pull a half decent shot from an underexposed one.

Please note: This tutorial was made using an image from the original Canon EOS 5D. This only had 12mp and things have changed a LOT since then. Modern DSLR's have built in HDR shooting but even so, this tutorial will still apply to newer images.

Edited Image

This image is not meant to be a masterpiece, in fact if anything it is a little rushed. What it is meant to do is simply show you a technique that may just save one or two of your future images. You can tweak and alter this process to suit your own style.

Unfortunately, in cases of high contrast or high dynamic range scenarios such as a sunset or sunrise, your camera doesn't record the image in the same way that your eye does. You get home to find the image is way under exposed...sound familiar?

What the camera's meter will do, is expose for the brighter area. This leaves the rest of the image underexposed as in the video example we have below.

HDR Imaging

There is no easy way to deal with this in during the shot at present. However, I do believe high dynamic range photography, or HDR, is top of the research and development agenda for companies like Nikon and Canon*

*Edit January 2018: How right I was as we now see HDR imaging and TV's everywhere!

Anyway, we can get round it in Photoshop using this following technique. The best way to do this is first and foremost, shoot RAW! You have much more information to work with than if working on a JPEG giving yourself a much better chance of pulling it off.

At the scene, take two meter readings, one for the bright area and one for the dark area and take an average. Then set your camera to that setting whilst in manual. You may end up with

  • check
    1st reading for bright area 250th/Sec at F8
  • check
    2nd reading for dark area 60th/sec at F8

Average is 125th/sec at F8

This way you will "slightly" overexpose the bright area and "slightly" underexpose the dark area. With the capabilities of RAW, you should end up with a decent looking image to work with.

If this is too complicated for now, just aim your camera directly at the scene you want and take the shot (in RAW). It should still work.

Dealing with High Contrast Images in Photoshop The next stage

We are going to use just one RAW image and pull two different images from it to work with.

You cannot get the same effect by just working from one JPEG produced from a RAW image, you really need to pull two JPEGS from the same RAW image for it to have the desired effect.

​Please click the video for the Photoshop part of the tutorial.

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