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Lurker in the Shadows

An alternate method for bringing out detail in dark areas of digital photographs By Dave Nagel
Normally when you're trying to pull the detail out of excessively dark or light portions of your image, you'd head over to your curves or levels adjustments in Adobe Photoshop and tweak your image until you get something close to your desired result. But more and more I'm becoming convinced that a different technique is more appropriate, one involving multiple layers that not only produces better results in situations requiring drastic image surgery, but also faster results with less fine-tuning.

This technique takes traditional image manipulation methods and accentuates them through the use of multiple layers. In short, we're going to use multiple layers and blending modes to bring out all of the detail that exists in a digital photograph--detail that is already there in your image file, just lurking in the shadows beneath our threshold of perception. And we're going to do it in just a few short, non-destructive steps, with a result that's difficult to reproduce with a Curves adjustment.

Now, before we get started, I should say that this is likely our last tutorial specifically for Photoshop 7, as next week we launch into a whole new series of tutorials and feature explorations dealing with the new applications in the Adobe Creative Suite. (There will still be tutorials that cross over, of course.) I chose this one because it will tie in well when we look at the new Shadow/Highlight feature in Photoshop CS, which approaches the problem of bringing out detail in shadows in a different (and better) way. But for now, this technique should help some of you with your image manipulation problems.

I'm going to begin with an image that has some obvious dark areas that seem to be completely lost. In fact, with this particular image, the problem is exasperated further by multiple JPEG compressions and image resizing (my own fault for mistreating my stock art library). So if I can bring out the detail in this piece, you'd better believe you can do it with any fresh image you're dealing with.

Note that not only has the detail been brought out, but much of the chrominance has been preserved in the file as well, such as the warm wood tones in the background and the colors on the inside of the coat. Here's how it works in a few simple steps without any fine manipulation.

Bringing out the detail the quick way
Begin by duplicating your background layer. For the sake of keeping things straight over the course of this tutorial, rename the duplicate layer "Detail Layer."

With the Detail Layer selected, choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels.

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