Imagecraft Bootcamp — Shadow Recovery

Sunset at the marina -- Ridge, Maryland (May 2014)Leica M 240 + Leica Tri-Elmar 16/4.0 ASPH

Sunset at the marina — Ridge, Maryland (May 2014)
Leica M 240 + Leica Tri-Elmar 16/4.0 ASPH

In some of the various comments here on Lucile’s site, my site, the Flickr site, and participant’s personal sites — it became clear that I need to discuss the process of shadow recovery, as well as dodging and burning.  This is a lot of material and concepts to cover in just one post, but it’s so important to post-production workflow that I will go over it again and again in future posts.

Shadow recovery is the process of recovering details that seem to be lost in an image where the highlights are correctly exposed, but all the shadow areas all seem to go to black — and shadow recovery applies to film as well as digital, but digital reigns supreme here because the sensors of today have such tremendous dynamic range.

For instance, take the image below as a typical example.  Many people take photographs of sunsets (it’s one of my guilty pleasures as well), and a lot of their shots come out looking like this image — where the sunset looks sorta kinda maybe okay, but where is everything else that I remember seeing?  Where’s the drama that we were oohing and aahing over?  And the rest of the colors that were there — where did they go?

Well, if you shot this scene with film… you’re pretty much out of luck.  Shadow areas on film usually block up and the blacks clip too much for any significant recovery of detail.  However, if you used digital — particularly one of those produced since 2010 — then you may have shadow details that you never dreamed of existing.

Please note: this is all done with just ONE image.  It was not done with three or more as is usually the case with HDR (High Dynamic Range) images.  Additionally, this was all manipulated within Lightroom CC; if you have a version of Lightroom that is less than 4.0, don’t bother; Version 4.0 was when Adobe made a huge leap forward in post-processing abilities with Lightroom, and even more improvements since then.

Just to show you what clipping is, check out the image below; all the bright blue areas are where the blacks are clipping and have blocked up.  If you look at the histogram in the upper-right, you’ll note that the image plots strongly to the left — with very little in the way of highlights plotting to the right.  However, we’re about to fix that.

The first thing I do is click the “Auto” button in the Tone section (you can see it on the right-hand side of the above image).

Whoa — look at all that detail!

That image isn’t bad, per se, but it’s not was I was looking for.  All the highlights are cooked and way over-done.  I don’t know WHY Adobe does this with each iteration of their products, but the Auto-Tone feature always cooks the highlights to a crisp — so I always set the Exposure slider back to zero, but leave the rest of the settings untouched.  This usually provides a good starting point for beginning to really dig into what the image has to offer.

So now we’re starting to build up the image, but I want to do shadow recovery in the tree area on both the left and right sides of the screen.

Ta-Dah!  Magic, eh?

How did I do that?  I went to the Navigator (to the upper-left, but not seen in this screen grab) and changed the zoom-level to 1:8 (this is to back off from the image a bit).  Then I created an oblong Radial Filter outside the edge of the frame, clicked the Invert Mask box, positioned it over the area I wanted, then moved the Shadows slider all the way to 100.  Note what that did to the histogram — it began to correct it from what it was when we first open the file in Lightroom.

If I can do that once to the left side of the image, I can do the same thing to the right side — just with a little smaller oblong and less correction to the Shadows slider.

And below is the behind-the-scenes look at the right-hand side of the image.  Note that the Shadows are only boosted to 55 in this instance.  And if you followed me this far, then — voilà — you have just done your very first example of dodging and burning — which is simply the long-established process of selectively emphasizing certain areas of the image and manipulating them.

In the bad old days of wet darkrooms, we used to project the negative image onto a sheet of photo paper with a very dim light, and use little bits of cardboard or paper to block or expose areas of the negative, until we finally had a result that we liked.  Depending on the image, this could take many hours or days per print, and many sheets of photo paper and lots of chemicals.  It was a very wasteful process compared to that of the digital darkroom.

So.  Now the image is beginning to really come together, and yet this was super easy to do.  It does still need some work, so now we’re going to bump the tone curve a bit.

And in the screen grab below, you can see that I applied 21 to the Lights, and -15 to the Darks.  This begins to bring the drama that I was looking for.

Getting the hang of it now?  Maybe?  No?  Well, you will over time — as I will revisit this repeatedly during this series.

The image is looking good, but still a little flat — so now we bump the Blue Primary and the Red Primary to get the colors to really pop.

Below you can see the Camera Calibration panel with the Blue Primary and Red Primary sliders, and the settings I used.

At this point the major work is done to the image; the rest is pretty much just fine tuning the settings we already used, though you can see the figures I finally settled upon in the right panel below.

And — voilà — you have the finished image!

As you can see, this delivered a huge return for fairly minimal effort, and lends itself to over the top sunset images like this one.  However, the same shadow recovery steps — followed by dodging and burning — is what I use in almost every image that I post online.  It is the foundation of post-processing and will help you get to the next levels in your own image crafting.

Here’s your challenge for this week: find a suitably dark image (like the one I started with), and see how far you can push it.  Don’t worry about overdoing it and destroying a masterpiece; this is a learning experience, so the more you push it the better.  Once you’ve gotten to where you understand the process, then you can begin to wield the tools with more moderation, so that it looks more natural.

Once you’ve finished, be sure to include “#photo101rehab”, “#photorehab”, and “#imagecraftbootcamp” with your normal tags — and if you wish to submit it to the Flickr group (we now have eight people in the team), you’ll need to post it there as well (

Good luck, and see you next Wednesday!

19 thoughts on “Imagecraft Bootcamp — Shadow Recovery

  1. Mitch, I realize reading this and looking at your work, that I have a long, long way to go, especially in the use of post-processing. Right now, Picasa 3 is virtually the only things I use and it can’t do all this. Guess I need to up my game if I want to move on to the next level of photography! Thanks for all your helpful information.


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