Photoshop How To: How to Process Lower Contrast Images

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San Gregorio State Park, California (CA), USA

What if I ask you what’s wrong with this image? And how can you fix it?

This is a trick question. If you open this image and look at its histogram, you’ll notice that the entire dynamic range is contained within a single shot. In fact, the image uses only part of the dynamic range that can be displayed by the camera. Sometimes, low contrast scenes like this create a problem for us. The scene as I remember it looked something like this:

San Gregorio State Park, California (CA), USA

So what happened? Why did the camera fail to capture the image as I remember it even though it was an easy shot to take? Here is what happened:

  • Low Contrast Scene: Sometimes we find ourselves photographing a scene where the light conditions are perfect. We can capture the entire dynamic range with a single exposure, so no special filters or bracketing is necessary. But when we open up the raw file, it appears to lack the contrast and details that we remember while out in the field. This occurs because, although the contrast and sensitivity of our eyes adjusts based upon the light conditions, the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor remains fixed. So, low contrast scenes end up using only a fraction of the dynamic range of the sensor which creates a flat and unappealing image.
  • Unbalanced Light: On this particular day, the light in the sky was more intense then the light falling on the foreground. Why? Because a low-lying layer of mist on the horizon was blocking the light from falling on the foreground, while the sky was lit by direct sunlight. When the camera captured the photo, it over-exposed the sky and under-exposed the foreground.

The following are the changes that were needed for the image.

San Gregorio State Park, California (CA), USA

I used Photoshop layers and masks to make these changes. Here is how I did it:

  • I processed the image twice – once for the foreground and once for the sky. I used Photoshop layers and mask to blend these two layers together.
  • San Gregorio State Park, California (CA), USA
  • San Gregorio State Park, California (CA), USA
  • Then I used the curves tool and targeted adjustments to fine tune the contrast for the foreground, sky, and mountains to bring out the details and colors as I remember them. I used a separate clone layer to clone out the distracting foreground elements.

Low Contrast - Results Feature Image

Do you have any examples of a low contrast scene that need some creative processing? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
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