What are some good workflows and methods for pulling skin tones out of the shadow and preserving tonality?

I took a couple shots during a sunrise and did not want to blind riders (who had been riding all night) with a flash.

My quick attempt:

alt text

RAW DNG if anyone's interested in playing around with it:


6 Answers 6


It was courteous and mindful of you to think of your subject (the rider), their passage throw the night and the amount of light you would through at them being potentially dangerous. However, the BEST thing to do here is use flash. An 80/20, fong bong, or any other strobe diffuser would be sufficient to throw enough light on the rider's face to expose without sending them on a temporary vision quest. But that's for next time.

As for the image at hand...head into photoshop, create a duplicate layer and open curves. You can tweak the exposure a touch in RAW if you want...a little fill here, a little +exposure there. But don't go overboard. The heavy lifting this time is in PS.

On your duplicate layer you'll want to bust into QM (quickmask), select a medium firm brush and paint out the rider. This is a moment where you stay within the lines, in fact don't go to close to them, otherwise you'll get weird halo guy and everyone will know you PS'd your way out of a photo whoopsy.

Once you have a good selection (you can always go back to the QM and tweak it) open up curves. Set your first point low on the mid line, say around the bottom 1/4 (lower left) if not lower. then set another one near the top of the line (for highlights), but not as close to the top, maybe around 1/3 of the way. Bring the shadow point up, but just a little bit. You don't have much information there, so the smallest movement will create HUGE changes. Your goal here is to bring out some detail in the shadows.

Now, bring your highlight point down. This will smooth out the highlights in the rider so they look more natural. You may (and I did) add a midpoint after this and tweaked it a touch until I got the result I was looking for.

Close out curves and open levels. (Depending on your vs of PS, you can do this in your curves window as well, though I find you should close the 1st curves to set it and start with a new window, better results). Simply squeeze the black and white points towards the center, just a touch. This will add some contrast and by proxy will further smooth your gradients and pixels.

Now, with your rider still selected, head into noise reduction (or your favorite noise plugin) and get to work. Your subject is basically a mass of confused, lost and lonely pixels right now. Smooth them over and tell them they are okay. This will take care of the artifact created by bringing our shadows up. After this, a little dash of saturation and basic toning on the rest of the image, and voilà!

Here's the image (now that I've enough reputation to post it directly)

alt text

Otherwise you can go to my blog to see it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ if you flag your answers as "Community Wiki" then you won't earn reputation when people agree with you, and vote for your answer; which is a shame, as you've provided such a good answer here. Ironically, you would have got your ten points for including images form @jfklein's vote and another ten from me... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 19:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ha! That is ironic...thanks for the heads up Rowland. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 20:54
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If you wanted to be courteous to your subject but still add light to the scene, you might think about using a continuous light. Since the rider will be able to see the light as he approaches, he won't be caught off-guard or be staring directly at a flash as it fires. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Commented Nov 10, 2010 at 15:42

You can use fill light and reduced contrast to lift the shadows.

The DNG download didn't work, but I gave the JPEG a quick try in Camera RAW.


  • Exposure: -0.25
  • Fill light: 33
  • Contrast: -6

(Note that the fill light also reduces contrast, so the actual contrast reduction is more than just the -6.)


Using a bit more effort and perhaps curves, you should be able to get a decent result. :)


Maybe using the RAW you could get some higher exposures and then use HDR processing to get the driver a little lighter.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If this is one photo then HDR isn't an option. And I doubt it would be easy to capture the necessary exposures for HDR in a moving shot like this. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 11:46
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ For HDR you would only need several pictures with different exposures. Using the RAW file you can overexpose and underexpose a little without losing too much detail (as the dynamic range of the RAW is larger than for the possibly generated JPG). \$\endgroup\$
    – BennyInc
    Commented Sep 21, 2010 at 12:00

I had good luck switching the image into LAB mode, then adjusting the luminance layer only. This rendered a brighter image, but didn't damage the color of the rider, though it did blow out the sky a bit. At that point, I took this new image, and played with various layering options (screen worked out well) and opacity settings to get something acceptable. The rest was just feathered masking to restore the sky. Once happy, I moved back to RGB.


I used Adobe Lightroom 3 and played around with curves as well as luminace settings of individual colours especially yellow and orange.

alt text

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is that all you did? You've got a distinctive halo effect around the biker and the building... \$\endgroup\$
    – Guffa
    Commented Sep 24, 2010 at 17:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah that's probably because I also increased the clarity too much \$\endgroup\$
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 24, 2010 at 19:16

I processed the DNG in RawTherapee. I tried playing with Local Contrast first, but then felt that usual curves work better, and the result looks more natural (though at the cost of the intensity of the sky). Click to see the original:

Zero exposure compensation, black at 32, full highlight/shadow compression. Tonal curve is pretty aggressive. Using control cage mode:

Tone curve

Sharpening with USM, R=0.66, Amount=110, Threshold=192, edges only. Camera white balance. Impulse denoising (50), Directional pyramid denoising (Luma=10, Chroma=30, Gamma=3). In chroma denoising you tradeoff skin saturation for somewhat smoother look.

Complete post-processing profile: IMGP2325_skin_tone_example.jpg.out.pp3.

As I said initially, you can have more intense colors if you use the Local Contrast tool. The price is unnatural HDR-like halos/shadows.

1:1 crop:

1:1 crop

P.S. The file with parameters may fail to work with future versions of RawTherapee, because I used the development build (3.0 Alpha) of it.


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