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Question as per title; how do I soften harsh shadows during post-processing?

Yea I know I should probably get it right in camera, and probably use a flash, so I hope no one tells me that. The story is I forgot to bring my flash out to a motor exhibition to photograph models (big mistake on my part), and the installed lighting in the halls really falls on the models in really bad ways, and it creates really harsh shadows in instances like this

enter image description here

The shadows around the eyes and at the neck area are especially bad. So I was wondering what I could do to reduce the shadows and generally improve this picture in Photoshop or (more preferably) Lightroom.

Thanks in advance

  • Did you shoot raw? Or Jpeg? You can work on an image a lot more enthusiastically in these situations in raw. – chuqui Jan 17 '15 at 19:42
  • yea forgot to mention this. Yep it's in raw – Lion Jan 17 '15 at 19:52
  • If you don't mind posting a link to the raw file, I might use it to practice (play with) the techniques I'm currenly reading about. I can certainly give a quick adjust and post a shot of the settings and resulting xmp file. – JDługosz Jan 17 '15 at 20:02
  • sure. but i had the highlights on her dress toned down before i posted the above picture, so her dress will be overblown in the raw. you can make your own adjustments there. mega.co.nz/… – Lion Jan 17 '15 at 20:35
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    Lightroom does have a shadows slider. it allows you to brighten or darken the shadowy areas.. that would be a good start – Sonic Soul Jan 18 '15 at 0:57
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I don't know of any "easy" way to fix an image like this. I don't know of any way that could be done purely in Lightroom either, although you could do some tweaking with the shadows and highlights sliders before bringing it into Photoshop for the full correction. It is possible to fix it, however, using a combination of dodge/burn for selective shadow and highlight recovery, and a multiscale soft contrast technique.

First off, here is my version of your image (just processed from the JPEG you shared, and done rather quickly, so certainly not ideal):

enter image description here

You should notice a few things. First, the background is a bit darker, making the foreground and the model pop a bit more. The color in the car has been enhanced a little. And, the shading on the model's face should be improved. Here is a before and after (before left, after right):

enter image description here

The changes are subtle, but effective, I think (and they could be much more effective if you have the original RAW data to work with, instead of a JPEG). Note the falloff into the shadows around her neck as it goes back into the darkest shadows. Note the lighting on her face. Also note the tonality of her dress.

This was accomplished in a series of dodge, burn, and soft contrast adjustments in layers, many with layer masks. I don't have any technique site to direct you to, I simply processed to achieve my goals. Here is the procedure I followed.

  1. Dodge - Selectively Lighten Shadows

    • Eyes and neck
  2. Burn - Selectively Darken Highlights

    • It is important to note that I darkened the highlights a lot more here than they appear in the final image. This is due to the nature of the soft contrast technique, which tends to darken shadows and brighten highlights, while softening the transition between them. Darkening her dress and face was critical to supporting the soft contrast.

enter image description here

  1. Global soft contrast layer

    • Copy Merged, Paste, (Paste Again, rename as "Soft Contrast - Base", hide), Select First Paste of Copy Merged again, Gaussian Blur 20, Blend: Overlay, Fill Opacity: 20%
  2. Soft Contrast - Small

    • Copy "Soft Contrast - Base", Rename "Soft Contrast - Small", Gaussian Blur 3, Blend: Overlay, Fill Opacity: 35%, Layer mask: Black, paint in model
  3. Soft Contrast - Medium

    • Copy "Soft Contrast - Base", Rename "Soft Contrast - Medium", Gaussian Blur 8, Blend: Overlay, Fill Opacity: 20%, Layer mask: Copy from #4
  4. Soft Contrast - Large

    • Copy "Soft Contrast - Base", Rename "Soft Contrast - Large", Gaussian Blur 12, Blend: Overlay, Fill Opacity: 10%, Layer mask: Copy from #4

enter image description here

  1. Curves
    • Applied several curves adjustment layers to tweak exposure levels
    • Two to darken highlights, lighten shadows on model, Layer mask: Copy from #4
    • One to tweak tones for everything else, Layer mask: Copy from #4 and invert

enter image description here

  1. Sharpening Overlay
    • Copy merged, paste, Smart Sharpen: Amount 50%, Radius 0.3px, Reduce Noise 15%; Repeat two more times, Fill opacity: 70%

(See original image for final result.)

Soft contrast is a great way to smooth out tonal transitions. It won't correct hard shadow edges, but it will help mitigate the tonal grade across them. The application of multiscale soft contrast techniques like this will usually increase contrast in a dramatic way, so it is important that you mitigate that by burning bright areas in a layer before you add the soft contrast layers. This will pre-darken those areas, mitigating the brightening effect. I applied a light amount of burning to the model's dress and face. Too much and compression artifacts showed up, and the highlights were heavily clipped in a few places.

You will also often get deeper shadows, however the falloff into those shadows will usually be quite superior. You can mitigate this with some dodging in those areas before you Copy-Merge the base soft contrast layer (that is simply so you have a common layer to copy from for each soft contrast layer). I did light dodging in this case, as due to the fact that the original data was a JPEG, too much and it started to fall apart.

With original RAW data loaded through ACR or converted to TIFF, you should have MUCH more freedom to dodge and burn. You could also apply some highlight and shadow sliders in Lightroom or ACR before performing the steps of my procedure above to mitigate both ahead of time (particularly the highlights, shadows are probably better controlled with dodging as you can do it selectively and locally, thus avoiding any loss in global contrast.) In the final image here, the highlights are still fairly hot, but the model's dress has a bit more detail. Her face, I think, is a lot more pleasing with the softened highlights and smoother shadow falloff around her neck.

  • This is awesome. Any recommendations on sites/books to learn more complex lighting correction techniques? This is far more in-depth than "slap an s-curve on it and pump the vibrance." – Daniel G. Wilson Dec 31 '16 at 15:52
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Photoshop has a Highlight/Shadow adjuster that is very handy for exactly that. In ACR or Lightroom, you have better control and the labeled sliders and histogram zones are easy to understand.

In dXo's raw converter, it magically figures it out, but you can still fiddle with it. Check out their free trial, and run your image through it.

Since you mention the face, there's another program (a few actually, but one that's affordable) for portraits and any faces in the shot. It uses machine vision systems to make a 3d model of the head (with a little input from you to make sure the points are lined up) and then can relight the model with proper studio lighting and soft fill, and apply glammor makeup and take 10 poinds off, reshape the nose, enlarge the eyes and change the color, etc. Again, it has a free trial. Search for names with portrait in them. If anyone knows which one I'm thinking of feel free to edit.

  • yep I know about the shadow sliders and histogram in lightroom, i was playing around with it for a while, but the shadows still turn out pretty jarring to me. I'm still playing around with various settings to see what I might make out of this. I might check out that dXo thing though, to see what it churns out. thanks – Lion Jan 17 '15 at 20:01
  • If you clipped detail in the blacks, it will not correct nicely. You probably have a few stops more dark than you realize (although it gets nonlinear) and you need to start by pulling that in during raw import. The sudden change can still be jarring even if you rescue detail, so put the brightened on an adjustment layer and feather in the shadows' edges by painting on the mask. – JDługosz Jan 17 '15 at 20:06
  • If you're talking about the Anthropics product, it's worse than horrible unless your subject has severe skin problems, and even then the result is less than optimal. It's good for temporarily flattering the subjects of shopping mall portrait shops (just long enough for them to pay) or if you're planning to make thumbnail-sized web images, but it doesn't take very long for the W-O-W to turn into W-T-F if you live with the pictures for a while. (I own it, but I only use it on end-of-life subjects to make them look a little less like they're dying.) – user35658 Jan 17 '15 at 22:40
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As mentioned by jdlugosz your first line of attack is going to be the black and shadow sliders in LR 5 (you'll have much poor results in lightroom 4 or older), but as you boost up the exposure in the blacks you're going to likely be adding in a bunch of noise. It's going to be a challenge fixing it very well, but here's my line of attack:

Globally, do what you can to clean up the image, set the white balance, work on the background shadows and etc. Don't try to fix under the chin or around the eyes in the global changes, you'll drive yourself crazy.

Use the white slider to pull back that dress so it doesn't blow out. I probably wouldn't change the exposure overall much (maybe drop if a bit) and focus more on less global changes.

Once you've got the image more or less cleaned up, then use the exposure brush or the radial fill to capture the problem areas and create a mask for them -- you can then do further local adjustments to those specific spots to try to lighten them up.

You are going to need to run noise reduction on it once you finish bringing up the shadows. That's going to soften the image somewhat, but you'll have to play with sharpening and noise reduction to find the right compromise.

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