Single-Image HDR in Photoshop Elements

The powerful Shadows/Highlights control is the closest you'll get to applying HDR to a single image.

HDR: You've heard the term, and may have even tried it. After all, who wouldn't want to extend the range of shadows to highlights within one photo, and compensate for the relatively limited range of light capture of a typical digital camera?

What if you only had one shot—not a sequence of exposures—and you wanted to extend its dynamic range? Are you stuck? Well, while I can't offer you true HDR range, Photoshop Elements' Shadows/Highlights control can help squeeze more shadow and highlight detail out of a single image.

In fact, when I'm shooting in harsh midday light, the Shadow/Highlights control is one of the first things I apply to help improve my images and give me the detail that I can lose in the sun's shadows—and even, to a lesser extent, in blown-out highlights.

The Shadow/Highlights control has three sliders that can brighten shadow details, darken highlights, and increase midtone contrast. Used excessively, these controls can give an image the dreaded exaggerated HDR. Used more carefully, it can save an image that might seem to be hopelessly overshadowed.

(Note: This technique works better with images that have heavy shadows than ones with blown-out highlights. The information is often lurking in the underexposed areas of the shot; details overwhelmed by overexposure are gone.)

The Shadow/Highlights control is not unique to Photoshop Elements 8. In fact, it has been a Photoshop Elements feature for many versions. Let's take a look at how it works.



Here's an image straight out of the camera. Not bad, but details start to disappear in the shadow areas, especially towards the bottom of the screen. The sky is a pale blue; deepening it could add some drama to this shot. Shadows/Highlights to the rescue.



To open Shadow/Highlights, when working with an open JPEG image, select Enhance > Lighting > Shadows/Highlights.


The Shadows/Highlights dialog box opens up, and the “Lighten Shadows” slider is, by default, set at 25%. You will probably want to change this. When working with people pictures, 25% may be more than you need. When working on scenes where important information is in deep shadows, 25% probably won't be enough.


Next, it's time to work on the highlights. In many cases, if you've exposed for the highlights (which is recommended) you may not need to change this setting. But sometimes there's a blown-out area that you want to bring down. Darken Highlights is helpful when working on backlit scenes where the sun is bouncing off the pavement, for instance. In this scene, I used Darken Highlights creatively, to emulate the effect of a polarizer filter on the sky by darkening highlights 25%.

I rarely use Midtone Contrast. It's best used for overcast scenes, to give them some pop. But in such instances, my first choice would be to adjust Levels.

One caveat: Shadows/Highlights works best on low-ISO images. At higher speeds, lightening the shadows will also make the grain in the shadows more prominent, and the results aren't pretty—something to keep in mind when shooting especially in bright sunlight. In the example shown here, I shot the original at ISO 200, which was the lowest speed available. I've lightened shadows in ISO 1200 images which have turned into mottled, splotchy messes.


Finally, the result: I've opened up much of the shadow area (as much as I dare), and while the lower area still lacks some detail (real HDR would have fixed that), the rest of the shadow area really pops off the screen. The darkened sky also looks more dramatic. Mission accomplished!

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