more than one way to skin a cat...
How you process your images depends on your personal preference, and the overall look you’re trying to achieve
There’s more than one way to process an image, even if you’re looking for the same result, but with subtle differences. How subtle depends on your judgment. One operation that’s much in demand is the twin adjustment of Highlights and Shadows to bring out more detail. Even this is disputed, with some believing that too much detail tends to be teased out nowadays simply because it can be (and yes, I think that, too).
In this architectural interior (of an old colonial house in Singapore) shot without any added lighting, the area behind the stairs is very bright, as it’s bathed in tropical sunlight. At the same time the top of the stairs fades into darkness. It would be good to bring more out of each area, and ACR offers three ways to do this.
In the first, using just the Basic window, the Highlights and Shadows sliders each work on a restricted range of tones, lowering or raising the brightness according to which way you drag the slider. Also, significantly, they can recover apparently lost detail – the Highlights slider, for example, can use information in one or two of the three colour channels (red, green, blue) to ‘reconstruct’ the lost detail. Here, used at -100 and +50 respectively, they do a good job. However (there’s always a however in processing!), if the sliders are used too aggressively, they tend to flatten contrast so much that the end result can have a ‘non-photographic’ feel. And again, there’s inevitably some dispute around what ‘looks like’ a photograph and what ‘looks like’ reality – a shifting quicksand of an idea if ever there was one!
Next up, an apparently similar tool is available in the Tone Curve window: the Parametric Curve. Despite its off-putting name, this is very simple in use. The tonal range is split into four – Highlights, Lights, Darks and Shadows – and by selecting these one at a time, you can adjust the Curve smoothly to control each one. Despite being similar to the Highlights and Shadows sliders that we just used, however, the effect is not quite the same, and the bright sunlit area beyond the stairs is pale and lacking in contrast.
Last but not least is the more tedious, but ultimately more successful, method of selecting specific areas and then changing their Exposure and Contrast – the digital equivalent of dodging and burning a negative in a darkroom. Using the Radial Filter, which can now be added to or erased with a brush, a total of nine local areas were independently adjusted. This involved more work, but gave much more control. The differences are obvious when the shots are seen side by side, though perhaps less so when they’re seen one at a time.
The Highlights and Shadows sliders use local tone mapping, and are effective, but at the cost of diluting the contrast
Using the Tone Curve achieves a ‘photographic’ result, but it can’t handle
local contrast in shadows and highlights
Here’s the image as shot: the top of the stairs is very dark, losing detail, while the area through the door is over-bright
Working individually on nine local areas selected with the Radial Filter brings out
the detail in shadows and highlights