How to rescue highlight detail in your raw files
01 Fix the white balance
Open your start image in Adobe Camera Raw. Start by clicking the White Balance menu at the top of the Basic tab and choose the Daylight preset – this removes the slight red cast, and creates more natural-looking colours.
02 Recover the highlights
There are a few blown highlights in the sky and the yellow flowers. To pull these back, move the Recovery slider right while holding down Alt to see a preview of clipped pixels; pixels clipped in one or two channels are shown in colour, while pixels clipped in all three channels are white. At around 23 all the specks of colour vanish, meaning the highlights are recovered.
03 Boost the tones
Set Contrast +10 to improve overall contrast, and Blacks +10 to give the darkest shadows an extra boost. To enhance the blue sky set Vibrance to +22; this slider boosts less-saturated colours more than stronger ones, so we can use it to boost the pale blues without affecting the more-saturated yellow flowers.
04 Add a grad
Click the Graduated Filter tool in the toolbar at the top of the interface. In the settings panel on the right, set Exposure to -1.00 and make sure all the other sliders are at 0 – you can reset a slider to 0 by double-clicking it. Next hold down Shift and drag a line from halfway down the sky to just below the horizon.
05 Enhance the sky
Reduce Exposure at little more, to -1.35, then set Saturation to +30 to boost the colours. If you need to, you can fine-tune the position of the graduated filter effect by dragging the points (hold down Shift as you drag to keep the lines perfectly horizontal.)
06 Remove sensor marks
There are a few sensor marks in the sky, so click the Spot Removal tool in the toolbar and set Type to Heal and Opacity to 100%. Zoom in on the top-right of the image, then click-and-drag over a mark to draw a circle. Release the mouse button and the tool will clone out the mark using adjacent pixels.
07 Add a vignette
Next we’ll add a vignette to darken the corners of the shot slightly, which will help to draw the eye into the frame. Double-click the Hand icon to return to the main interface, then click the Lens Correction tab, and click the Manual tab if you’re using CS5. Set Vignette Amount to -15 and Midpoint to 40.
08 Sharpen and save
Finally we’ll apply some sharpening. Click the Detail tab, then double-click the Zoom tool to zoom in to 100%. Set Sharpening Amount to 50, Radius to 1.2, Detail to 25 and Masking to 25. To reduce the noise in the sky set Luminance Noise Reduction to 18. When you’re happy, click Save Image or Open Image to open the image in Photoshop.
The clipping preview we use here with the Recovery slider is also available for the Exposure and Blacks sliders, and it’s particularly useful as it shows pixels that are clipped in one or more colour channels, as well as to pure black or white; in this case, the yellow channel is clipped in some of the flowers.