In this Photoshop Elements tutorial, learn how to banish clipping by targeting specific tones to recover highlight detail in over-exposed areas.
The human eye is adept at discerning detail in a wide range of tones, even when faced with a contrasting mixture of sun and shade.
In our start image below the camera has tried to get a balance between revealing detail in the shadows and retaining highlight detail.
This compromise has produced a disappointing shot in which you can’t clearly see the interesting textures in the shadows, plus many of the highlight details are still over-exposed. These clipped highlights will print out as detail-free patches of garish colour, especially in the paintwork of the sunlit boats.
Fortunately, Photoshop Elements’ tone-tweaking tools can enable you to create a more balanced exposure with less highlight clipping.
Here, we’ll show you how to use the histogram window and the Levels command to identify clipped highlights and then send in the powerful Shadows/Highlights command to restore highlight detail.
Shadows/Highlights can produce halos around contrasting features in the image though, so we’ll also show you a brush-based trick that will reduce these ugly image-editing artefacts.
After fixing our photo using Elements’ standard tone-tweaking tools we’ll finish off with an alternative technique by showing you how to give your humble JPEG access to the Camera Raw editor, so that you can make use of its handy clipping warning and tone-tweaking tools.
Step by step how to recover clipped highlight detail in Photoshop Elements: steps 1-9
01 Open the start file
Launch Photoshop Elements. Go to File>Open and browse to your start image. Click Open and the photo will open in Photoshop Elements 11’s Expert editing workspace (or Full workspace if you’re using an older version of Elements). Go to Window>Layers to make the Layers palette visible.
02 Duplicate the layer
Before editing the image it’s worth making a copy of the Background layer, so that you can compare the edited version with the original. In the Layers palette, click on the Background layer’s thumbnail. Press Cmd/Ctrl+J to duplicate it. The duplicated layer will appear as Layer 1.
03 Summon the histogram
To understand the shot’s spread of tones, go to Window>Histogram. You can see from the Colours histogram that our photo contains some strong blues peaking in the highlight section far right. These bright blues will be clipped and print out with no detail. They’ll just be featureless patches of colour.
04 Create an Adjustment Layer
Go to Layers>New Adjustment Layer>Levels. Click OK. The black and white Levels histogram shows the spread and strength of tones in the shot, from the shadows at the far left to the highlights at the far right. Just as you saw with the Colours histogram, the brightest highlights are off the scale.
05 Use the clipping warning
To see more clearly which areas in the shot are clipped (over-exposed), you can use the Levels command to summon a clipping warning. Alt-click on the white highlight input level slider at the right of the graph. Clipped areas (such as the sky and most of the sunlit boats) will appear as patches of colour.
06 Levels’ limitations
The highlight input level slider only slides to the left, making the highlights become brighter and causing even more clipping. Leave it at 255. While the Levels command provides a useful highlight clipping warning, it can’t cure the problem. Fortunately there is another command you can use along with Levels.
07 Try Shadows/Highlights
In the Layers palette, click on Layer 1. Go to Enhance>Adjust Lighting>Shadows/Highlights. By default, this assumes the image is backlit and suffers from under-exposed shadows, so it automatically sets the Lighten Shadows slider to 35%. Drop this to 0 so you can focus on fixing the clipped highlights.
08 Horrible halos
Drag the Darken Highlights slider right to 65%. This restores more detail to the over-exposed clipped highlights (adding more colour and texture to areas like the girl’s leg). However, you need to watch out for lighter halos around contrasting areas such as the roof and lamppost.
09 Before and after
To get a compromise between restoring highlight detail and keeping halos to a minimum, set the Darken Highlights slider to a lower value of 35%. Tick and untick the little Preview box to see a before-and-after version of the edited image. Click OK to apply the highlight adjustment.
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