How to reveal texture and detail

THE MISSION

To boost detail in midtone areas

Time: Five minutes

Skill level: Beginner

Kit needed: Lightroom 5 or later

Tackling over- and under-exposed areas in photos is relatively straightforward with Lightroom – you can use the Develop module’s Basic panel to adjust the shadows and the highlights to reveal detail where it’s needed. How, though, do you improve an image that’s mostly mid-tones? 

The starting image, above left, has some bright areas in the background windows, but the majority of the image consists of dull shadows and murky mid-tones. The very flat-lit printing press has lots of interesting textures and details, but in the unprocessed picture these areas of interest are lost in a muddy wash of dull browns.

To reveal more detail in this scene we could have captured a series of bracketed exposures and combined them, but Lightroom lacks Photoshop CC’s ability to merge multiple photos as a HDR composite that features detail in the shadows, mid-tones and highlights. 

We could also have zapped the scene with a burst of flash, but we chose to use the available mix of artificial tungsten and natural daylight instead, because introducing a third light source would have made it tricky to get the white balance correct. 

Fortunately, our start image is a RAW file, so it contains more tonal information than we can actually see when looking at the unprocessed photo. We’ll show you how to lighten the mid-tones and bump up their contrast to make finer features and textures stand out more. 

We’ll also show you how to reveal the scene’s true colours by cooling down a warm cast and removing a magenta tint caused by an incorrect white balance setting.

Step-by-step: Get more from RAW

1. Examine the histogram

Import TYLR19.dng into Lightroom and take it into the Develop module. First, tweak the white balance, as this can alter the tones in the image: drag the Temperature slider to 3418 to remove the warm cast, and the Tint slider to +22 to remove the hint of magenta.

IN THE SHADOWS

To check the shadows, turn on the Shadow Clipping Warning (at the top-left of the histogram window). Any areas of pure black will appear as patches of blue. It’s good to have some black pixels in a photo, and if those areas don’t contain any important detail you can leave them as they are. If they do, you will need to lighten them using the Blacks and Shadows sliders. 

2. Increase the exposure

Now, to reveal more detail, kick off by dragging the Exposure slider right to +1.15. The histogram will slide to the right, as some of the shadows become midtones. We can see more detail in the printing press – but some of the highlights are now blown out.

3. Remove the clipped areas

Click on the Highlight Clipping Warning icon at the top-right of the histogram window. Blown highlights will turn red. Move the cursor onto the far right of the histogram. The Whites slider will become highlighted below. Drag Whites to -20 and Highlights to -60.

4. Improve the global contrast

To reveal more midtone detail, drag the Shadows slider to +72. This selectively lightens more of the shadows. You can now see more detail in the printing press, but the photo lacks contrast, and there aren’t any strong blacks. To improve the overall contrast, drag Blacks left to -65.

5. Increase the midtone contrast

You now have a healthier-looking histogram. Drag the Clarity slider to +69. This increases midtone contrast, revealing texture and detail in the press and the bench. Zoom in to 1:1 magnification to compare the before and after versions of the image and see the revealed detail.

6. Fine-tune the clipped patches

Return to the Loupe view (click on its icon or press D). Moving the Clarity slider may have caused clipping in the background’s brighter areas, so drag the Whites slider left to -70. A few red patches can remain in the windows, because they contain no important details.