CQ Blog

Bringing out Shape & Detail in the Darkest of Colors

Posted by Martha DiMeo on June 13th, 2014 | No Comments

Light Hogs

“Is there detail in the blacks?” If you ever asked this question when reviewing photos of dramatically lit interiors, moody landscapes, product shots of black or dark colored items, or other innumerable possibilities of subject matter, the answer could very well be “absolutely.”

It is always challenging to photograph a subject that absorbs practically all of the light shining on it. Add to the mix a slightly under-exposed capture, or a composition that includes both dark and light elements with important detail and you have a perfect candidate for post-capture perfecting.

3 Examples~Blackbirds, Cala Lilies, & Dinnerware

When the color of the main subject is the darkest of darks, and the shooting situation does not lend itself to using supplementary lighting, fill cards, or multiple exposures to apply the HDR (high dynamic range) technique—as in the case of this photograph of a red-winged blackbird—the detail can be brought out in post-processing.

Before & After Photo Retouching showing recovery of shadow detailBefore/After–The amount of recovered detail viewable on-screen is highly depended
on the quality of your display. See “Test Your  Display” below.

Had the blackbird been a secondary element in the photograph rather than the main subject, the silhouette look of the bird in the Before version may have been acceptable. Whereas, in the After version—a winning close-up shot—the emphasized hidden details reveal the beauty of this delicate creature and now invites the viewer to linger.

In the second example the scenario was similar— the detail and color of the black calla lilies was hidden. It photographed as a black mass in this otherwise exquisite floral design. Post-capture editing allowed the true depth and color of the flowers to be revealed.

Before & After photo-retouching-black-lilies by-martha-dimeo, Photoshop SpecialistBefore/After

Finally, the third example illustrates a photographic nightmare in terms of dynamic range—black plates on a black table with black linen, juxtaposed next to white orchids.

The stationary nature of the subject matter certainly lend itself to using the HDR technique which involves combining multiple exposures to capture the full tonal range of a scene. But, it was not shot in that manner. I was provided with just a single frame from which to work. The result was a respectable job; the After image held up on press. Reproduced in a luxury wedding magazine, both the highlight and shadows had detail when translated to the printed page.

Before/After example showing tonal recovery of highlight and shadow detail.

Can Your Dark Image Be Saved?

If you are debating whether a dark image can be made suitable for reproduction in print or digital media (in other words “saved”), know that in most cases much can be done to render hidden details and create a pleasing interplay of light and shadow. If the image was captured as a RAW file, all the better.

To see more examples of the extend that images can be “saved” visit the Improving Stock and the Improving Color + Light portfolio galleries.

Are You Seeing What’s Actually In The File?

The last question to consider is whether you are seeing all the data in the file. The ability to “see into” the dark tones when viewing images on a computer display is highly depended on the quality of your display.

It is a given that a high quality, color-calibrated display is mandatory for graphic design and photo professionals. This requirement is most evident when evaluating images consisting mainly of tones at the dark end of the spectrum. Low-end displays do a poor job at rendering detail in dark areas.  As a result, you may not be seeing what is actually in the file.

Test Your Display

Eizo, a manufacturer of high-end displays, published an informative article about display quality and display evaluation. To determine how your display is performing, download the test images provided with the article. Once on your local drive, open them in Photoshop or another photo editing program. If the results are less than satisfactory, consider investing in a better quality display, especially if your work involves image editing or image evaluation.


© Martha DiMeo 2014

Photos © Respective Image Owners


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