A Few Thoughts on Highlights, Shadows, Whites & Blacks

by George on July 4, 2012

Photograph © George A. Jardine

A few days ago, I received one of those digital-photo-advice e-mail newsletter things from one of the more respectable sources. The question du jour was regarding Lightroom’s new 2012 Process Version controls, and in the answer our friend stated that “The key difference is that the Whites and Blacks sliders affect a narrower range of tonal values than the Highlights and Shadows sliders do.”

Reading this kind of nonsense online simply upsets me. And there is all too much of it. After a bit of testing, I’ve discovered a few things about the way the new controls do work. It all started with the exposure testing that I wrote up in a blog posting on the Zone System that can be found here. A simplistic description of the Whites and Blacks controls would be that they are just clipping controls. But since they now go both directions, you gotta ask yourself, what happens if I push this the other way?

On top of that, the not-so-subtle differences between the way Highlights and Shadows actually work relative to Whites and Blacks, makes for an interesting exploration into how they all relate. Meaning, how you might use them together, to bend and shape your photo corrections in ways that you simply could not achieve, using the old tools.

So here’s a new tutorial on 4 of the most interesting new controls in Lightroom. It’s free, just for the asking. Simply drop your e-mail address here, and I’ll shoot you the link to the online tutorial.

Total running time for this video is a little over 20 minutes.

To view the tutorial on an iPad, the link provided in your e-mail will serve up video that is custom formatted for that device, too. And if you think it looks good on your iPad, wait until you see the tutorials on your HDTV!

Finally, this video is just a taste of the in-depth coverage of the entire Develop module that you get in my Develop video series for Lightroom 4. You can check out the chapter titles and details, by clicking here.

If you liked this free video, tweet it now!

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

John Schwaller July 4, 2012 at 2:34 PM

The “problem” with your tutorials is you make people think…many don’t like to do that.  :-)  Cookbook is easier and quicker…and often gives ok results…or, at least, better than doing nothing.

Your tutorials provide real insight into how the controls work and how best to get the most out of an image.

This is a great addition to you quiver.  Keep them coming…

Larry D. White July 4, 2012 at 11:44 PM

Thanks George, It’s fun to learn from someone who is learning and experimenting and pushing the boundaries of their understanding of the software, then openly sharing those discoveries with others. Thank you for your generosity and your continuing push to make us all better.

Jack Frazier July 5, 2012 at 6:50 AM

One had better put on his/her thinking cap when watching one of your tutorials, George. Which is a good thing. Very good food for thought. The hard thing to grasp here is how the horizontal sliders are mapped to the various tones in the image and how broad is there power. And while the horizontal sliders are easier to use than Curves to adjust our images, they actually give less understandable feedback. Curves sliders are a bit harder to use but give better visual feedback as to what you are doing to what tones. It’s like you show in your Develop tutorials, when moving a slider left or right are you stretching or compressing the tones? And which tones are being affected? Quarter tones, mid tones, three quarter tones, etc.? It seems we are always wanting to “stretch” out tones in various positions on the histogram to give better contrast or more DR… and that in turn is compressing other tones, giving less contrast. And so if that compressing is something that you want to counter, then which slider and in what direction do you move? And until you can visually map in your mind which slider does what, you will just have to experiment. Maybe Adobe can add a “Map Slider Movements to Curve” button! If that is even possible. Whew…

George July 5, 2012 at 7:17 AM

It’s a very good question, Jack. And this is why I originally used step-wedges to show which tones were being moved around by the various controls. The problem is that using a step-wedge that is already gamma-encoded acts a bit differently than actual raw data, hence the raw gradient.

The amazing thing is how accurately the raw team at Adobe has emulated what the controls do to a raw file when working on an RGB or grayscale file. So a synthetic step-wedge can come very close to showing you how the controls work on raw data. The big difference is in the highlights, and what one friend of mine calls, the “extreme highlight protection” that is going on in the new process.

For me, the most interesting part of the whole experiment was seeing the gray scale that is produced by actual EV’s captured in raw (some of which are shown in the blog article…), and being able to map and analyze the highlight compression that’s going on in the new process.

But despite all of that, my focus is still on trying to find ways to understand and explain what the tools are doing in visual terms. Not academic terms. So that photographers can make the most of them in their daily work of trying to make better pictures.

George

Stu July 5, 2012 at 8:31 AM

Hi George,

As usual you have produced another great LR4 training video. The video helps give a greater understanding on how to handle the highlights & shadows along with whites & black.

You mentioned how well these videos look with HDTV. Well, a couple of weeks ago I received the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display and you talk about looking good. All I can say is WOW!

On another note I was amazed on how much faster LR4 runs via this new Mac. I’m coming from a 2009 MacBook Pro (2.66) where I was using Firewire 800 for storing my Libraries. Now I am using USB 3 drives and you talk about fast. Hope to move to Thunderbolt soon. Just waiting for the cost to come down some.

Best,

Stu

Jeff July 5, 2012 at 10:02 AM

I really enjoyed watching your video yesterday! The really nice thing about it was that you explained the reasoning behind why you were doing something and how tools interact. That was a real eye opener for me.

I was having a tough time with my highlight in some of my pictures and your video not only helped me understand the yin and yang of wrangling highlights, but shadow areas as well!

A tip of my hat to you George!

Silviu Voicila July 5, 2012 at 12:12 PM

I must admit that your videos are brilliant and now I’m ready to favor LR over PS on heavy lifting.And thank you for your generosity on sharing this free but amazing tutorials.

Jose July 7, 2012 at 12:26 AM

Great, as usual. Thanks George. Regards

John July 8, 2012 at 1:14 PM

George – truly instructive and thought-provoking. Can’t wait to move from XP so I can upgrade to LR4 and buy your video series. The LR4 sliders seem to me a definite advance on those in LR3. Thanks again for a great video.

Thomas July 8, 2012 at 5:57 PM

George- I find your tutorials extremely helpful. I find myself going back to review. I have the LR3 Tutorials, library and Develop. I hesitated to get the library because of concerns of reptition from LR3. Is there much difference? Do you cover smart collections, I didnt see in index.

Thanks

George July 8, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Hi Thomas,

Yes, Smart Collections are covered in tutorial # 13, starting at 12:40. The chapter markers are found here:

http://mulita.com/blog/?page_id=2984

I understand your hesitation, since very little changed in the Library Module. But the videos were more-or-less completely re-written, and I think you’ll find them a vast improvement over my LR3 Library series.

Hope that helps! George

Steven Ralser July 10, 2012 at 10:37 AM

Unfortunately the link does not work for me. The other links do work.

Steve

George July 10, 2012 at 11:48 AM

Sorry for the mixup, Steven! Someone published the link to the video, so I changed the link. I’ve sent a new one to you in the mail.

I guess it doesn’t occur to folks that, yes, the video is “free”. But the reason for doing free videos is to help us stay in touch. Yes, it’s marketing. If you find the free videos and newsletters valuable (which I hope you do…) then it’s win/win. But if at any time you wish to unsubscribe from my mailing list, you can just say so!

So when you get the link, if you wish to share, yes! By all means! Do! But please share this link….. http://mulita.com/blog/?p=3945 .. and please do NOT share the actual link to the video that you receive in your e-mail.

Thanks! George

Paul Moore July 11, 2012 at 10:03 AM

A great tutorial! I will make sure that I recommend your tutorials when I teach my Garden Photography Workshop at the Morton Arboretum coming up at the end of this month.

Tom July 11, 2012 at 11:56 PM

George,

thank you for sharing the video. I have been recommending your tutorials because I believe they belong to the best educational material on Lightroom (judging from what I have seen from them).

I was, however, disappointed with this sample video (because you have set the bar so high). The video leaves me almost in the same frustrating spot that I have been before in the sense that I do not know what the fundamental principles behind the sliders are and what motivated the developers to design them the way they are.

I fear that the sliders have not been optimised for allowing an optimal editing experience for people who know what they are doing, but instead incorporate compromises that are injected by other Adobe products such as Revel (e.g., editing has to still work reasonably even if you do not have access to the “Whites” and “Blacks” sliders; having some sort of “brightness boost” is more important than technically correcting under/over exposure) and a certain image of a target audience that would rather fiddle with as few sliders as possible than to understand what the principles behind the controls are and what the best orthogonal set of controls would be.

Independently from the fact that the new LR4 development approach has brought some negative aspects along with the underlying improvements to the image processing, it would still be useful to know the reasoning and mechanics behind the sliders so that you can predict what will happen without trying them on 50 images first. I have to disclose that for a number of reasons I am not using LR4 yet and may be more at ease with the sliders after having used them a lot. At the moment, however, I find it hard to regard them as optimally suited for doing image editing quickly and predictively.

Your tutorial is helpful to some extent, but do not think that a thorough, systematic understanding of controls should be dismissed as “academic crap” and as a matter of fact your are “academically crapping” yourself, so to speak, when using things like step wedges. I valued your systematic approach in the past and I believe you should build on that strength and not descend to a “season to taste” approach without caring to know exactly how your spices work (in combination!).

Adjusting images by visual feedback is good and I do that myself, but I find that doing it on the basis of a solid understanding of the mechanics behind the sliders tremendously informs my adjustments and helps me to get results more predictably and faster.

George July 12, 2012 at 8:54 AM

Hi Tom, and thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I sympathize with your own admitted frustration at finding adequate educational materials for the new Develop controls. There is very little out there that is any good!

You come right out and admit that you “may be more at ease with the sliders after having used them a lot”, but at the same time (nearly in the same breath…), you want to “know the reasoning and mechanics behind the sliders so that you can predict what will happen without trying them on 50 images first.” Which from my POV, is just a little silly.

For my part, I feel that useful and insightful educational information on this subject may very well be the antithesis of knowing the “reasoning and mechanics”. And I’ll stand by my summary in the video, that “it’s about looking hard at your pictures, playing with the controls, and learning how to trust your eyes.”

In my search for the “reasoning and mechanics behind the sliders”, I generally end up at dead ends such as this, which simply do not help photographers make better pictures, in my opinion. Certainly there is a place for this type of information, but my goal for the videos has always been highly structured, useful and insightful information, that is visual. The end game (for my customers, at least) is visual art, after all. Not mathematics.

Finally, my choice of words in the video was not intended to dis academics. Just academic crap. And I do sometimes put those zingers at the end of the videos, more to find out who’s paying attention than anything else.

P.S.

It is true that I am trying to get away from “crapping myself”, specifically by getting away from the step wedges.

The step wedges do indeed provide a visually immediate and graphic approximation of what the tools do. But using them this way is not technically correct, as those files are already in a gamma-encoded space. Synthetically produced RGB (or grayscale) files do provide a visual approximation, but what happens when a real raw file is processed is subtly different. That difference is important enough that I choose to update Develop tutorial #’s 4 and 18, eliminating the use of the step wedge to make the videos more accurate.

After that, I felt that there was still a gap, and so I did a bit of research, and wrote my posting on the Zone System, explaining why having EV’s in a raw file is the only way to truly understand what’s going on in the tonal placement that your raw processor is giving you. But how many people truly pick up on the differentiation?

In the end, “accuracy” didn’t matter that much. I still felt that what was lacking was a useful, insightful, and visual description of how the new controls interact. And that’s why I created this free video. Many people have found it useful, but if you find anything better out there, that will help me make better pictures, I hope you’ll let me know. Because I want to see it.

George

George July 12, 2012 at 8:09 PM

Hi George, Thanks again for excellent videos. I have both the LR4 Library (just finished) and Develop series and they are the best I’ve seen – worth every penny and I have purchased LR1, 2, 3 videos from others. Is there anyway to save this new freebie? What I’ve done is begin to play the others and use RealPlayer to save them to my computer as a master and then copy to the BB Playbook for videos on the go. RealPlayer isn’t able to save this new one. Thanks again for your inspiring work! George

George July 12, 2012 at 8:13 PM

Sure, George. The link is in the mail.

Just don’t tell anyone. :-)

G.

Norbert July 19, 2012 at 2:36 PM

Thanks George for another nice and insightful video. It seems I have to watch it a couple of times to digest all the information yo are giving, but it will be very helpful for my own editing.

Norbert

Martin Evening July 27, 2012 at 6:17 AM

Hi George,

Nice video tutorial! I too find the new controls for Process 2012 superior to work with compared to Process 2003 and 2010. Much has changed in the last 10 years or so to make it now possible to revisit old photos and experiment with new renderings. There are still cases of what worked OK in the past is still looking good today, but often there are nice surprises to be had when you discover just how much better the results can be using Process 2012.

I liked your approach by showing modifications to a series of image and explaining the rationale behind such decisions. It’s a good way for photographers still trying to come to terms with these new changes to appreciate the power therein.

George July 27, 2012 at 6:43 AM

Hi Martin,

Glad you liked the video. Yeah…. back when we still had to evangelize the use of raw over JPEG, one of the arguments we used was that you should keep your raw files because “someday the processing will be better, and you’ll be able to squeeze even more out of them!”

I must admit at the time I didn’t really see how that could have been true, but here we are just a few short years later, with significantly better processing. I can’t say the controls are getting any easier, but they are certainly capable of producing vastly better quality, with just a little experimentation.

George

Becky July 30, 2012 at 9:43 AM

George, I too really enjoyed your video, lots of new information for me. I find it very interesting watching your videos and seeing and trying to understand how the sliders work. After seeing the whole thing I need to watch it several times…I need to work on my “eye” in order to see the tones and the subtle differences that you are speaking of. Hopefully that will come with experience. Thank you for all your time and effort in putting this video together and for free. I plan on ordering the version 4 videos to help me work on my “eye” and get to know LR 4.

Denis de Gannes August 2, 2012 at 4:22 PM

Thanks George for this refreshing video. Gives me some encouragement to explore LR more creatively after the heavy volume of negative comments on the user to user forum.

Jacob October 17, 2012 at 10:09 AM

Hello George;

Finally! Someone is addressing these sliders not just from a technical P.O.V. but opening the door on how to finesse images. Which, for me, is what shooting RAW and spending the time on an image in LR is all about. Most LR Tutorials out there don’t seem to strike this balance, or do so poorly. Not really sure where some of the comments above are coming from, at all. Wouldn’t change a thing.

J.J. October 22, 2012 at 4:39 PM

Fantastic video George. You show a terrific insight into these controls, and they’re explained in a beautifully simplistic way. You’ve won another fan.

Jeanette Bos October 30, 2012 at 1:53 PM

Hello George,

I landed here this evening through DPR and computer-darkroom.com, and my my, how could I have missed all these treasures for so long! Great articles and even greater video’s! I’ve just watched a few of your LR4 vids – excellent tutorials that nicely go into depths and show thorough insight into the way LR works, explained with good examples, and in a very pleasant and thoughtful presentation.

If I weren’t about to leave for six months in a deeply internet deprived (but otherwise wonderful) part of the world, I’d sign up for your LR-series rightaway. Things being as they are, however, I’m now have a very pleasant and interesting series of lessons to look forward to after my return.

Ciao!

George October 30, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Thanks Jeanette!

Keep in mind that if you purchase the online version of any of my tutorials, you are welcome to the download links for iPad (or for any computer / device, for that matter…) so that you can view them while “offline” while traveling.

My mobile device support is probably my most popular feature….

Your photography is wonderful. Hope to see you around the blog again!

George

Robert Beacon November 12, 2012 at 3:52 AM

Thanks for the informative video. At last I “fully” understand the effects of the controls. I have had problems understanding the relationship between blacks and shadows. I believed that the shadows should be lightened or darkened with the blacks set at clipping to have the proper effect just as in Photoshop. Now I see that blacks don’t have to be at zero, they can be above or below clipping relative to shadows. This is the last piece in the jigsaw for me.

Reuben Friedman December 16, 2012 at 2:54 AM

Thank you so much for this video. Finally, someone who is willing to take the time to explain in detail one of the highly important parts of Lightroom (using photos which each display a common issue which one may face when editing photos). I enjoyed your teaching style because it did not treat me like I was brand new to photography, or a master photographer either. It seemed to be right in the middle, which is where I consider myself to be.

Erotica404 February 9, 2014 at 7:53 AM

Awsome tutorial! Explanations are clear, well supported with visual in a pedagogic way! Without any doubt, I’ll check your other videos because you definitively have it when it comes to explain.

Congrats!

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