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Performing Major Surgery Step-By-Step

Now that you've planned your workflow and settled on a few nondestructive editing tools, let's apply what you've learned to a problem image. We'll consider an example of a severely underexposed image that can be rescued using this approach. The image in Figure 1 was shot indoors at a museum in which flash photography was not permitted and a tripod wasn't available. A faster-than-ideal shutter speed had to be used, and the result was a series of severely underexposed photographs. The exhibit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and recovering the images has personal meaning to me. The following steps illustrate the process I followed.

Figure 1

Figure 1 This image is severely underexposed and unusable in its current state.

  1. When treating underexposure, start with the Shadow/Highlight filter, which recovers much of the missing detail in both the shadows and in blown-out highlights. Working on a duplicate image layer, select Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight. Use the Shadow slider to draw out the detail in the dark areas of the image. Use the Highlight slider to recover detail in the very light areas of the image. The result is an overall lightening of the image, but with the downside that the amount of noise in the image is increased. In Figure 2, you can see the image after this first step—it's now recognizable for what it is, a carved statue.
    Figure 2

    Figure 2 After applying the Shadow/Highlight filter, much of the image detail has been dragged out of the shadows.

  2. The next step is to remove some of the noise by using the Noise filter. Choose Filter > Noise > Remove Noise and use the Strength slider to control the amount of the fix—the more you apply, the more the image is blurred. Adjust the other sliders to regain sharpness and details in the image. You may want to use the Color noise slider if this helps to reduce the noise. Applying this filter to a duplicate layer allows you to tone down the effect slightly by blending the top layer with the one below. The noise in the image is largely light specks rather than dark, so I applied the Remove Noise filter to a duplicate layer. I then blended the results back into the layer below using the Darken blend mode to retain much of the sharpness of the original image without the distracting noise.
  3. Create a composite layer of the image as it looks right now by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E. The midtones were still too light, so I used the Select > Color Range tool to select the midtones and then applied a levels adjustment to them to darken them. Rather than applying the Levels adjustment to the composite layer, I used a levels adjustment layer, which can be edited later on. To do this, with the selection of the midtones still in place, choose New > Adjustment Layer > Levels and make the adjustment. You can blend this adjustment layer with the layer below using a Darken blend mode to give the image more depth and saturation, but without applying it as a permanent change to the image.
  4. Lightening the image has had the result of lightening not just the statue, but also the background, which is now more distracting than it should be. To fix this, create another composite layer and turn off visibility on all the layers except the topmost composite and the bottom background layer. Create a mask on the top layer to remove some of the edge detail in the fixed image. The original detail from the background image is shown in its place. To create a mask, click the layer and choose Layer > New Layer Mask > Reveal All. Paint in black to apply the mask and to remove the background from the top layer. The final result, as shown in Figure 3, better resembles the statue as I remember it.
    Figure 03

    Figure 3 The final fixed image displays the qualities of the original statue.

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