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How Far can You Push Shadow and Highlights in Aperture

There was this lovely scene out my office window one morning last week. The sun was rising over the horizon and the ground was white with frost. It was a pretty contrasty scene and I knew there was know way you could get it all in one shot normally. I took some photos at different exposures so I could combine them later in Photoshop, but while in aperture I decided to see just how far I could push it. I had shot using my D700 which has a pretty great dynamic range, and it also great for maintaining detail in the shadows. Here’s the shot before I did anything with it…


As you can see – the shadows are pretty black. There’s no way I’m going to get anything from that, right? Well, you would be surprised.

I started by adding a shadow and highlight adjustment, and cranking the shadows up full. You can actually drag the values above 100 if you drag on the number as opposed to the slider. I dragged it up to about 200. This actually did bring some detail back into the ground, but it was very washed out. A little bit of mid contrast kind of killed it, so I backed it down a bit and added a second shadow and highlight adjustment. I also brushed both of these in so it didn’t take away from the sky. It was still quite washed out, so I used a levels adjustment to add some contrast back into the fore ground and brushed that in too.

Here’s a screen grab of the adjustments…



And the result….



(Click on the image to view large)

This is pretty impressive considering the original image was pretty much black in the shadows.

the lessons to be learned from this little exercise are…

1. Don’t underestimate Aperture’s shadow recovery abilities

2. Sometimes it’s better to use multiple adjustments at a lower setting than try and crank everything up in one go. It gives you a little bit finer control. and allows you to tweak a bit more subtly

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13 Responses to How Far can You Push Shadow and Highlights in Aperture

  1. dagge March 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm #


    Thanks for the tip.

    Any comment about the Curves adjustment that seems to bring shadow contrast slightly up (apart from brightning the shadows and darkening the highlights). You didn’t write about it but I am wondering how you briought the curve in the light area down? (Did you start with the expanded curve diagram for that)?

    • Thomas Fitzgerald March 15, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      I think I was playing with the curves a bit at first, but never turned it back off. It brightens the image over all, but doesn’t have a major impact. The shadow highlights will work without it.

  2. Charles March 14, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    I did a side by side comparison in ACR for kicks. The highlight/shadow sliders produced pretty much the same result. What I found interesting was that when I added Clarity, the image greatly improved. Wonder what adding a bit of Aperture’s Definition might do….

  3. Van March 14, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    I find, and have compared, that LR will only bring out the shadows in those areas while not affecting the others, totally different approach from AP. And the dynamic range is greater in LR than AP with NEFs. You will not loose details as much in LR. Not to mention, you have camera profiles to work with that bring further detail to the image, where in AP you have only one RAW interpretation. As much as I like the interface of AP, I have more often been using LR and comparing the two and find it overall better.

    • Thomas Fitzgerald March 15, 2013 at 10:19 am #

      I probably agree with you about LR handling this better, but then, this is “The Aperture Blog”, so, you know… can’t really write an aperture post about lightroom. otherwise I might as well just give up and go home.

      • Vilmos Vincze March 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

        You made a point here, Thomas :)

        But in any case, if Aperture is not going to be discontinued (and I bet it won’t be) then it will be further improved, and might even come out better than LR.
        Sometime. For a while.

        But you don’t switch such major apps at every turn of the season, just like you don’t keep switching between Canon and Nikon at every new camera release…

        So, I count on you not giving up and going home.
        This was, btw, a very useful and well done post.

        • VAN March 17, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

          In order to make the photo right, I need the tools. If AP is slow on the uptake and another will suffice, the switch is inevitable. I see AP, as before, taking its time, and with no news of what is coming. You are assuming and I see major differences. If you were right, I would still be using Capture NX for PP. AP needs to get on the ball and stay current. Lens correction, shadow and highlight curves, color profiles, noise reduction, etc. I think AP is a little late to the game and there’s a lot of catchup, especially if they want to make a difference they have to introduce something LR does not have.

          • Thomas Fitzgerald March 17, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

            I think you’re missing the point. It’s not about whether or not Aperture is falling behind, and I completely agree that it is, but look in the title of the blog. It’s called “the Aperture Blog.” It’s for people who use Aperture. If I wanted to write about Lightroom I’d have a lightroom blog (I actually do write about Lightroom on my Photo blog now and again). I actually use Lightroom a lot myself. I do prefer Lightroom’s raw conversion and many of it’s features, and I still use Aperture a lot too.

            But, again, this blog is for Aperture users. Imagine you were writing for a PS3 magazine and every article you write was about how great the X-Box was and how much better it is than the PS3. You wouldn’t have many readers for long.

            People still use Aperture, And while they do, I will occasionally write about it. I’m not going to write a tutorial or an example of how to do something only to tell you that you’d be better off using something else. If I was to do that I might as well just shut this blog down now and forget about it.

  4. VAN March 17, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Thomas, I still use Aperture, for certain edits and repository. That is why I have followed your blog. I am frustrated with the limitations of AP, not your comments. I am sorry for bringing to light what I need in a PP program and will not again on your forum. i appreciate your insights on AP.

  5. John Boyd April 26, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    Wow! It’s not exaggerating to say that this is an amazing outcome. I’m new to Aperture and didn’t know you could add a second set of the same adjustments. Is it easy to do? (I’ll try after writing this.) So the second set treats the image as if it were the original image and so starts afresh?

  6. John Boyd May 13, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    No chance of an answer to my query above?

    • Thomas Fitzgerald May 13, 2013 at 9:53 am #

      Sorry, been getting a lot of spam recently. YOur comment fell in the gap

      you add another adjustment by going to the little cog menu (that looks like a little cog) at the top of the adjustemnt and choosing “add another shadow and highlight” adjustment

      Adjustments are stacked and cumulative so one continues on from the other if you get my meaning

      • John Boyd May 13, 2013 at 11:10 am #

        Thanks. I didn’t know about this. Useful indeed.

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