DxO PhotoLab

Mastering highlights and shadows with DxO OpticsPro 10

In collaboration with Christophe Gressin

DxO OpticsPro 10 includes many image-processing features, two of which are especially useful for dealing with tone: DxO Smart Lighting and Selective tone control. In this tutorial, we will learn how to correct highlights and shadows in DxO OpticsPro 10 using these two very powerful and easy-to-use tools.

Tone

Tone refers to the brightness and contrast in images and to the way in which light, dark, and medium areas interact and balance one another within a photo to give it a naturally uniform appearance. Most of the latest-generation cameras have a large dynamic range — that is, they are capable of recording huge variations in brightness — up to 14 stops! Still, photographers retain the freedom to combine the flexibility of RAW file processing, the camera’s intrinsic dynamic range, and the power of DxO OpticsPro to obtain photos with perfectly-controlled contrast, regardless of the shooting conditions.

To follow this tutorial, you will need:

  • DxO OpticsPro 10, Essential or Elite edition
  • Some photos, preferably in RAW format

1- Brightening dark areas with DxO Smart Lighting

In our first example, we see that our image has strong backlighting that drowns out all of the details of the subject in the foreground. During shooting, the camera set its aperture and shutter speed based on the brighter background. Using DxO Smart Lighting, we will brighten the foreground and thus restore the details to the underexposed subject in the foreground.

1.1 – The DxO Standard preset

In DxO OpticsPro, in the Organize tab, open your image by clicking on the folder in which it is stored in the Source browser, which displays your computer directories and peripherals.

When you open an image, DxO OpticsPro 10 applies the DxO Standard preset. This is a full preset that automatically corrects the exposure, color rendering, noise, distortion, and lens softness in order to obtain a balanced and fault-free image. These corrections are adapted to your equipment so long as it is supported by the software.

Tone is also included as one of the corrections in the DxO Standard preset, and DxO Smart Lighting is set at Slight.

In our example, the stones have been significantly lightened while preserving the backlit ambiance; to easily see the difference, apply the No correction preset to see the uncorrected image.

Tip

You can see the uncorrected image at any time by clicking on  (in Windows, use CTRL+D).

1.2 – Change the intensity

Let’s now go to the Customize tab, and then to the Essential Tools palette > DxO Smart Lighting.

The DxO Smart Lighting palette offers two controls: a Mode menu for choosing among a certain number of presets, and an Intensity slider to manually correct or adjust the results of the Mode preset applied.

Let’s try setting the DxO Smart Lighting Mode at Medium: the details are already much more visible, the dark zones are lightened, and the background is still balanced.

Now let’s try setting the DxO Smart Lighting Mode at Strong: the results are spectacular — the dark areas are even brighter, without making the sky appear unnatural.

1.3 – Apply a manual setting

The Intensity slider lets you manually fine-tune the results to an even greater degree. By default, it is set at a particular value depending on the correction mode you choose: 25 for Slight (the standard setting), 50 for Medium, and 75 for Strong.

Note

The DxO OpticsPro 9 and DxO OpticsPro 7 compatibility modes are designed to restore the same tones that you gave your photos when you used these earlier versions of the software.

Here we will lower the intensity of the correction by setting the slider to 60.

Note

In our example, going above the default setting will change the atmosphere of the photo and further brightening will show the beginnings of haze. You can correct the haze by using the ClearView feature which will also reinforce the colors in your photo, for optimal results in just a few clicks!

2- Recovering clipped areas with the Selective tone tool

The Selective tone sub-palette is composed of four sliders: Highlights, Midtones, Shadows, and Blacks. Each of these sliders acts on a well-defined area of the image without affecting the other areas.

Tip

The Selective tone tool replaces the Tone Curve tool in an advantageous way, thanks to its ability to differentiate between areas in the image and to its ease of use.

2.1 – Display the clipped zones

Returning to our first example, by clicking on the Toggle highlights button  in the Histogram palette, we can display any burnt values as false colors in the bright zones of our image.

When luminance exceeds the most extreme values that the camera is capable of photographically reproducing, the blown highlights are rendered as absolute white, and the completely underexposed areas are rendered as absolute black. Any pixels in either condition are considered to be “clipped” or “burnt.”

2.2 – Fine-tune the tonal ranges

We will now correct the brightness in the different tonal range areas of our image.

  • By moving the Highlights slider to the left, we can recover the information and the details in the brightest parts of the image, notably the sky, so as to bring out some contrast and depth.
  • By moving the Midtones slider to the right, we brighten the midtones (represented in the central section of the histogram).
  • By moving the Shadows slider to the left, we maintain some of the dark zones in the image so as to avoid an artificial-looking “HDR” effect as well as keeping the proper shape of the subject.
  • By moving the Blacks slider to the right, we reveal the different levels of black and make them brighter (the extreme left of the histogram moves toward the left and leaves no information in the darkest or densest parts of the image).

Note

Here are the slider values that we have set for our image:

Highlights: -55

Midtones : 0

Shadows: -5

Blacks: -15

Here is our image with the details restored in both shadows and highlights — in just a few clicks!

3- Two use cases

Correcting a too-dense image

In the two following steps, we will see how the Selective tone sliders work to correct an image that is both dense (in terms of shadowed details) as well as a bit too bright.

In our first example below, the subject is backlit by a relatively bright sky. The goal here is to bring out the details of the building and to give balance to the photo. To do this, start by applying DxO Smart Lighting in Medium mode.

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These two actions have had virtually no effect on the rocks in the foreground, which we are now going to brighten by setting the Shadows slider to 20, making the whole photo more uniform.s.

Brightening the dark areas results in a loss of contrast, which we can compensate for by setting the Blacks slider to –20. The result is a better-balanced photo, with greater contrast that lends more depth.

Giving some substance to an image

In our second example, the image is a bit too bright and lacks contrast. Let’s see what we can do to restore the balance.

We will restore some color density to the clouds and to the surface of the water. The Highlights slider set at +15 and Midtonesset at –30 will also subtly improve the contrast in the sky.

We will strengthen the overall contrast, particularly that of the water and the green spaces, by boosting the Blacks, whose slider we will set to –25.

Here again, the result obtained is more balanced, with good contrast that does not distort the original scene.

Photos credits: David Keochkerian, Mike and Tammy Rice