One of the best enhancements in Photoshop CS series was the Shadow/Highlight tool. It lets you lighten up dark, shadowed areas and darken bright parts of the photo separately. Digital photographers value such a tool over gold, as everyone has encountered the issue when their camera couldn’t cope with the dynamics range required by a landscape or building. Either the sky will be correctly exposed and the building/landscape dark, or the latter appropriately lit and the sky bleached to white. Here’s what we’re talking about.
Shadow/Highlight, introduced in Photoshop CS, brought a kind of remedy for this problem as it let us shed a bit of light on the shadowed areas and the other way around. Of course, it imposed limits but still produced better results than simply lightening the photo, that affects the whole picture, and thus also lightens up the areas that were already light. You can see this phenomenon on the left, while on the right we demonstrate Shadow/Highlight, affecting only the shadows this time.
OK, but what about those who don’t have Photoshop CS or a newer version of Photoshop Elements? ImageSkill’s Magic Enhancer plugin offers an alternative to Shadow/Highlight. In addition, the plugin’s Lite version can be used free of charge.
The plugin can be installed on Photoshop 7, but Photoshop Elements version 2 also handles it well, just like Paint Shop Pro 7, PhotoImpact 8, and their newer versions do.
The installation is very simple. You only have to download a file the size of about 1.5MB, and start it to display a list of compatible software you want to use it with.
In Photoshop, you’ll find Magic Enhancer in the same place as most of the installed plugins, in the Filter menu, under Image Skill/Magic Enhancer Lite.The interface is ultimately simple. It offers only the most needed settings. The Lite version imposes a few constraints, disabling some of the features.
The left and middle areas of the dialog are occupied by the preview pane, manageable using the two icons in the upper left corner (a magnifying glass and a hand). Click the magnifier and then right-click the preview to zoom an area of the photo up to 1000%. Right-click the image to zoom out. Minimum zoom value is 10%. You can also use the scroll wheel of your mouse for zooming. The current zoom amount is displayed in the lower left corner.
The hand icon scrolls the zoomed picture in the preview pane. Simply click the photo area to toggle between the original and the modified view.
The right side of the dialog is more interesting. It contains a histogram and four sliders to control the desired effect. The plugin’s Pro version offers an additional slider and a check box. They’ll be discussed later.
The Histogram shows the hue distribution of the picture. Darker areas are represented on the left side, while lighter ones on the right. Two sliders control the lightness of dark and light areas.
The most important control is the Highlight shadows slider. With a value of 0, it barely changes anything in the picture.
Drag it to the right to lighten up darker areas while mostly leaving lighter areas unchanged.
Darken highlight has an opposite effect. It makes the lightest areas go darker, but it has a much weaker effect than the former. Basically, it is for darkening the bright areas lightened by Highlight shadows, e.g. rendering the blue sky a bit gloomier.
The next two sliders include the one only available in Magic Enhancer Pro. This helps increasing edge contrast—that is, it can be used as a sharpening tool. Radius specifies edge width (the Lite version has it permanently on 2), while Contrast controls effect strength. You don’t need them all the time, just when the lightened picture is too “flat”. Increasing edge contrast can make the photo look more natural—but can ruin it all the same. Generally, you should leave Contrast set to 0 (or 1) as it visibly increases image noise, and too high values imbue the picture with a drawing-like look. The picture on the left shows Contrast on minimum, and the right one on maximum.
The last setting is color Temperature. The color temperature of the shadowed areas is “colder” that that of the areas bathed in sunlight. The slider sets the desired warmness to the picture. Drag it to the left for colder, blueish colors, or to the right for warmer, yellowish tones. See the extreme settings below.
The final control is the Noise Supression check box. It is only available in the Pro version, too. As we have mentioned earlier, lightening up the shadows can bring nasty suprises. These areas usually sport a radically increased noise.
I’d also suggest including a color saturation slider after the one for color temperature, as the color strengths in shadowy areas fall behind those of well-lit parts. This, however, can be fixed afterwards using Photoshop’s saturation tools. Here’s the photo from the beginning of the article, with Highlight shadows set to 66% and Darken highlights set to 50%, without any contrast increase and color temperature change, and after some saturation increase with the built-in Photoshop feature.
The Pro version costs $30 and offers the following features in addition:
Variable edge contrast width
Automatic noise filtering
Support for 16-bit mode
Batch image processing
Load preset options
ImageSkill Magic Enhancer Lite can be downloaded from the developer’s website.