Photo Editing Tips: Controlling Highlights and Shadows…

Using Photoshop CS3 *advanced

I am trying to get this style down, and feel like I still have a ways to go… but thought it would be cool to share anyways. There are a few things you must get right in order to pull it off, the first thing is lighting. These type of shots look awesome in studio where you are controlling the light. Be aware of where your key light is, and then maybe set a light behind your subject to create  some rim lighting. I threw together a quick lighting set up… sometimes our lighting set ups involve a few more lights (hair light and bg light):

lighting set up The next thing you need to develop is an eye for what looks good when editing. In my opinion this is the hardest part. You can spend hours learning techniques, and think it looks great by the time you are done with it… but 6 months down the road you might shake your head and laugh because you will finally be able to see just how much you over filtered it.  Time, and experience will definitely help develop your eye and style, and everyone has to start somewhere, right?

Part of this editing style is to really pay attention to the small details. Slight adjustments will make an extreme differences. I am showing them in this post side by side, but really the best way to see it is through hiding and viewing layers in photoshop. As you edit your own work, I suggest duplicating your layer, making adjustments and then viewing the difference by hiding the layer. Sometimes I adjust the opacity of an edited layer until I feel it is just the way I want it.

Lets view the first and last image side by side so you can see unedited vs edited:

Edited vs Unedited

And now for a few Photoshop editing tips… (image below is step one.. different from the image above… look close!)

Step 01 I actually did a few things in step one (always remember to duplicate your layer at every step)…. I started out with using the shadow highlight tool located under Image>Adjustments> Shadow Highlight. I would give you numbers, but it is really different for each file, and you will never figure out how to eyeball stuff if you don’t just jump in and do it. It’s okay to over filter it because you will be able to change the opacity to this layer until you get it just where you want it after we are done. After adjusting the shadow/highlight, I always go to the levels tool to get my darks a little darker, mid-tones and highlights just right. Levels is a super important tool when editing, you can really add some awesome contrast to your images without blowing out highlights. Please be aware that when using levels, or curves, etc… it really boosts your colors as well. The reds really came out in the example above.

Step 2

Step 02 & 03

Can you see the difference? Look at the highlights and shadows in his jacket, goggles and hair… I also brightened the highlight on the right side of his face a little. This is where you learn to push and pull the shadows and highlights. Okay so there are two ways to use the curves tool in Photoshop. One is through Image>Adjustments in your top navigation bar, and the other is below your layer pallet. It looks like a little circle that is half black and half white. The difference is, the first one will make adjustments to your actual image, and the other will add an adjustment layer (on a separate layer) with a mask. You will want to use the one in your layer pallet to create an adjustment layer. If you are unfamiliar with this tool, please read up on it! Google “adjustment layer in photoshop” etc.

So  click on the adjustment layer tool and select curves, then grab the middle and pull it up a bit… rename this layer : “light”. Click ctrl I  to invert the layer mask (selected by default). This should hide the bright layer you just created by turning the mask black. Then repeat the same step except pull the curves down to create a dark layer and label “dark”. Now both layer masks should be black and hidden. Select your light layer mask, grab your white brush and paint over the already existing highlights. Do the same with your shadows… and you have just learned to push and pull your shadows and highlights!  Oh, and when you are done, always use your gaussian blur tool on your layer mask to smooth out brush strokes.

Step 3

Step 04 & 05

The main difference in this shot is in his face. On most fashion/glamour portraits I use this technique to smooth out any wrinkles, shadows, and bags under eyes, etc. It is pretty slight adjustments, but makes a huge difference. This step is way to easy to overdue… so use your opacity tool to tone the layer down if needed and always view your image at 100%. Don’t forget to duplicate your layer before each step. Okay, so on the top layer, use your clone stamp tool, change the opacity of your clone brush to 15-20%, and clone areas on his face next to the lines, close to the same color of skin, etc. Stamp over wrinkles, lines and shadows.

Step 4


The only thing I really did here was repeat the pushing and puling of highlights and shadows (step 2) for a more dramatic effect. Make sure that you don’t blow out and loose any details during this process.

Step 6

Step 6

So after you get it to where you like it, just make sure you like the colors. They are easy to bring out using your adjustment layer with selective color or color balance the same we used it above.  I slightly toned the reds down in this last step.

So let me know what you think, and if you liked my tutorial… maybe I will post some more, in the future, hehe.


  1. Renee,

    Nice explanation. Thank you. It is a great shot, and props on the props!

    Did you just do normal blending for the both curves adjustment layers?

    I guess you could have done overlay and multiply for lights and darks… but with the way you have done it, you have more localized control on which parts you want done without needing to add additional masks. I’m going to give it a try!
    Thanks again for sharing your tips!
    – Mark

  2. Hi Renee,

    This looks amazing!! I would love to watch a video of you creating some of these images. I would pay you for the video if your interested? I’m always interested in learning stuff like this.

    Great job!!

    • Josh, we are thinking about creating some videos of our photo shoots. I will post them on my blog:) Thanks for the comment!

      • Thanks Renee. Let us know when the videos are up! Looking forward to it. I actually mean’t more so the airbrushing/photoshop type work. I’m a web designer myself but always love learning new photoshop tips. Id definately pay to watch you create an artwork from start to finish! 🙂 keep up the good work!

  3. A priceless tutorial for me! I am so green at photo-shopping/photography and layer’s/mask’s etc… I can’t thank you ENOUGH for your valuable time and knowledge, Rene. You are an angel to say the least. 🙂

  4. I just found you through istock and was totally blown away that you have a blog pointing to tutorials. Thank you so much for this one!
    I bookmarked your blog in hopes of more tutorials in the future (or video).

    I had been looking at your ‘blood’ images and wondered if you mind sharing if you used corn syrup to make them?

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