How to use the Contrast Checker Technique to Give Your Images More Punch


I am about to reveal a technique that will have your images looking awesome in seconds every time you use it. I am even going to share the Photoshop Action with you so you can edit in lazy mode, I mean efficiency mode! Before I bare all, I need to give you some background information, and I am pretty sure you have been in the exact same position at some point in your photography hobby or career.

DPS Tutorial Image 9

Not long ago, early 2010, I was horrible at photo editing. I was literally tossing my camera in a box and packing it away. My problem was that I was extremely frustrated with the quality of my images. Not necessarily the composition or the subject matter, but I couldn’t get my images to look “good” like all the photographers who were crushing views on Flickr. Thank goodness 500px was not around at the time, I really would have hated my photos.

Just before I sealed the tape on my box of photo gear I discovered High Dynamic Range imaging. Wait, before you judge me, I have been doing it long enough to know the process is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, the HDR process, from the brackets to the tone mapping, forced me to embrace new techniques I never would have dreamed of prior to stumbling upon it.

I started to understand my camera on a level that was foreign to me prior to that time. I also began to accept that it was not necessarily the camera making the great photos, but the person behind it and, more importantly, their post-processing techniques. Nonetheless, I became a tone mapping fool. I tone mapped everything, my car (for the record a Scion xD does not necessarily need to be HDR’ed), candid pictures of my wife, food, candid pictures of my wife eating food, I really tone mapped everything.

You have probably been there before as well, anyone new to HDR thinks it is the greatest thing on everything from the urban landscape to the selfie in the mirror. I would really shy away from the latter of the two! Through all of this understanding and acceptance came another realization, the HDR process can wreak havoc on the contrast in a good photo.

Through the HDR process you are mapping tones from multiple images to obtain one photograph that gets the best of both worlds with a vast amount of detail. The problem with this is that shadow areas lose their depth when too much detail is revealed, and areas that were specular highlights, or inviting highlight blowouts, tend to compress in ways that make them look dark, dingy and stale. Let’s not forget about the hideous over-saturation that can occur if you take the sliders too far.

So how do you combat this? How do you analyze a photograph, HDR or not, and tell what it needs to make it better?

It’s all about contrast

The answer, while simple, holds complexities that can take years to train your eye through trial and error. We are not about to let it take you years to understand. The secret is contrast which is the key to making better photographs right now.

You may know that the Contrast slider exists in nearly every post-processing program, but what is contrast? Simply stated, contrast is the ratio between light and dark in a photograph. If there is no contrast the image appears to look predominantly gray and dismal. On the flip side, an image can be too “contrasty” or devoid of gray (mid tones), a battle between white and black. It is difficult to see this on a color photograph since contrast typically deals with tone.

I studied Fine Art in college, I was a Printmaker (Woodcut, Etching, Screen Printing, and Lithography). I had a fabulous professor. She told me a piece of information once that changed my art forever during a one-on-one critique.

She said if I ever had a question about how harmonious my color print was that I should take a picture of it and convert it to gray scale. If it did not have strong black and white points with a smooth grayscale gradation somewhere in between, then it needed work.

Like any normal college kid, I did not understand her methodology at the time and I rarely took her advice. It was not until nearly ten years later that her advice finally clicked.

The Contrast Checker Technique

You can use this technique in every aspect of your workflow: beginning, middle, and end. It keeps your contrast in check throughout the process. Rightfully so, it is named “Contrast Checker”.

The photograph below is a tone mapped photo of Kansas City, straight from Photomatix Pro. You should always try to tone map your images so that they are not too dark, too light, too saturated, or too stylized.

DPS Tutorial Image 1

Let’s Check the Contrast you can download the image and follow along if you would like (there is also an Action and a video at the end if you learn better from video)

Step one

Create a new Gradient Map Adjustment Layer to create a Black and White photo.

Step two

Ensure that the Gradient Map is set to Black and White. By default the Gradient Map Adjustment Layer will pull from the colors that you have set as your foreground and background in the tool bar. To ensure they are set to Black and White press the “d” key to reset them to the defaults.

Step three

Make a new Curves Adjustment Layer above the Gradient Map. Your Layers Palette should look like this and your photo should be Black and White.

DPS Tutorial Image 2

Step four

While in the Properties of the Curves Adjustment Layer press and hold “Alt” (Option on Mac) and click the Black triangle on the bottom of the Curve.

Step five

Your photo may turn all white with a little bit of black. This is telling you where black is present in your photo. If your photo is all white with no black specks then your photo currently contains no black point. Move it slightly to the right until more black starts to appear.

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Step six

This is called clipping (no detail). By clipping the blacks you are telling Photoshop what you want black to be in the photo. It is important that you do not take this too far, you want a solid black point in the photo, but you don’t want to destroy your shadows either.

Step seven

Now press and hold “Alt” (Option on Mac) and select the White Triangle.

Step eight

Your photo should turn all black with little specks of white. This is telling you where pure white is in your photo. If your photo is all black with no white specks then your photo currently contains no white point. Move it slightly to the left until more white starts to appear.

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Step nine

Just like the blacks it is important that you do not take this too far to the left as you will be clipping too much of the whites. You are going for just a bit of clipping beyond the specular highlights.

Step ten

The reason you are doing this on a grayscale photograph is to ensure that you are only seeing the clippings of the lights and darks. If you were to do the same thing on a color photograph you would see the clippings for all of the colors within their channels. This makes the process a bit more difficult.

Step eleven

At this point you should already be seeing more drama in your photograph, but you can take it a step further.

Step twelve

Click on the Targeted Adjustment Tool within the Properties of the Curves Adjustment Layer. This allows you to target specific areas of the photo and edit them independently on the tone curve.

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Step thirteen

With the targeted adjustment tool selected, as you hover over the image you will see what is being effected on the tone curve. For this image I started with the lighter colored grass. I clicked on it and dragged the cursor up making it even lighter.

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Step fourteen

I also selected the darker colored grass and moved the cursor down to make it darker.

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Step fifteen

I then selected an area in the sky that was close to white, but contained a little bit of detail, and dragged the cursor up to make it brighter.

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Step sixteen

At this point you should be looking at a black and white photograph with much more contrast than you started with.

Step seventeen

The magic happens when you delete the Gradient Map layer to reveal the Curves effect on the original color photograph.

DPS Tutorial Image 9

Step eighteen

If you are not satisfied with the effect the Curve has on the colors in the photo you may change the Blending Option to Luminosity which will only allow it to effect the tones in the image, protecting the color saturation.

For more tips and tricks and to see how the downloadable action for this process works watch the video tutorial below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Blake Rudis is a self-published author and the host of EverydayHDR and HDR Insider. While his focus has been strong in HDR photography he is most passionate about post processing images in Photoshop and mentoring others. His most recent workflow uses the 11 point Zone System to create compelling photographs. For more information about the Digital Zone System visit Zone-edit.

  • Thank you for the feature DPS!

    Here is the video for the Camera Raw and Lightroom instructions for the same technique:

  • Good stuff Blake. Nice quick way of improving the look of a photo.

  • Thanks Paul.

  • Buck

    Paul, thanks for makin me home sick. Saw many a blues festival around that area. As I have already have purchased the Zone Edit program do I need to d/load this action?

  • This action is in the new System, The Color Zone System, , It is not contained in the Digital Zone System Package from February.

    I love me some Kansas City Skyline!

  • It’s embedded in the article also

  • This one is for Camera Raw using the same technique. I made it shortly before the post went live so that those who do not use Photoshop could emulate it in ACR or Lightroom.

  • sandeep

    Nice article with cool technique..thanks

  • mikeG

    Interesting, thank you!

  • Thanks for the feedback!

  • Great, thanks for checking it out, I do appreciate it.

  • Guest

    I love what this has done for my images! Is there a way to achieve the same thing in Lightroom?

  • Awesome! Glad to hear it!
    There is, if you scroll up to my first comment I posted another video tutorial I did for the same concept but in ACR, which is essentially the same as the LR develop module.

  • I’ve been using this technique for some time now but I’m trying to understand what is the purpose of the Gradient Map Adjustment Layer, can’t the same effect be achieved only using the curves?

  • Thanks for the question, good question too.

    You can use the Curve by itself, however, it is much easier to read the clippings in tones rather than color.

    If you use it without the Grad Map it shows where the colors are clipping instead of where your tones are clipping, which can be more difficult to read. By looking at the image in tones your eye is naturally better at picking out the lightest lights and darkest darks.

    Once you remove the gradient map after you have the good black and white image you will 9.9 times out of 10 have a good color image with some mild tweaking of course.

  • Thanks Blake, my question was a bit dumb, of course you can achieve the same effect, I was trying to ask how is the grad map helping me, but now reading your answer it makes sense and I’ve tried to compare and it’s easier to be honest. Thanks for your answer.

  • Not a dumb question at all. That was a very valid point! Thanks for looking into it.

  • Luke

    Ah, home. What a beautiful picture of our glorious city. Thanks Blake!

  • Thanks! I love that skyline!

  • Martina Selepova

    Wow, this technique is amazing i tried it only quick on random photo i took on my trip before i thoughts its not as bad as it is but wow after that all the details coming out …. i believe this will be my first workflow from now on !!! thank you

  • Martina Selepova

    after and before photo in post

  • Awesome! that is what I like to see. It made a world of difference here. The colors come to life a bit.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Dan McLean

    Great article, I’m still new to photography but this is making a nice difference to my photos, many thanks.

  • Cammy

    This article and video were so helpful. My pictures have taken on a whole new life.
    Thank you!

  • Thanks! So glad you like it. If you need anymore help along the way let me know. My site is in the author bio.

  • SWEET! That is what it is all about right there. So glad I could help!

  • Tim Swain

    Anyway of achieving this in Paintshop Pro?

  • I am not sure. I would have to look at the program to find out. IT may be similar to the way I do it in Adobe Camera Raw.

    The sliders may be different in the programs but the concept should be the same.

    If there is a way to drop the saturation temporarily to allow you to see the black and white photo. You could make tone adjustments to achieve true black and white and then bring the saturation back up.

    Again I would have to see the program to tell you. Great question.

  • Khaz

    great write up. I’m very curious if you have any guidelines for setting up each of 3 exposures in a bracket intended for HDR merging for the most comprehensive map.

  • Thanks! I don’t actually. I typically just drag and drop my RAW images into Photomatix and process the RAWs directly without any pre-processing. But that is an interesting idea. I will look into it!

  • Travel_Bug

    Thanks for your plug-in download and tips – great stuff. Photoshop CS5 doesn’t have a ‘White’ slider in the Raw editor but using the ‘exposure’ slider for white adjustment seems to work pretty well.
    One of the most interesting and useful articles that I have recently read.

  • Thanks! Yeah, with CS 5 I would probably just use the Contrast Technique in PS itself as Camera Raw is a bit different in CS5. Yo udo have to be careful by increasing the Exposure slider, while it does increase the whites, it is also increase the exposure of the entire photo.

    The Whites Adjustment is designed to specifically target whites, while Exposure works on the whole photo globally.

  • flexnz

    wow… great tip. I usually just adjust the curve but this is even better! Thanks!

  • Ted Dudziak

    Thanks, DPS, for republishing this article. A great way to ensure that images will POP. I also discovered a new adjustment means in an already comprehensive suite of tools that PS offers. In this case it is the Targeted Adjustment Tool mentioned starting in Step 12. Thanks for this. Ted

  • Ryadh Bahidj

    Really good article, short, helpful, perfect !

  • Onica Mihai

    AMAZING !!!

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