Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Photographers: The Ultimate Workshop

Improving Midtone Contrast with Photoshop CS4

Adapted from Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Photographers: The Ultimate Workshop (Focal Press)

By Martin Evening and Jeff Schewe

Smart Object Limitations
You’ll notice here that rather than convert the Background layer to a Smart Object directly, we had to make a duplicate of the Background layer and convert the copy layer into a Smart Object. It shouldn’t always be necessary to do this in order to use Smart Filter layers, but in this instance we had to because the Smart Filter options don’t yet include Blend If sliders (although we wish they did).

Normal image contrast adjustments affect the image globally, but if you wish to improve the contrast in the midtone areas you can use the following two techniques in Photoshop to add more presence to your images.

The first one is designed to specifically target the midtone areas by applying a small, soft halo edge to the midtones only. The second technique allows you to apply a wider, softer halo edge, which can help improve the contrast in areas that have soft detail. The Clarity slider in Camera Raw basically offers a hybrid of these two types of adjustment. By showing here the individual Photoshop methods that make up Clarity, you can learn how to apply more controlled Clarity type enhancements to your photographs. So instead of having just one slider to improve clarity, you can effectively have three slider controls at your disposal. We don’t suggest you need to do this with every image, but you may find with subjects such as softly-lit landscape subjects that these steps give you added control to help make the detail stand out more.

Step 1: Here we wanted to demonstrate how the medium contrast technique could be applied to a photograph as a Smart Filter. To begin with, we dragged the Background layer to the New layer button in the Layers panel. We then went to the Filter menu and chose Convert for Smart Filters.

Step 2: With the Background copy layer selected (which is now a Smart Object), we went to the Filter menu and chose Other > High Pass. It does not matter too much at this stage what value was used here since we were able to re-edit this setting later in Step 4.

Step 3: Now that we had applied the High Pass filter, we needed to change the layer blend mode setting to Overlay. To do this we double-clicked on the Background copy layer, targeting the blank space area (this is the area within the green box and not the thumbnail or the layer name itself). We set the blend mode to Overlay and, at the same time, went to the Blend If options at the bottom and adjusted the ‘This Layer’ sliders so that they were split as shown above: 50/100 150/200 (to set the sliders like this you have to hold down the Option (Alt) key to split them apart).


Step 4: The layer blend changes made in Step 3 meant that the halo effect created in Step 2 was applied to the midtone areas only. At this stage you might want to doubleclick the High Pass filter layer in the Layers panel (circled) to reopen the High Pass filter dialog and fine-tune the Radius setting.

Step 5: Here you can see a close-up view (click to enlarge) showing how the photograph looked after it had been processed using this technique, compared with how it looked before. The difference is quite subtle, but you should be able to see how it has enhanced the contrast in the midtone areas. Note how the ripples in the water are also better defined in the right half of the picture.

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Printed with permission from Focal Press, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2009. "Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Photographers: The Ultimate Workshop" by Martin Evening. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit