Contrast is a fundamental element in photo editing. By applying contrast to an image, you change the luminance, color, and clarity to make it look clearer.
The easiest way to do this in Photoshop is by adjusting the Contrast Slider in Image > Adjustments or in Camera Raw. In most cases, this is the fastest method but the least accurate.
When you increase Contrast to an image, you add more saturation. The colors look unreal, and you start to get haloing around the image and artifacts. You quickly get to see results, but the outcome won’t be of quality.
So how can we add contrast to an image without damaging it in Photoshop? In this article, we break down contrast into 5 different layers and masks. The process won’t take long when you practice it a couple of times.
STEP #1 – Fine Edge Layer
The first layer is a sharpening effect. The Fine Edge feature is used to restore details that maybe are hidden in our photo. The secret here is to select a radius that just shows these extra fine details.
Open the image you want to edit and duplicate the background layer. Then go to Filter > Other > High Pass and move the cursor to a part in the image you can notice details. In our case, I have selected the dog’s eye and the surrounding hair.
Don’t overdo it. Push the slider to see the minimum detail being visible. For this particular image, Radius 1.8 was enough to show up hidden details.
Go to blending mode and select Overlay. You can rename the layer if you want and that’s it. Very simple to do!
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STEP #2 – Black & White Layer
The second step is to create a black and white layer. In this layer, you have many different colors to adjust, depending on the image you’re editing. The image turns black and white, but only for the time, we need to adjust the values. Here’s how you can do it.
Press Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E (on Windows) or Cmd + Alt + Shift + E (on a Mac) to duplicate everything you’ve done so far in a new layer. This will be our second layer in the whole process.
Rename the new layer.
Go to Image>Adjustments>Black & White. A big box with color values will appear.
In this step, you can reduce the reds and increase the yellows for better skin contrast. If you’re editing landscapes or other kind of photos, you can change the rest of the values according to your personal preferences.
When you’re done, click OK and then select Soft Light in blending mode.
Now, turn the Opacity down to 20 or 30% to make the image look more natural.
If we zoom in, we can see the differences between the original photo (IMAGE 15), the first layer (IMAGE 16), and the second layer (IMAGE 17). It already looks better and sharper!
STEP #3 – Color Balance Layer
This layer is used to balance the colors of the image. We create contrast but maintain natural colors. After finishing up, the colors stay the same or become even better at avoiding saturation.
Create a New Fill Layer and select Color Balance.
In the Properties > Tone, select Shadows and increase Cyan +5 and decrease Yellow -5. Then select Midtones and do the opposite. Decrease Cyan -5 and increase Yellow +5.
In IMAGE 20 and 21, you notice the difference in colors. We have increased contrast but managed to control color balance in the photo.
STEP #4 – Curves Layer
Learning how to use Curves in Photoshop is fundamental. This feature can be used solely and will instantly add contrast by making the shadows darker and brighten up the highlights. Follow the next steps to create results quickly:
Create a New Fill Layer and select Curves.
Select Luminosity in blending mode and create an “S curve” in the diagram as it shows on IMAGE 25. If the changes are showing too strong, you can smoothen the effects by reducing the opacity. In this image, I had to reduce it to 50%.
STEP # 5 – Levels Layer
Levels is another great tool in Photoshop that increases brightness, contrast, and tonal range between complete blacks, mid-tones, and complete whites as it shows in the histogram on IMAGE 28. Here’s how you can create it:
Create a New Fill Layer and select Levels.
Adjusting black and white points with Levels Input sliders. To be more accurate, you can hold the ALT key on your keyboard as you slide the points left or right. The key point is, to leave the slider at the exact place where you see a complete black or white image (by holding the ALT key) so you don’t lose detail.
Image Credit: Pexels
Hi, I am John Mak a self-taught landscape, sports and event photographer from Greece. I love nature, traveling and cooking. I’m also a freelance writer. I create content for photography websites and other small businesses. I use Mirrorless Cameras, lenses, gear and I share more about it in my personal website. You can also find me on Instagram @johnmakphotography