Saturday, May 11, 2013

Midtone Contrast

This is my favorite Photoshop processing technique at the moment: boosting Midtone Contrast using the Unsharp Mask filter. Increasing Midtone contrast removes what looks like a hazy film over your image and I think makes images look much more vibrant.

I haven't posted too much about my processing workflow yet since I’m still significantly tinkering with it. Regardless of what I'm trying though, I add this step somewhere along the way. I've been using this technique for several years, and have yet to find another method I like better. The good news is that Unsharp Mask should be compatible with most any version, even ancient versions, of Photoshop.

Unsharp Mask Midtone Contrast Technique
Since the technique uses an Unsharp Mask filter, I first create a new merged layer (ctrl+alt+shift+e on a PC) to preserve the original background image.

Then select Filter => Unsharp Mask  (optionally, make the layer a smart object first)

The settings for Unsharp Mask have nothing to do with sharpening. Instead, you will do something strange, very strange. The basic template is to essentially make the Radius much bigger than the Amount (and leave the Threshold very low; I like 0).

Unsharp Mask Settings:
  • Radius to the max : 250
  • Threshold to the min: 0 
  • Then vary the Amount to taste.

I start with Amount: 5, but have been known to push it up past 40 depending on the image (for big moves above 10, I sometimes prefer to repeat the process on subsequent Filter layers for a smoother effect, but did it all in one for this example).

Midtone Contrast Example
Left: Original
Right: After Midtone Contrast enhancement 
Unsharp Mask settings shown (Amount:40; Radius 250; Treshold: 0)

Quiet Morning Waves,  Copyright Laura A Knauth

This midtone contrast technique has helped me so much; I don't notice any weird haloes compared to other approaches. I had thought this Unsharp Mask technique was just a poor-man's version of the Clarity slider, but when I finally upgraded to Photoshop CS5, I was so dissapointed at the haloes introduced by the vaunted Clarity slider in Adobe Camera Raw. Turns out, I like the old Unsharp Mask approach for boosting midtone contrast much better!

Caveat: The one big drawback for this approach in my workflow is that this technique uses a filter, not an adjustment layer. Even using 'Smart Objects' in later versions of Photoshop does not really help because it doesn't change the fact that any further tweaks you may make to adjustment layers below this image will no longer propagate to future adjustment layers. For this reason, I try to use this technique at the very start of my flow and then build any adjustment layers on top of it. I might also apply this filter again at the very end to recover clarity lost when reducing the image size for the web.

Second Approach to Midtone Contrast
I also like improve midtone contrast with High Pass filter described below, but it unfortunately has similar potential halo issues like the clarity slider.
  • Create a new Merged Layer (on a PC: ctrl+shift+alt+e )
  • Create Smart Object    (optional, if you have it)
  • Filter => Other => High Pass
  • Set Amount to 50-ish (if it's a smart filter, then you can change this later)
    • Unfortunately, this can also introduce some haloes.
    • I usually spend time trying to clean them up in subsequent layers.
  • Set Blend Mode to Overlay (or Soft Light, or play around with it)
  • Tweak the Layer Opacity to taste
  • Optional: Double click the layer to bring up the dialogue and pull in the Blend If sliders to taste
    • Use Alt to click & drag on the inner most part of the sliders to separate them (according to taste; I usually find a separation of around 30-50 works best for me)
      • This preserves the extreme highlights or shadows

Wrapping It Up
Most of my other processing techniques are in a huge state of flux right now. I've been spending an embarrassing amount of hours tinkering and experimenting. I even just bought a book about the strange and mysterious world of LAB mode - yikes, wish me luck! (And by all means, post any photo processing tips you are willing to pass along, related to midtone contrast or otherwise.) So far, through it all, this Unsharp Mask method of enhancing midtone contrast has been a quick and reliable mainstay for just about every image I process.

Hope this technique helps you too!

-by Laura A Knauth

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