Here is a comparison of the original photo and the photo with this adaptive contrast tutorial applied. The image now has higher contrast without blowing out the shadows on the hiker’s backpack and the highlights in the distance.
Below is a comparison between increasing contrast normally and using this adaptive contrast technique. Without the layer mask, the shadows and highlights are blown out.
Below are examples of the adaptive contrast effect with an inverted layer mask applied to a portrait. The layer mask is inverted because we want to preserve the skin tones. That way, the contrast is only increased in the highlights and shadows.
Below is a comparison between the contrast enhancement with and without a layer mask. The image on the left shows how the image would look like without a layer mask. The image on the right shows the same contrast but with the adaptive contrast technique applied. The contrast is increased only in the hair and the highlights of the skin; the midtones in the skin are preserved to keep it looking natural.
Adaptive Contrast Photoshop Action
Repeating this process may take a lot of effort. Now that you know how this effect works, why not use a Photoshop action instead? To use the Photoshop action:
- Download the Adaptive Contrast Photoshop action and save it to your computer.
- Run Photoshop and choose Window > Actions. Click on the Actions palette menu near the top right of the Actions palette and choose “Load Actions”.
- Browse for the file you downloaded then click OK.
- In the Actions palette, open the “Adaptive Contrast” folder and select one of the two actions. One of the action will preserve highlights and shadows. Choose this action if you want to restore hidden details. The other action will preserve the midtones. Choose this action if you want a more dynamic effect that will blow out the highlights and shadows but not the midtones. Click on the play button near the bottom of the Actions palette and watch Photoshop apply the Adaptive Contrast effect.