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How I boost shadows and recover details in my images

When I shoot events, I rarely have great (let alone perfect) lighting. That’s why I had to find an efficient way to edit my photos that could get the most out of my RAW files. Here’s one of my favorite technique to boost shadows, recover details in highlights and bring my very own style to my images.

My secret weapon: Aurora HDR 2019

When I am in very difficult lighting conditions — be it bright sunlight or harsh indoors light — I have to get over it and do my job anyway. I know I’ll have to deal with it later in post-production but that doesn’t bother me at all: I’ve got what it takes!

I’ve recently covered a powerlifting meet that was hosted in a Congress Center. Needless to say, the dimmed lights weren’t suited at all for any kind of photography. When I got home, I was kind of discouraged with some portraits that had very harsh shadows under the eyes and nose. Well, the portraits WERE great … the problem was the light!

I imported the problematic files into my ultimate-exposure-recovery-weapon (Aurora HDR) and BOOM! There was light! (In both kind of ways.) That might be hard to believe but it took me like … five minutes to edit. Here are the simple steps I did.

The image straight out of the camera.

1. Open Aurora HDR 2019 and let it work its magic

I dragged and dropped the raw file straight into the software and let it work its magic. Aurora’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) is probably more intelligent than I am. Here’s what it did right off the bat:

After Aurora’s AI magic.

You can instantly see how much details have been recovered in highlights (face and arms) and in the shadows beneath the athlete’s eyes and nose. While shadows are still present, they are now much softer. I was really pleased just with this edit and could’ve exported it that way. But as I love to add my very own style to an image, I decided to push the envelope a little more.

2. Adding layers and filters

I like to stack multiple layers to personalize my work. For this image, I went for six different filters stacked on four different layers. Here’s how it goes:

Adjustment Layer 1: Colors

I lowered the vibrance and toned down the reds in the HSL filter just a little.

Adjustment Layer 2: Details

Details are very important in my sports photography. I want to see as much sweat/dirt/chalk as I can (without overdoing it of course)! On this second layer, I combined the HDR Enhance (Clarity / Smart Structure / Microstructure sliders) with the HDR Details boost filters. Then, I paint this whole layer straight on the athlete. There’s no need to add more definition to the background as I like it as blurry as possible to isolate my subject.

Adjustment Layer 3: LUT mapping

I love the native LUTs choice Aurora offers. I went for the one named “Glorious” and toned down to 67 instead of 100.

Adjustment Layer 4: Vignette

Once again, this helps me separate my subject from the background. I choose to apply it on separate adjustment layer because that allows me to erase some specific dark sections caused by the vignette (like on the top of the head and at the bottom of the arms).

Here’s the final result:

What I like with this workflow is — like most of the other great editing software — I can always save the Aurora file and come back after hand if I’m not satisfied or if I’d like to modify any layer or filter.

Here’s a side by side comparison of the before and after result:

Conclusion

Not only have I been able to pull out details and texture from the shadows and highlights like chalk, hair, beard and shirt, but I’ve also added the Sports Grit look I love so much on my athlete’s portraits at the same time. All it took was five minutes, four layers and a single software!

If you’d like to give it a try for your own images, you can download the free 30-day trial version or buy it right now for $99 USD.

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