Right there in the middle of the Basic panel are two mysterious controls bearing the names “Whites” and “Blacks.” What do they do? More to the point, how are they used? First, let’s explore clipping.
What is clipping?
Simply, clipping is the area of a photo that is pure white or pure black. Not everything in an image is meant to show detail. There are areas where detail must appear in both their highlights and shadows. Other areas want to be completely white or black. The “Whites” and “Blacks” are how to set the brightest white and darkest black while seeing where detail will be lost. Frankly, these are the two controls I use first, on every photograph. Often they are the only exposure adjustments I make.
The Whites control
There are parts of a photograph that aren’t going to have detail, nor are they supposed to. The reflection of the sun in a chrome bumper on a classic car, the light streaming into a room on a bright clear sky day or spotlights in a retail store. In the Beetle example, here’s what the Whites look like before adjusting the Whites and Blacks.
Let’s dig into the opening photo of the classic Volkswagen Beetle. The areas that you would expect to see go to pure white or completely black are outlined in red.
This one is so easy to use. Hold down the Option key (Windows: Alt key) and click the Whites slider. The preview goes black except for those areas that are pure white in the photo. Note that the Beetle’s hood highlights are dots, not the long strips seen in the original. Move the slider to the right. The whites grow from the black preview. As soon as the brightest highlights are showing on the screen release the mouse.
Tip: Preview the effect by releasing then pressing Option/Alt.
Areas that appear white in the preview are completely white in the photo. An area that shows only red, for example, is saying that the reds are as bright as they can be. This says “there is no detail in the reds.”
The Blacks adjustment
Some shadows are going to be black. The inside of the tire and the shadow underneath the car are examples. The Blacks slider works the same way as the Whites with two exceptions. Hold down the Option key (Windows: Alt key) then click the Blacks control. This time the preview turns white. Move the slider to the left to make the areas that are supposed to be black actually black.
Black areas in the white preview are black. Pure black. No detail at all. A color that shows in this preview is as dark as it can be. Zero detail. So if an area is shown in blue, to pick a color, that blue is completely gone. There simply is no blue there.
The neglected adjustments
Most photographers mistake the Whites and Blacks controls for contrast adjustment. They are not, although moving the black slider to the left a lot seems like it. The Contrast slider controls contrast. These two set the brightest and darkest areas of a photograph.
My primary controls
I find that these two sliders have become the ones I use the most on properly exposed photos. It’s easy to see where detail is needed in an image. Highlights have to be white. Shadows, where no detail is needed, have to be black. Beware of this one though. It is super tempting to horse the Blacks to be, well, black. Once the raw file is converted to pixels those shadows are locked in as blocked up. They cannot be effectively lightened. Look at the white preview for the Blacks slider. Release the Option/Alt key. Is the area that is showing as black supposed to be that dark? Do you really want the auburn hair behind the model’s ear to be completely black? Probably not.
The two photos below are the original from the camera on the left and with only the Whites and Blacks modifications on the right. The difference is dramatic.
Check out these two tools. I know you’ll love the results.