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Soft Light or Hard Light at Hell's Gate?


The view of Hells Gate from Middlehurst, South Island, New Zealand.
Phase One XF 100MP, 60 seconds @ f12, ISO 50, ND filter


A popular Photoshop technique to great perceived sharpness and detail is to use a High Pass filter on a copy layer and change the blend mode to soft light. It creates a similar effect to the clarity slider found in Lightroom, ACR and Capture One. However, there are lots of variations in the technique, including the different blend modes which I want to discuss here.


The photo above is a long exposure taken on my Phase One XF with the amazing 100-megapixel IQ3 sensor, processed in Capture One and then finished in Photoshop. To create the 'sharpness' in the mountains, I applied the High Pass technique with hard light to the lower foothills, but this strength was too much for the crags up above. The solution was to copy the layer and change the blend mode to soft light, adjusting the mask accordingly.


A similar result could be achieved using the clarity tool in Lightroom with the Adjustment Brush and Capture One with its Local Adjustments.


So, what is the difference between soft and hard light? Take a look at the following comparisons on the website.



The first image compares no adjustment with the High Pass filter set to Soft Light mode.


The second comparison shows the difference between soft light and hard light blend modes. You can also try Vivid Light, but that may be a little strong. However, just as important as the blend mode is the radius you choose for the High Pass filter.



So, what's the technique? Copy up a new layer based on everything you have done so far - Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Opt + Shift + E should do the trick. Now you have a new pixel layer that looks exactly the same. Convert it to monochrome - Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + U or Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. Now apply the High Pass filter (Filter > Other > High Pass), choosing an appropriate radius. A small radius of one or two pixels is what you want for sharpeness, while for local contrast effects you can go much, much stronger. After the filter is applied, change the blend mode of this layer to Soft, Hard or Vivid Light and see what happens!


And if you're interested in a photography workshop in the next 12 months, I have trips going to Arnhemland, Iran, Greenland/Iceland and Mexico. Full details on the Better Photography website!


Peter Eastway Uses

Peter Uses

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