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Tips & Tricks

Highlights vs. Whites | What’s The Difference & When To Use Which?

By Kishore Sawh on March 6th 2016

If the fundamentals aren’t down, the rest is just built on quicksand. Well, that or some other platitude from the top of the grab-bag pile. Whatever, it’s trite but it’s true, and that’s evidenced in our field in more ways than I care to or could share on this page. The problem, of course, is that in our multiple-choice trial and error day of digital learning, many take that route of least resistance and manage to produce some good images, and maybe even start a career that way.

This is all fine and dandy, and if you can make a career out of that way of learning, you’re clearly strong in another set of skills, but you will hit a ceiling. In my experience, that ceiling comes rather quickly and tends to center around limiting efficiency, and hampering creative potential. I often wondered why anyone would choose this trial and error method, and I gather that what is often lacking is an actual resource where people can go to get their questions answered. We would like to be that resource for you and a quick email or comment to us, and we’ll try our best.

In that vein, one of the more common questions I’m asked in regards to post processing deals with some of the absolute basics, such as what is the difference between Highlights and Whites. It’s so simple a question, and yet it’s also profound because, without an understanding of this, one can’t really understand the histogram very well or utilize it to its potential, and won’t really be able to manipulate an image to its full potential. So let’s address it:

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Highlights Vs. Whites

Highlights and Whites are most commonly associated with the basic panel in Lightroom’s Develop module and within Adobe’s Camera Raw. Luckily, they use the same engine, so getting to know one in theory and in practice will carry over to the other.

*As we speak a little about the basic develop panel sliders, it warrants saying that there are those out there who preach that Adobe designed Lightroom in such a manner where the order of the sliders dictates which order they should be manipulated in. This is rubbish.

Highlights and Whites, as you already know, are actually very similar to each other, but know that they are not the same and do not behave the same. Think less identical twins, and just a cousin who looks a hell of a lot like you. These two sliders give you the power to lighten or darken the brightest pixels within your image file.

Highlights

Highlights, if you’ve looked or read elsewhere, will almost always be defined as the brightest area in a photo, but it’s not simply the case, as both sliders affect the bright pixels. Highlights control a slimmer range of tonal values than do the Whites, and absolutely key to understand here is that the Highlights slider will not adjust the white point in the image – only the White slider will do that (or histogram or tone curve but that’s another story).

This is why I tend to suggest setting the Whites before the Highlights, so you can literally set your White Point, your absolute brightest pixels in the image, and the Highlights slider will then basically play within the range the Whites sets.

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You can check this out for yourself by doing a quick test (See images above). Simply go into an image, hold the alt/option key as you move the Whites slider, and you’ll see a clipping mask. Set it to a point where there’s just a little bit of clipping. Now go to the Highlights slider while holding alt/option and do the same and push the Highlights as far as they will go. When you do this, you’ll see that even maxed out, the clipping will not really exceed those set of the Whites.

If we accept that the Whites are controlling the White Point and can push the White Point past the point of detail, then it helps us redefine Highlights. I tend to think of Highlights as being the brightest parts of an image wherein can still be found some degree of detail; that is to say, it’s not a washout. This is why you can use it well to retrieve some cloud detail and so forth. With that in mind, the Highlights Slider then becomes something that you can use to decide the degree to which you want to ‘highlight’ any detail still found in the image.

Whites

Well, most of Whites was described above by default, but whites do generally change the overall brightness of an image along with the white point, and, of course, the change is global. Both of these changes are, and the changes are essentially algorithmic exercises in changing contrast. Try using the White slider or the Highlights slider with a Jpeg to bring back some bright detail and you’ll basically just end up with gray.

One caution, however, is to be careful when changing your Whites particularly as it can really mess with the tones all through the image in ways the Highlights just really won’t; colors come out shifted, and it’s just a mess. That’s not to say don’t use it, as you can sculpt to a high degree with just the Whites and exposure. Try taking a slightly underexposed portrait, drop the exposure down another stop, then up the Whites slider and you’ll see how much pop just doing that can achieve.
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[REWIND: SPLIT TONING | THE ‘SECRET’ IN THE RECIPES FOR MANY ADORED IMAGES, & TOTALLY UNDERVALUED]

As hinted to above, you can use the Tone Curve to adjust the Whites and Highlights also, as the curve can be thought of as an extension of the sliders, but there’s much more precision and depth to the tone curve and most won’t want to use it for the purposes of Whites and Highlights. What seems to catch some eyes and thus, some attention, is that if you adjust using the Tone Curve using the ‘Points Editor’ where you can pick and lock certain values, the Whites and Highlights sliders don’t seem to move, so it would appear you can push them even further – though I don’t know why you would want to.

Hope this helps you find a way to push your edits that much better, that much quicker.

If you made it this far and this is up your alley, as always, I recommend the Lightroom Image Processing Mastery course that teaches you all about adjustment workflow so you can maximize the produce of LR and presets by being a power user.

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

13 Comments

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  1. Raoni Franco

    Anyway, thanks Kishore for another usefull article

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  2. Raoni Franco

    Leica SL + 24-90? Man, you´re into some serious sh*t

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    • adam sanford

      Not surprised at all. Consider: he has gone on record to state that his camera bag’s water bottle is filled with Laphroaig.
      .
      I half expect he has a ‘rider’ for assignments like he’s a rock band. “I arrive only by helicopter”, “I only receive payment in the form of uncut diamonds”, “If I see anything other than yellow skittles in my trailer, I won’t shoot wider than f/5.6”, etc.

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    • Raoni Franco

      All I can say is that I had to look for Laphroaig on Google haha

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Ha ha Adam. Have you been speaking to my clients? Not quite. I’m easier with the Skittles these days, I just get my pizza with panda ear and tiger tail toppings now; get my friends from the pages of HELLO magazine; my smile from a catalogue; my suits from Henry Poole at No.15 on Saville Row, and my eggs from Faberge. ;-)

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    • Matthew Saville

      Also, for a second there I thought you said Tiger poopings. My dyslexia is awesomely entertaining sometimes.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I think you mean brown M&M’s?

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    • Kishore Sawh

      It is some serious sh*t. it is not, however, mine. I’ll be doing some partnering and interesting things with Leica through Leica Miami from now on and this is just a first. Cheers Raoni

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    • adam sanford

      Best comment about the Leica SL I’ve heard (totally SFW):

      https://youtu.be/wu0xNMMhDXY?t=1m10s

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  3. Bill Bentley

    Good explanation Kishore. This is exactly how I do my editing. That alt/option key comes in handy in several instances. I use it for masking in the sharpening panel all the time.

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  4. Matthew Saville

    Thank you for sharing this!

    I think it is becoming a very unfortunate side-effect of the massive editing power that Adobe has given photographers with the latest versions of their raw processing tool. I call it “Adobe-induced over-preserved highlight syndrome” …or if you ARE into the brevity thing, dude, just call the image “Adobe-cooked” and I’ll get the point.

    The HDR craze has inclined folks to use those first two sliders, Highlights and Shadows, for way too much heavy lifting these days. And while rules are meant to be broken, as you’ve pointed out it is impossible to “go there” unless you first have that solid foundation and understanding of HOW you’re “going there”, and of course WHY.

    Personally, I’m still a fan of the good ‘ol tone curve! I wish Lightroom could put a gigantic tone curve (and the rest of my Develop Module Tools) on a 2nd display.

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    • adam sanford

      Why do you hate my signature single shot HDR method, Matthew? I just take pictures in terrible shooting conditions and make ’em look awesomer with those sweet sliders.
      .
      Skies *should* resemble sunrise at Chernobyl. Thank you, highlights slider. You’re the man.
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      Darkness in bushes in the corner of the frame? P’shaw. Just a blast of the Shadows slider and *I see you now*!

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    • Matthew Saville

      You know, it’s funny, these days I consider a camera sensor “inadequate” for the landscape work I do if I can’t get clean results from a maximum slider push. (+100 to both Shadows and Blacks, -100 to both Highlights and Whites, and then maybe +/-2 EV worth of actual exposure compensation)

      And yet, lately I’ve actually been dialing it way back with my processing, trying to keep it natural and subtle, and only preserve dynamic range in a realistic looking manner.

      Everybody’s style evolves, I guess. And it never hurts to have a more capable tool at your disposal.

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