‘Smearing Shadows’ For More Pleasing High-Contrast Looks

April 14, 2023

Colorist Cullen Kelly explores a technique for sculpting rich, soft, and filmic shadows on high-contrast looks for a more pleasing effect.

Using Luma keys and Lift/Gamma corrections to soften high-contrast looks

We’ve all got our favorite techniques for fine-tuning the dark areas of our image, but oftentimes I find there’s a certain filmic shape I struggle to get in my shadows. Today are exploring a technique for sculpting rich and soft shadows.

Using film print looks as inspiration

One of the signature traits of a film print is the combination of strong contrast through the midtones with a “roll” in the highlights and shadows, creating a bold yet detail-rich image. This aesthetic can be achieved in many ways, but today we’re going to explore a highly effective technique I borrowed from Company 3 Senior Colorist Tom Poole. For lack of a better term, we’ll call it “shadow smearing” – a name I promise will make more sense after today’s Insight!

Key takeaways from this Insight

By the end of this Insight, you should understand how to:

  • Create a soft shadow qualifier and “smear” the high and low values closer together
  • Visualize a qualified lift/gain adjustment as a curve

Related Mixing Light Insights

Questions or Comments? Leave a comment!

Is this Insight useful to you? Let us know! Mixing Light is all about community discussions, and we’re curious if you found this helpful, if you have something to add, or if you need more questions answered?

– Cullen

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Homepage Forums ‘Smearing Shadows’ For More Pleasing High-Contrast Looks

  • Jim Robinson

    Cullen, I know that you aren’t a big fan of the HDR tool, but this kind of manipulation of a dedicated zone area, is what I would use it for.
    The difference seems to be subjective, but I think even though the luma part of qualification is probably the best option in the qualifier as to not having a negative affect, in my opinion it can still create chatter, as the light hits certain levels.
    So it can work as you show here for that purpose. But using a qualifier has me pixel peeping my way through every frame looking for the qualification where it is showing failure. I am a bit paranoid, because I have been burned by a client in the past. Bit embarrassing when they asked me what that noise is in the corner of the frame. I knew at that point that telling that person that it was a bad qualification, would not sound very professional. So I just thanked him for pointing it out, and took responsibility for the error.
    The HDR tool you can finetune just for this exact purpose, and nail the point where it gets applied, do the edit, then use the roll off part of the wheel to smoothly roll off the edit, and blend back into the grade ( smearing the shadows ).
    But that’s one of the reasons I love Resolve, there always seems to be several ways to get from point A to B. And it’s a great learning experience finding all the different methods of getting there.

    • This reply was modified 1 month, 2 weeks ago by  Jim Robinson.

    • Tony Salgado


      Good points. When grading using a 24″ reference monitor it is easy to overlook qualifier chatter only to discover it later when viewed on a larger 55″ LG CX monitor. Using qualifiers may require additional QC work prior to rendering the deliverables.

      • This reply was modified 1 week, 4 days ago by  Tony Salgado.
    • Jim, thanks for the alternate method to get the same thing done. Always the alternative, isn’t there? But some are better than others for certain things. I like this one.

  • hmmmm…I judge that a lot has changed in the last few years regarding what constitutes a pleasing image. For sure, there’s a lot to be said for the quality that is really a legacy of the days of celluloid.

    For my taste, and maybe that’s just FYI and not educational, I dislike the raising of black levels, to my eye, which appears milky. I like a definite “blackness” that is indicative of a slight amount of crushing to the image.

    No doubt, this is a very aesthetic choice. I just suggest that those folks that were born into the digital age, unfamiliar with film aesthetic, would prefer the rich blackness. Again, just my opinion.

  • Jamie Neale

    I use something similar to create volume in the shadows and highlights. The other thing I do regularly is use a very subtle blur to create more textural contrast between the mids and everything else.

  • Thanks Cullen. How would one achieve this without using the LGG wheels, if in ACES log for example? After targeting the zone then perhaps use the hdr palette dark / shadows controls? Anyway, thanks for this insight.👍

  • This technique reminded me of a related demo I saw on Lowepost to ‘gather’ the shadows which, although not quite the same, would avoid using the qualifier. Basically lifting the shadows with a toe in the curves, then dropping them a bit in the next node. Wondered what people think of this method –

    L03 for those with a subscription…


    (sorry to plug the competition website here!)

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