Using Tonal Contrast to Make Street Scenes “Pop”

(disclaimer: this HDR image is somewhat heavily processed, and is borderline surreal, and there’s nothing wrong with that)

I am a huge fan of Color Efex Pro from Nik Software.  If you are not familiar with it, the high-level summary is that it is a collection of various filters which you can apply to any photo, and then within the filter you can customize the intensity of various settings.  It’s very powerful.

It’s an essential piece of software for me – in fact, literally every HDR that I process, and most other shots, get some sort of treatment with Color Efex Pro.  It’s that powerful and versatile.

One of my favorite filters in the product is called Tonal Contrast.  I use it quite a lot – it’s part of my standard HDR workflow.  It really does a great job of bringing a scene to life.

I recently posted an HDR of a street scene from Brussels, Belgium and white bouncy castle had some questions about the shot from various folks.  It was shot under drab skies, and since it was a street scene there was a lot of “texture” in the photo – cobblestones on the street itself, bricks in the building, etc.

So, I thought that I could use that as an example of how I use the Tonal Contrast filter in Color Efex Pro.  Just to be clear – this is not a full tutorial, and I am not going into the Photomatix piece of it at all.  I figured people might find it interesting to dive into this filter a bit, and see how it works.

For starters, this is a 7 exposure HDR, and for comparison purposes here is the 0 exposure which is straight from the camera:

And since I am skipping the building of the basic HDR image, here is the result that Photomatix gave me:

So as you can tell, the Photomatix output is way more interesting than the original 0 exposure, which makes a lot of sense.  But to my eye the HDR still lacks any real “punch”.  It’s pretty flat, though that is exactly what I want Photomatix to give me.  I want the output to be flat, so that I can control what adjustments are done, and where.  Let’s get into Color Efex Pro and use the Tonal Contrast filter now.

Here’s a screenshot of the menu (note that the settings currently selected are from my last photo that I adjusted with Tonal Contrast – I will change it for this photo).  As you can see, you have the option to adjust Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows.  It is a sliding scale.  You literally just slide it around until you get it looking the way that you want it to look.  It’s a simple menu, and frankly a simple filter to use.  That’s all good!

There is also Saturation, though I rarely make saturation adjustments here, preferring instead to make them in Aperture, which I use for those sorts of things.  And if you use any Nik products, you will recognize the Control Points which are always an option.

Also, there is a dropdown menu for choosing the Contrast Type: Standard, High Pass, Fine, Balance, or Strong.  For this photo (and in most cases, though not all) I am choosing Standard.

So, onto the sliders.

For no reason other than it is at the top, I start with the Highlights slider.  This one I find very important for keeping your skies clean.  Since skies are often the brightest part of a photo anyways, if you slide too far to the right with this one, you can get some seriously blown out spots in the sky, not to mention some weird clouds.  For this photo, I experimented and ultimately landed on about -18%.  That gave me enough interest in the sky (and it was a cloudy day, so that helped emphasize the clouds) and a little more “texture” in the clouds too.

Next up is the Midtones slider.  This one is probably my favorite (and most powerful), because it typically has the most impact on how a photo looks (there are lots of midtones).  As I mentioned above, I went somewhat surreal on the processing here, so after some experimentation I ended up with the slider pretty high up there to the right, at 74%.  This gave the photo a lot of “punch” in terms of bringing out the textures in the cobblestone street and the brick wall.  It also tends to punch up the highlights a bit, so just be careful.  Likewise, if you slide way to the left, the entire photo starts to look flat again.  Like I said, this one is powerful, but to me it’s the primary reason I use this filter on these types of shots.

This one also had the nice benefit of casting a little brightness onto the mid-right of the photo – basically, the area around the restaurant on the right of the photo, with the man standing in front looking towards me.  I liked that effect, as it was the focal point of the shot for me anyways.  So that put some additional emphasis there.

Lastly, there is the Shadows slider.  I like this one a lot too, but it does not have as much of a dramatic impact on the shot that Midtones has.  In this case, I slid it to the right to 52%.  Much further than that and you start to get overly shadowed shadows, if that makes sense.  In other words, if I go too far, the little shadows around the windows, door, and the chairs start to really get big and dark – too dark for me, even in an image that is pushing the edges of reality a bit.  So I kept that one in check a bit.

The other nice thing about Color Efex Pro is the histogram at the bottom.  As you can see, this one is mostly balanced at this point, which is nice.

Also, another great thing about Color Efex Pro v4 (which is the current version) is that now you can “stack” filters.  In the older versions you had to Save and then re-open the product again to use another filter.  Nowadays you just click on “+ Add Filter” and then select your next filter from the lengthy list on the left.

For this photo, I also went back and added a little Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Glamour Glow to finish it off.  Below is the finished product.  While I have skipped over the settings for the other filters that I used, I feel like the majority of the “look” of the finished product is due to using the Tonal Contrast filter.  It’s a very powerful filter, and when put to good use can produce some dramatic results!

Here’s the finished photo:

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!

JJim Nix is a photographer, traveler, HDR enthusiast, explorer, iPhone shooter, and tea drinker based in Austin, TX. He shares his photos and travel experiences on his blog at

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