How to Add Dynamic Clipping Warnings to Photoshop


There are two types of clipping you probably try to avoid introducing into your images during post-production: luminosity clipping (when the brightest areas of an image become white, or when the darkest areas become black), and channel clipping (when the data within an individual channel becomes compromised). Both forms – unless you’ve made a deliberate decision to clip your data – are something to avoid.

As you’ll probably know, Photoshop doesn’t make this easy. The only tool that provides direct feedback on any clipping within an image is the histogram, but it isn’t completely accurate, nor is it dynamic: it updates after you implement a change rather that providing feedback during an adjustment. And while there are quite a few ways that allow you to accurately measure clipping – more of which below – none of the methods are either especially convenient or automatic.

Fortunately, there is a solution – a way to add a set of warnings that will provide real-time feedback on any shadow, highlight, and channel highlight clipping within an image – and I’ll show you how to do so in the remainder of this article.

Before we take a look at the solution though, let’s take a closer look at when and why you should avoid clipping the data in your images.

Luminosity Clipping

As I mentioned above, luminosity clipping is when the highlights within an image are pure white – in Photoshop speak, when the brightest pixels have an RGB value of 255:255:255 – or when the darkest pixel are pure black (RGB 0:0:0).

For some images, this isn’t an issue.

Deliberate highlight clipping (i.e. the background is pure white)

Deliberate highlight clipping (i.e. the background is pure white)

Deliberate shadow clipping (i.e. the background is black)

Deliberate shadow clipping (i.e. the background is black)

In the case of the both the above examples the clipping was added in post using a curve: to clip the highlights in the first image, and the shadows in the second. Equally, especially if you were shooting in a studio, you could blow the background for a high-key portrait, or allow the background to fall to black for a low-key shot.

The key point is that the clipping was deliberate, driven by a creative decision regarding the background.

Here’s a slightly different example.

Deliberate highlight clipping (as shot)

Deliberate highlight clipping (as shot)

For this shot the clipping is less pronounced – it’s confined to the back of his hand, the top of his thumb, and the very bright edge of his clothing across his shoulders – but in this case it was introduced as the shot was taken. This was a back-lit portrait, and while I could have captured all the highlight detail, the only way to do this would have been to massively underexpose his face.

For this image then, because I didn’t want to compromise the detail in his face by underexposing the initial capture, I blew out the very brightest highlights as I took the shot. Again then, the clipping was deliberate, but this time it was driven by a technical decision rather than a creative one.

In all three cases the clipping was a) an intentional strategy, and b) improved the image (for either creative or technical reasons).

On other occasions, clipping can be much less desirable. Take a look at the following three versions of the same image and ask yourself which you prefer:

f1_wm copy

f2_wm copy

f3_wm copy

I would guess that all of you prefer Version 2, as the clouds look very flat in Version 3, while a significant amount of the highlight detail has been clipped in Version 1. In this case then, maximising the tonal range in the brightest areas of the image is clearly a good strategy, but overdoing it by clipping the highlights is not.

So, how can you maximise the tonal range of an image while ensuring that you avoid introducing unwanted highlight or shadow clipping? In the following video I’ll take a look at this in more detail: starting with a summary of three of the common, but ultimately limited ways of judging and avoiding clipping.

From there I’ll go on to discuss a much better method. As you’ll see, it’s more complex, but once you’ve got it set up it’s accurate, and will provide real-time feedback on any highlight and shadow clipping within your images.

Channel Highlight Clipping

So far we’ve taken a look at luminosity clipping – global clipping of either the highlights or the shadows – but there is another form of clipping it’s worth watching out for: highlight or shadow clipping within an individual channel. The following video explains what this is, why it can be problematic, and how to avoid it using a variant of the Photoshop action we took a look at in the previous video.


As I mentioned above, clipping isn’t inherently problematic, so for some images clipping either the highlights or shadows, or both, will be an intentional strategy on your part. What it should never be is an accident, and that’s what the technique discussed in both the videos allows you to avoid: it provides instantaneous feedback, allowing you to decide for yourself whether to incorporate the clipping into your final image, or to avoid it by varying the settings of the adjustments you make.

P.S. If you’d rather not create them yourself, I’ve created ready-made Photoshop Actions for both warnings. You can download them by signing up for the email newsletter of my Photoshop training business Chromasia.

About the author: David Nightingale, an internationally acclaimed, award-winning photographer and instructor, is the Creative Director of Chromasia. You can view his photography on his popular photoblog. This article originally appeared here.

  • Joe Gunawan

    Excellent job! I learned something new!

  • David J. Nightingale

    Thanks Joe, it’s good to hear you found it useful.

  • sikdave

    Awesome, I’ve been searching for a visual clipping warning since they removed it in PS5-PS6. I’ve been using the warnings in Lightroom and CamerRAW to get me there, so painful, but now that pain is gone. Thank you for alleviating my pain :)

  • Brian C

    Very useful post, thank you. I’ve been use the clunky ‘levels and alt-click’ technique for much too long now. Definitely appreciate the actions.

  • David J. Nightingale

    You’re welcome :)

  • David J. Nightingale

    The levels (or curves) alt-click technique does work, and it’s the method I used up until recently, but I’m pleased not to have to anymore :)

  • sikdave

    Thx David. I easily replicated your Luminosity clip warning actions, but haven’t been able to do the same with the colour warning, your second vid doesn’t show how you achieved it. Could you kindly explain the layer setup you’re using? I’ve been playing around with Blend If sliders and the Threshold adjustment layer but it doesn’t work on secondary colours like Purple.

  • David J. Nightingale

    To get the highlight channel clipping warnings you need to set up three additional Threshold layers and use blend if to blend each channel. Why don’t you sign up for the newsletter and grab my version?

  • sikdave

    I tried a few times to sign up to your newsletter, but never received a confirmation email (checked the junk box too), and can’t login. Strange. Will try again. Thx for the response.

  • sikdave

    Got your action set! I was very close with my Blend If sliders… Thanks again David, this is brilliant.

  • David J. Nightingale

    You’re welcome, and it’s good to hear you managed to sign up for the newsletter. Quite a few of the confirmation emails went astray so I decided to disable the confirmation step.

  • Sandy

    Thank you I learned some important stuff! Can you tell how set up our Photoshop like you have it? and save it? I really like how you things arranged

  • Michael Owens

    Yeah, I agree with Joe Gunawan below, that this article is both informative and interesting. I will definitely be saving this page, and using your actions.

    It’s about time, that in three years of browsing this site, that I have actually learnt something worthy. David Nightingale, I applaud you.

  • mitchellhartman

    very cool….thank you David

  • David J. Nightingale

    You’re welcome.

  • David J. Nightingale

    Thanks Michael, I’m glad you like the actions.

  • Yue Yu

    I found it that my English shoud be improved…My poor English…⊙﹏⊙ a pity…

  • Vlad

    Really nice idea! Great tutorial!
    What i have found is that i can use a solid color layer to give the color of the warning, change it’s blending mode accordingly and achieve the exact same result. There is no need for the threshold adjustment and curve to change the color, you can do it in one layer per warning (2 layers for the b&w clipping, 6 layers for the channel clipping).

    Now my only problem is that Photoshop has a bug with GROUP blending options and it does not respect the “Transparency shapes layer” option. So i can’t change the color of the entire warning using a “color overlay” blending option on the group or clip an adjustment/layer to the group, so there’s no quick way to change the warning color to see if it coincides with a color form the image, i have to change all 6 layer colors by hand or create two versions with different color form the action.

    It would be really nice and logical if we had an option under “proof setup”/”gamut warning” to do this thing.

  • David J. Nightingale

    Vlad, yep, somebody else emailed me with the suggestion to use just one layer rather than the Threshold and the Curve, and that would work just as well. The only slight downside is that it takes a bit longer to change the settings (for example, from 255 to 250 for the highlight warning) insofar as you need to right click the layer and alter the blending options. With a Threshold adjustment you just select the layer and change the value in Properties palette. On the whole though, if you don’t plan on changing the settings once you’ve created the layers, yours is probably a better method.

  • Kim

    Nice tutorial, David thanks.

    I managed to ditch the curves layer by setting blend mode to Difference then clicking off the G channel in advanced Blending. Although the only way I could get the low clip warning to work like this was by adding an invert layer.

  • David J. Nightingale

    Thanks Kim, I’m glad you found it useful. And I updated the action since posting the original article, dropping the Threshold layer for the luminosity warnings, so it’s a bit simpler now. Your version sounds interesting too.

  • Kim

    It looks like you can do it using a single layer. New layer, fill with solid colour, say, red. Set blend mode to Difference and swap over the two marker triangles on the Underlying Layer slider at the bottom of the blending options dialog so the white one is to the left, black to the right. Shadows show red, highlights show cyan. You can still adjust the clip limits by adjusting these two sliders.

  • Tim Casey

    Exactly what I wanted mate, THANKS from a retoucher in Sydney, Aus.