Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Color Secrets

Exploring with the wide end of the focal spectrum opens up a world of creative compositional possibilities


Blacks And Whites. Most photos need a pure black and a distinct white for the viewer's eye to fully appreciate the tonal qualities of a photo. Such black and white points or areas also have a strong effect on color. Because you're often dealing with multiple areas in a photo that are black or white, these are usually referred to as the plural, blacks and whites.

You can adjust blacks and whites simply in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. Open Levels (Image > Adjustments> Levels); then, while pressing the Alt/Option key, click on the black slider under the histogram and move it to the right. As long as the Alt/Option key is pressed, the Levels screen will turn white when you start to move the black slider.

This is the blacks threshold screen. Whatever shows up as black is where pure black will show up in your image. The colors show where a color channel is maxing out on the dark side. You can move the slider until the blacks just start to show as little specs or you can go farther and make shadows deeper. A foggy day usually won't have a solid black—don't expect that.

Next, press the Alt/Option key, click on the white slider and move the slider to the left. The screen now turns black, showing you the white threshold screen. You'll see little bits of white and color as you move the slider. The white is where areas are pure white; colors show where a channel has maximum brightness for a color. With whites, you usually don't want to go very far with their adjustment or you'll lose color in the bright areas. I typically move the slider left until whites just start to show and stop.

This doesn't apply to bright, specular highlights (such as those found on water, for example), where the sun glints off of an object. This will always be pure white and probably should be, unless it's over too large an area. Avoid taking pictures that give you the latter.

These same adjustments are possible in Camera Raw. Shadows works like the black slider with Levels, while Exposure acts like the white slider. You also hold down the Alt/Option key while adjusting.

With blacks and whites set, you can now better evaluate color. Remember,too, that black and white points are subjective and you can make the areas of blacks and whites larger or smaller in your photos for a specific interpretation of the image. Also, as you use this control, colors are affected beyond just their relationship to black and white. In most nature photography, this is a benefit and not something to worry about.

Adjust Midtones. Now you want to make the overall photo look bright or dark enough, whatever is appropriate to your subject, by adjusting the midtones. You shouldn't touch the blacks and whites; that's why I suggest doing a midtone adjustment as a totally separate adjustment (for example, if you're using the midtone slider of Levels) or adjustment layer.

The best way to adjust your midtones is to use Curves in Photoshop or Curve in Camera Raw. If you're using Photoshop Elements, you don't have curves, though; you'd use the middle gray slider in Levels. If you're using Camera Raw, you can use Brightness. These tools don't provide as much control, however.


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