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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Make It Just Right

Turn your good images into your best images by using Photoshop to bring out those details that are too bright or too dark

Make It  Just Right

Layer MasksThis Article Features Photo Zoom

Do you have that potentially great shot sitting on your hard drive, ready to be made into a beautiful print or sold to some publication that could really use such a brilliant image? Except for one little problem. The photo is too dark or too light to be used in those ways. Maybe it’s not even the whole photo, but just a part of it; but that part is too important and serves as a distraction to the overall image.


make it just right We all have images like these. I’ve had images that were too dark because I forgot to reset my auto bracketing, and the camera gave me a dark shot just when I didn’t need it. Or I’ve ended up with big, bright areas of sky because the ground was just so dark that I couldn’t expose properly for both areas and, of course, I forgot to bring my graduated neutral-density filter.

This is a common problem for most photographers. No matter how much we study and practice the craft, we sometimes end up with images that we like, but that need some work. I work hard to get the best exposures I can, but to be honest, I sometimes get excited by a scene as the light is changing and I seem to regress as a photographer to some earlier point-and-shoot stage.

What can you do? Solutions to the dilemmas of dark or light photos can be found in most image-processing software. I’ll show you some of my favorite techniques in Photoshop, though these techniques work just fine in Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro and other programs.

Part 1

When A Photo Element Is Too Bright
Dealing with picture details that have lost proper tonality and color because of too much exposure

Make It  Just Right

Figure 1

As soon as exposure increases too much, color washes out and you start to lose important tonalities for your subject. This can happen from mistakes in exposure or dealing with a scene that can’t be properly imaged with your camera’s sensor. Here’s a photograph of the common yellow sneezeweed in Yosemite National Park in California. I was overcompensating for the bright sun and overexposed the shot. I didn’t check it right away because the bright light made the LCD hard to read (that’s why you should always evaluate exposure with the histogram).

Make It  Just Right

Figure 2

I like the limited depth of field on a wide-angle close-up of these flowers. It gives the photo character and a lot of depth. I used a full-frame fisheye up close to get the dramatic look of the background trees in the photo. Too bad the color and tonalities don’t match that drama. Neither Levels nor Curves can do the optimum job correcting this sort of photo.

There’s an easy fix, but you need to have a rudimentary understanding of layers. Layers scare a lot of photographers, but they’re worth the effort of learning. This is such a simple use of layers, that it might be a good place to start.

Make It  Just Right

Figure 3

You need to add an adjustment layer. Which one doesn’t matter because you’re not using it for its adjustment capabilities, but for its blending-mode possibilities. Choose Levels to start because it’s one you can use for added adjustment if needed (Figure 1). I like to use the adjustment layer icon for selecting such a layer—this is the black-and-white circle at the bottom of the Photoshop Layers palette. You also can get adjustment layers from the Layer menu.

Make It  Just Right

Figure 4

When the Levels dialog box appears, click OK without changing anything. You’ll probably see a big gap in the Levels histogram on the left side, indicating no blacks (Figure 2). You don’t need to make any adjustments for blacks at this point. That will come. You end up with a Levels adjustment layer in your layer stack, but it isn’t doing anything at this point (Figure 3).

Make It  Just Right

Figure 5

Now go to the layer blending modes by clicking on or to the right of the word Normal at the top left of the Layers palette (Normal is the default for blending modes). A drop-down menu appears with a long list of words. It would be nice if you could turn off all except the key modes for photographers, but you have to search the whole list for what you need.

Choose Multiply, which is near the top in a group of modes that all make a photo darker. This immediately turns your photo dark and instantly dramatic (Figure 4)! It even brings the blacks in line where they should be on most photos (you always can check by using Levels in another layer). The layers are talking to each other and the underlying photo is being intensified. This is a bit like sandwiching two pale slides together to get one with more density (Figure 5).



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