Make digital work for you with these easy-to-use tips that solve typical challenges faced in the digital darkroom
By Rob Sheppard
5Lack Of Balance>>Cameras don't capture the world the way our eyes see it. We isolate subjects and define a scene with "image processing" done inside our brains. The camera has always wanted to see a visually flatter image than our minds do, which is why dodging and burning were so important with the classic black-and-white photographers. Later, flash and graduated filters were used to try to better balance brightness levels of a photo to control how a viewer perceived an image.
Digital images often have brightness levels across the photo that are out of sync with the subject and composition. This causes problems for both the photographer and the viewer because brighter areas in a photo attract the viewer's eye. At best, the composition is weakened from inappropriate bright areas conflicting with the subject. At worst, the out-of-balance bright and dark areas fight the composition, and the viewer doesn't like the image.
Solution:Look for unbalanced light and dark areas of the photo, then correct them with adjustment layers that can be painted in and out over the photo. Add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to your photo. (I know, you've heard that you should never use this control; that's true for overall adjustments, but for this balancing work, Brightness/Contrast does exactly the right things.) Set Brightness to about -20; this is arbitrary and can be changed later without hurting the photo. Fill the layer mask of the adjustment layer with black (Edit > Fill > Black) to block the effect of the adjustment (black in a layer mask blocks effects of the layer). Paint in the darkening effect where needed by using a large, soft paintbrush with the foreground color set to white (white in the layer mask reveals or allows the adjustment). You can change the opacity of the brush and/or the layer for more subtle effects. This acts like traditional darkroom burning (or darkening) of a photo with a lot more flexibility; you can paint the effect in or out as needed with white or black paintbrush work.
6Over-Enhanced Shadows>> With Photoshop CS (and recent versions of Photoshop Elements), a new problem cropped up: over-enhanced shadows. The Shadow/Highlight tool (Image > Adjust > Shadow/Highlight) is so simple to use that it's also easy to overuse. Overuse creates odd-looking shadows that don't really match anything seen on this earth. Shadows and highlights always have a visual balance that just doesn't look natural or right if the shadows are brightened too much. Just because you can reveal detail in a shadow doesn't mean you should.
Solution:Set the default Shadows Amount and Tonal Width settings to about 30%. The problem starts with Adobe engineers setting the default for Shadow/Highlight too high. Shadows and Tonal Width at 50% is way too high for most nature photos and will give them a very unnatural look (that's not to say it can never be used; some images will work with that setting, but most don't).
Reset the Shadows and Tonal Width settings to about 30%. Then click on the Save As Defaults button at the bottom of the dialog box. If you need more adjustment, you can always change these settings, but they're a good place to start for nature photographers. Keep the highlights at the same defaults and use them only when needed.