Common Digital Problems & Their Solutions

Make digital work for you with these easy-to-use tips that solve typical challenges faced in the digital darkroom

Common Digital Problems & Their SolutionsIsn't it about time you make digital work for you? Let's face it, there are so many pressures to consider today, from buying the "perfect" camera to using Photoshop the "right" way. There are a number of common digital challenges that I've seen in magazine submissions, contests and workshops—challenges that affect nearly everyone, from pro to amateur, working digitally. Get a handle on them and make digital work for you with the solutions outlined here.

1 Lack Of Blacks >> Blacks have a huge effect on color and tonality in a photograph. Weak blacks can be a serious problem with digital images and often will frustrate photographers accustomed to solid blacks from film. (Note: There's really only one black or white possible, but the plural, blacks and whites, is often used because it refers to the multiple areas of pure black or white in an image.)

There are many reasons why your digital image might not have the proper blacks and whites—for example, image flare and atmospheric effects—and certain cameras just don't capture a solid black.

Common Digital Problems & Their SolutionsConsistently, I find that digital photographers, from pros to photo enthusiasts, have weaker color than necessary because blacks and whites aren't set properly in the image. A caution, though: Some scenes, such as a foggy landscape, shouldn't have strong blacks.

Set your blacks in Levels by checking the black threshold.
Set blacks by holding down the Alt/Option key (all two-name references like this refer to Windows/Mac names) as you move the left black slider in Levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels) (all menu notations in parentheses are for Photoshop). This gives you a threshold screen that shows exactly what's black (colors are maxed-out areas of color channels).

Common Digital Problems & Their SolutionsThe setting of blacks is very subjective; you must decide what your photograph needs. Try different approaches to the blacks and see how the image changes. As blacks get stronger, the photo will get darker and will need some midtone adjustment (use the middle gray slider in Levels, or better, Curves).

Whites are set similarly by using the Alt/Option key with the right, white slider. In general, be cautious about making too many areas pure white.


Note On Adjustment Layers: It's worth learning to use adjustment layers for all of the adjustments described here rather than simply adjusting the photo pixels directly. The adjustments work the same, but you control them better with layers because you can adjust and readjust as needed without any quality issues, plus you can limit the adjustments on and off parts of a photo with the use of the associated layer masks


Common Digital Problems & Their Solutions

2 Murky Midtones >> Midtones affect the brightness and luminosity of an image, which also control how the viewer sees colors in it. They're the next step in a digital image-processing workflow after setting blacks (and whites). If they aren't set properly, any other adjustment is just a band-aid approach to fix the image and won't give optimum color.

The midtone-adjusted shot really brings us to a new era for color—being able to open up colors and tones that we didn't always see clearly in a photo before. Some photographers say they're shooting "pure" and don't adjust their digital images, similar to how they shot slide film. In this case, however, "pure" doesn't mean accurate—a straight image from a digital camera is a camera engineer's interpretation of the scene. In fact, that "pure" shot may be worse than what slides offered (I often see this from photographers shooting for publications who are getting worse color from digital than they did from film).

Common Digital Problems & Their SolutionsPhotoshop can be used to gain better photographer control over images so they more accurately reflect the scene or give a more dramatic interpretation. Either way, midtone adjustment is critical.

Adjust your midtones as a new adjustment made specifically for them. You can use the middle slider of Levels to adjust midtones, though better tonal control is possible by using Curves (Image > Adjustments > Curves). Still, using either technique makes Photoshop work for you. It's important that you make your midtone adjustment after the blacks/whites and as a separate adjustment. You need to see your midtones changing separately from other adjustments.

An easy way to start using Curves is simply by opening the adjustment, then clicking on the center of the diagonal line and moving it up to lighten midtones, down to darken. If light areas get too bright, click up on the upper part of the line and pull it back toward the middle. If dark areas get too bright, click on the lower part of the line and pull it back toward the middle (or even past it).


How Much To Adjust: Be careful about making too strong adjustments, especially when working with images shot in JPEG (you have more flexibility in adjustments with RAW). Watch your histogram—if you get a lot of breakup in it (it looks like a comb), beware of banding in the photo. You may need to back off some adjustments if banding occurs.


Common Digital Problems & Their Solutions3 Oversaturation >> The saturation control of Hue/Saturation is like the mythological sirens calling photographs to their death on the rocks of harsh, unnatural and too intense colors for the scene. Because digital images direct from the camera often don't match what photographers were used to with colorful print and slide films, they often jumped on the saturation adjustment to try for a "Velvia look." A little seemed good, so more was seen as even better. Unfortunately, this often led to garish, unnatural-looking images. Saturation shouldn't be used blindly in an attempt to find Velvia colors.

Solution: Limit saturation increases and use individual color controls.
When used right, Hue/Saturation (Image > Adjust > Hue/Saturation) offers a lot of power to get superior color in your photos. It simply isn't the first tool to use. Additionally, it works better if you use it to adjust specific colors rather than making the whole photograph jump with saturation.

I recommend keeping any overall saturation change to 10 to 15 points or less. If individual colors need help (and this is a common problem with digital cameras; they don't capture all colors in equal proportions), go to the Edit > Master part of the Hue/Saturation dialog box. Click on the drop-down menu arrow, and you'll get a list of colors.

Select the color closest to the one needing adjustment. You can even refine Photoshop's color range by clicking on the color itself in the image. Now you can adjust Hue to correct color and Saturation to change the color's intensity without overadjusting the rest of the photo.

4 Monitor Calibration >> It amazes me that many people still don't calibrate their monitors. An immediate step for gaining control over the process, monitor calibration gives you a constant, predictable workspace. It doesn't guarantee perfect prints (that's a different issue), but it saves you money by helping you get good prints faster, plus your color and tonal adjustments are more accurate and predictable. It makes your monitor work for you.

Solution: Get a monitor calibration kit and use it.
Monitor calibration kits include a colorimeter or tristimulus device that gets mounted on your monitor, plus wizard-driven software to allow you to easily and efficiently calibrate your monitor. A good example is Datacolor's ColorVision Spyder2 Suite™ for $149, which includes everything you need to calibrate any type of monitor, CRT or LCD ( You need to regularly recalibrate your monitor as it will drift in color and tonality over time. How frequently depends on how often the monitor is on and the type. (CRTs need calibration fairly frequently, while LCDs could go for months without recalibration.)


Common Digital Problems & Their Solutions

5 Lack 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.

Common Digital Problems & Their SolutionsSolution: 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.

6 Over-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.


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