Using photo editing software can seem a little daunting. So many menus, buttons, drop downs and tools.
However, if you are just looking to improve your photographs rather than create complex blends and multiple layers, then there are just a few easy adjustments you can make that require the minimum of time and effort.
When you take a photograph digitally the resultant file has lots of information. That information may not be presented in the best way possible for viewing and it’s up to us, as photographers, to bring the best out of that information.
Photo editing suites have a range of adjustments that affect the whole picture which we can use to better present the available information in a way that matches our original vision when taking the shot.
These adjustments take shots from lacklustre and flat to dynamic and colourful. They can make images pop and help retrieve the scene that attracted us in the first place.
The opening screen for Photoshop looks like the one above, but many editors will be similar.
The part we are interested in at the moment is on the right and labelled “add an adjustment”
You will see a collection of icons in this box, each of which has a different function.
The best way of finding out what they do is to try using them on one of your shots. Choose one that is nicely in focus but perhaps seems dull, dark or washed out.
To open your picture, go to File in the top left corner and choose open in the drop down box. You will see the files on your computer to choose from. Click on one and it will open in the working space.
The picture above is obviously too dark. The shot was taken on automatic and the camera was fooled into underexposing by the bright white of the daisy petals.
There are three ways we can adjust this image. The most obvious is to alter exposure. This is found under the the fourth icon of the top row in photoshop. It’s icon is a square split diagonally, half white, half black. Hover over any icon with your mouse to see what the adjustment is called.
Clicking on the icon will bring a pop up dialogue box into your working space. For this picture, I moved the exposure slider to almost 1.5. I was careful not to make the petals over white or “blown out” as you still want to see the details.
For pictures that are too dark, you increase the exposure, for those that are too light you will need to decrease the exposure.
This is the third icon in the top row. It’s a little more tricky but has some added benefits. Not only can you fix the exposure, but you can add a little contrast at the same time. Clicking on the icon brings up the dialogue box.
The first step is to move the markers on the slider underneath the histogram. They need to touch the edges of the curve. Move the slider by clicking, holding and dragging across. The diagonal line will move to follow. Dark pictures will need the whites moving left, for washed out pictures the black marker will need to move to the right.
In this example, the white slider moves a long way to the left.
Click on the diagonal line about halfway up and let go. This holds the midtone point. Grab the line above this point and move up VERY slightly. The lighter tones will lighten further. Drag the lower half of the line down very slightly and the darks will darken This gives a very shallow S shaped curve that increases contrast. You can have a play moving the line in a more extreme manner to see some of the more bizarre effects you can produce. If you don’t like what you’ve done, click edit on the menu and then step backwards. Keep stepping back to a point where you like what you see.
This is my personal favourite tool for correcting exposure as it is easier to use than curves and incredibly versatile. The levels icon looks like a mini bar chart and is the second icon along in Photoshop.
Clicking again brings up a dialogue box.
Again you have the histogram showing the spread of tones across the image. Immediately underneath there is a slider with three markers, each of which can move. The outside ones should be set to meet the curve. You can see in this example I had to move the white one a long way to the left.. If you have a lighter image with few darks you would need to move the dark marker to the right. For some images you may need to do both.
You will notice the midtone slider moves as you make adjustments. You can move this to the right to increase the contrast slightly.
The second slider that fades from black to white is also adjustable and determines how the tones of the image are output to the screen. It is useful if you want to create high key or low key images. Moving the dark slider makes the image light overall and vice versa with the white.
Here I have made my example much lighter by moving the dark marker.
Vibrance and Saturation.
The last in icon in the top row is a simple slider adjustment for vibrance and saturation. Clicking will bring up the box with a slider adjustment for each. What you do with each of these is personal preference so it’s best to see what they do to your image.
Here are the daisies again with a healthy dose of each.
Brightness and Contrast.
My personal preference is to make this adjustment last of all, despite it’s appearance at the beginning of the row. It’s a very simple pair of sliders again.
A word of warning here — over contrasty coloured images can look awful, so be gentle with this adjustment. Save the extreme adjustments for black and white.
For this image I have used Levels then vibrance/saturation then Brightness/Contrast. I like the green background which doesn’t have too much contrast within itself and the way the petals and flower centre stand out.
Now is the time to turn to the tools menu to crop the image. In this case I don’t like the bright splodge at the top corner. It draws the eye away.
Clicking on the crop icon changes the attribute bar ( under the menu) so that you can choose the features you want. Clicking on the first drop down box allows you to choose the ratio of the sides of the image. Here I have clicked on unconstrained as I want to reduce the height of the image but not the width.
The picture is now overlaid with a grid. This grid shows the rule of thirds by default. There are little handles at the sides and on the corners that allow you to drag the perimeter where you would like it to be. In this case, I’ve dropped the the top edge down to exclude the bright corner. The daisy isn’t completely on a third but close enough. When you are happy with the crop, double click inside the area you are keeping.
So here is the completed image.
Over To You
So it really is quite straight forward to bring your images to life.
Of course there is a lot more to photoshop, but that, as they say, is another story.
Watch out for more in this series over the next few weeks!
Please let me know if there is anything that’s confusing and I’ll try and improve this tutorial.
Trying this out on your own images a few times will help you learn the steps really quickly. Good luck!