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Color Correcting Digital Camera Images

Ever wonder why the term “color correction” gets thrown around so much? That’s because every digital camera (and even most scanners used for capturing traditional photos) puts its little signature (i.e., color cast) on your photos. Most times it’s a red cast, but it can also be blue or green. Don’t get me wrong—they are getting better, but the color cast is still there. Here’s how to help combat those color problems in Elements:

  • Step One: Open the digital camera photo you want to color correct. (The photo shown here doesn’t look too bad, but as we go through the correction process, you’ll see that, like most photos, it really needed a correction.)
  • Step Two: Go under the Enhance menu, under Adjust Lighting, and choose Levels (or press Ctrl-L [Mac: Command-L]). The dialog may look intimidating at first, but the technique you’re going to learn here requires no previous knowledge of Levels, and it’s so easy, you’ll be correcting photos using Levels immediately.
  • Step Three: First, we need to set some preferences in the Levels dialog so we’ll get the results we’re after when we start correcting. We’ll start by setting a target color for our shadow areas. To set this preference, in the Levels dialog, double-click on the black Eyedropper tool (it’s on the right-hand side of the dialog, the first Eyedropper from the left). A Color Picker will appear asking you to “Select target shadow color.” This is where we’ll enter values that, when applied, will help remove any color casts your camera introduced in the shadow areas of your photo.
  • Step Four: We’re going to enter values in the R, G, and B (red, green, and blue) fields of this dialog.
    • For R, enter 10
    • For G, enter 10
    • For B, enter 10
  • Step Five: Now we’ll set a preference to make our highlight areas neutral. Double-click on the highlight Eyedropper (the third of the three Eyedroppers in the Levels dialog). The Color Picker will appear asking you to “Select target highlight color.” Click in the R field, and then enter these values:
    • For R, enter 240
    • For G, enter 240
    • For B, enter 240

    Then click OK to set those values as your highlight target.

  • Step Six: Finally, set your midtone preference. You know the drill—double-click on the midtones Eyedropper (the middle of the three Eyedroppers) so you can “Select target midtone color.” Enter these values in the R, G, and B fields (if they’re not already there by default):
    • For R, enter 128
    • For G, enter 128
    • For B, enter 128

    Then click OK to set those values as your midtone target.

  • Step Seven: Okay, you’ve entered your preferences (target colors), so go ahead and click OK in the Levels dialog (without making any changes to your image). You’ll get an alert dialog asking you if you want to “Save the new target colors as defaults?” Click Yes, and from that point on, you won’t have to enter these values each time you correct a photo, because they’ll already be entered for you—they’re now the default settings.
  • Step Eight: You’re going to use these Eyedropper tools that reside in the Levels dialog to do most of your correction work. Your job is to determine where the shadow, midtone, and highlight areas are, and click the right Eyedropper in the right place (you’ll learn how to do that in just a moment). So remember your job—find the shadow, midtone, and highlight areas and click the right Eyedropper in the right spot. Sounds easy, right? It is. You start by opening Levels and setting the shadows first, so you’ll need to find an area in your photo that’s supposed to be black. If you can’t find something that’s supposed to be the color black, then it gets a bit trickier—in the absence of something black, you have to determine which area in the image is the darkest. If you’re not sure where the darkest part of the photo is, you can use the following trick to have Elements tell you exactly where it is.
  • Step Nine: Go to the bottom of the Layers palette and click on the half-black/half-white circle icon to bring up the Create New Adjustment Layer pop-up menu. When the pop-up menu appears, choose Threshold, which brings up the Adjustments palette with a histogram and a slider under it.
  • Step 10: In the Adjustments palette, drag the Threshold Level slider under the histogram all the way to the left. Your photo will turn completely white. Slowly drag the slider back to the right, and as you do, you’ll start to see some of your photo reappear. The first area that appears is the darkest part of your image. That’s it—that’s Elements telling you exactly where the darkest part of the image is. Now that you know where your shadow area is, make a mental note of its location. Next, find a white area in your image.
  • Step 11: If you can’t find an area in your image that you know is supposed to be white, you can use the same technique to find the highlight areas. With the Adjustments palette still open, drag the slider all the way to the right. Your photo will turn black. Slowly drag the slider back toward the left, and as you do, you’ll start to see some of your photo reappear. The first area that appears is the lightest part of your image. Make a mental note of this area, as well (yes, you have to remember two things, but you have to admit, it’s easier than remembering two PINs). You’re now done with Threshold, so in the Layers palette, just click-and-drag the Threshold adjustment layer onto the Trash icon at the bottom of the palette, because you don’t actually need it anymore.
  • Step 12: Press Ctrl-L (Mac: Command-L) to bring up the Levels dialog again. First, select the shadow Eyedropper (the one half-filled with black) from the right side of the Levels dialog. Move your cursor outside the Levels dialog into your photo and click once in the area that Elements showed you was the darkest part of the photo (in Step 10). When you click there, you’ll see the shadow areas correct. (Basically, you just reassigned the shadow areas to your new neutral shadow color—the one you entered earlier as a preference in Step Four.) If you click in that spot and your photo now looks horrible, you either clicked in the wrong spot or what you thought was the shadow point actually wasn’t. Undo the setting of your shadow point by clicking the Reset button in the dialog and try again. If that doesn’t work, don’t sweat it; just keep clicking in areas that look like the darkest part of your photo until it looks right.
  • Step 13: While still in the Levels dialog, click on the highlight Eyedropper (the one half-filled with white). Move your cursor over your photo and click once on the lightest part (the one you committed to memory in Step 11) to assign that as your highlight. You’ll see the highlight colors correct.
  • Step 14: Now that the shadows and highlights are set, you’ll need to set the midtones in the photo. It may not look as if you need to set them, because the photo may look properly corrected, but chances are there’s a cast in the midtone areas. You may not recognize the cast until you’ve corrected it and it’s gone, so it’s worth giving it a shot to see the effect (which will often be surprisingly dramatic). Unfortunately, there’s no Threshold adjustment layer trick that works well for finding the midtone areas, so you have to use some good old-fashioned guesswork (or try “Dave’s Amazing Trick for Finding a Neutral Gray” next in this chapter). Ideally, there’s something in the photo that’s gray, but not every photo has a “gray” area, so look for a neutral area (one that’s obviously not a shadow, but not a highlight either). Click the middle (gray) Eyedropper in that area. If it’s not right, click the Reset button and repeat Steps 12 through 14.
  • Step 15: There’s one more important adjustment to make before you click OK in the Levels dialog and apply your correction. Under the histogram (that’s the black mountain-range-looking thing), click on the center slider (the Midtone Input Levels slider—that’s why it’s gray) and drag it to the left a bit to brighten the midtones of the image. This is a visual adjustment, so it’s up to you to determine how much to adjust, but it should be subtle—just enough to bring out the midtone detail. When it looks right to you, click OK to apply your correction to the highlights, midtones, and shadows, removing any color casts and brightening the overall contrast.
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