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Dave’s Amazing Trick for Finding a Neutral Gray

If you read the previous tutorial and are saying to yourself, “But what about that middle gray eyedropper? How do I accurately set that point?” you’re not alone. It has always been kind of tricky actually, but Dave Cross, Senior Developer of Education and Curriculum for the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP), showed us this amazing trick. Being the friendly Canadian that he is, he even offered to let us include it in the book so everyone else can see it, as well.

  • Step One: Open any color photo and click on the Create a New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette to create a new blank layer. Then, go under the Edit menu and choose Fill Layer. When the Fill Layer dialog appears, in the Contents section, under the Use pop-up menu, choose 50% Gray, and then click OK to fill your new layer with (you guessed it) 50% gray.
  • Step Two: Now, go to the Layers palette and change the blend mode pop-up menu to Difference. Changing this layer’s blend mode to Difference doesn’t do much for the look of your photo (in fact, it rarely does), but just remember—it’s only temporary.
  • Step Three: Choose Threshold from the Create New Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the bottom of the Layers palette. When the Adjustments palette appears, drag the slider all the way to the left (your photo will turn completely white). Now, slowly drag the slider back to the right, and the first areas that appear in black are the neutral midtones. Make a mental note of where those gray areas are, and then click-and-drag the Threshold adjustment layer onto the Trash icon at the bottom of the palette, because you no longer need it. (In the example shown here, there are neutral midtones in the corner of the building.)
  • Step Four: Now that you know where your midtone point is, go back to the Layers palette and drag the 50% gray layer onto the Trash icon (it’s also done its job, so you can get rid of it, too). You’ll see your full-color photo again. Now, press Ctrl-L (Mac: Command-L) to open Levels, get the midtones Eyedropper (it’s the middle Eyedropper), and click directly on one of the neutral areas. That’s it; you’ve found the neutral midtones and corrected any color within them. So, will this work every time? Almost. It works most of the time, but you will run across photos that just don’t have a neutral midtone, so you’ll have to either not correct the midtones or go back to what we used to do—guess.
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