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Attitude Adjustment: Camera Raw's Adjustment Tools

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Scott Kelby talks about the adjustment tools in Camera Raw, including dodging and burning, retouching portraits, fixing skies, fixing color problems, reducing noise, special effects using Camera Raw, and some Photoshop killer tips.
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Photo by Scott Kelby Exposure: 1/125 sec | Focal Length: 24 mm | Aperture Value: f/8

When I went searching for songs with the word “adjustment” in them, I quickly found Aerosmith’s “Attitude Adjustment,” which would make this an easy choice for me as an Aerosmith fan, but there’s no real way for you to know if the title I’m referencing up there is actually the one by Aerosmith, or if I secretly went with another song with the exact same title by hip hop artists Trick Trick and Jazze Pha. In iTunes, this song was marked with the Explicit label, so I thought I’d better listen to the free 90-second preview first, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t pick a song whose free preview was too explicit, but while listening to that preview, something very unexpected happened to me that I haven’t gotten over to this very day. The sad truth is that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. I even played it back a couple of times, and I was waiting for naughty words to jump out at me, but I could barely make out anything they said. It just sounded like a bunch of noise. This can only mean one thing—I’m old. I remember playing songs for my parents when I was younger, and I remember my mom saying, “I can’t understand a word they’re saying” and she had that irritated look that only old people who can’t understand a word they’re hearing can get. But this time it was me. Me—that young, cool guy (stop giggling) experiencing my first “old people” moment. I was sad. I just sat there for a moment in stunned silence, and then I said “F&*$ S#!& A@# M*%$#%” and in no time flat, my wife stuck her head in the room and said, “Are you writing rap lyrics again?” At that moment, I felt young again. I jumped up out of my chair, but then I grabbed my back and yelled “F*%$#% R%^$!” My wife then said, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” Peace out!

Dodging, Burning, and Adjusting Individual Areas of Your Photo

One of my favorite features in Camera Raw is the ability to make non-destructive adjustments to individual areas of your photos (Adobe calls this “localized corrections”). The way they’ve added this feature is pretty darn clever, and while it’s different than using a brush in Photoshop, there are some aspects of it that I bet you’ll like better. We’ll start with dodging and burning, but we’ll add more options in as we go.

Step One:

This photo has two areas that need completely different adjustments: (1) the sky needs to be darker with more vibrant colors, and (2) the plane needs to be brighter and punchier. So, get the Adjustment Brush from up in the toolbar (it’s shown circled here in red) or just press the letter K on your keyboard. However, I recommend that you do all the regular edits to your photo in the Basic panel first (exposure, contrast, etc.), just like normal, before you grab the brush.

Step Two:

Once you click on the brush, an Adjustment Brush panel appears on the right side of the window, with most of the same sliders you have in the Basic panel (except for Vibrance), along with some extra ones (like Sharpness, Noise Reduction, and Moire Reduction). Let’s start by darkening the sky. With the Adjustment Brush, you (1) choose what kind of adjustment you want first, then (2) you start painting, and then (3) you tweak the amount of your adjustment after the fact. So, start by clicking on the – (minus sign) button to the left of the Exposure slider, which resets all the sliders to 0 and lowers the Exposure (the midtones control) to –0.50, which is a decent starting place.

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Step Three:

At the bottom of the Adjustment Brush panel, there is a really amazing Adjustment Brush feature called “Auto Mask,” which helps to keep you from accidentally painting on things you don’t want to paint on (so it’s great around the edges of things). But, when you’re painting over something like a big sky, it actually slows things down because it keeps trying to find an edge. So, I leave the Auto Mask checkbox turned off for stuff like this, and here, I’ll just avoid getting close to the edges of the plane (for now, anyway). Go ahead and paint over the sky (with Auto Mask turned off), but of course, avoid getting too close to the propeller blades or the wings of the plane—just stick to open areas of sky (as seen here). Notice how the sky gets darker as you paint?

Once you’ve painted in most of the sky (but avoided the prop and wings of the plane), now you can tweak how dark it is. Try lowering the Exposure to –1.00 (as shown here) and the area you painted over gets a lot darker. This is what I meant by “you tweak it after the fact.” Also, you see that green pin on the right side of the image? That represents this one adjustment (you can have more than one, which is why you need a way to keep track of them. More on this coming up).

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TIP: Deleting Adjustments

If you want to delete any adjustment you’ve made, click on the adjustment’s pin to select that adjustment (the center of the pin turns black), then press the Delete (PC: Backspace) key on your keyboard.

Step Five:

Okay, now that “glow” around the prop and wings where we haven’t painted is starting to get on my nerves, so let’s deal with that before we tweak our settings any more. When we’re getting near the edges of the prop and wings is when you want to turn Auto Mask back on (shown here). That way, you can paint right up against them, filling in all those areas, without accidentally painting over the blades and wings. The key to using Auto Mask is simple—don’t let that little + (plus sign) inside the inner circle of your brush stray over onto the blades or wings, because that’s what determines what gets affected (if that + crosses over onto a wing, it starts painting over the wing). It’s okay if the outer circle crosses right over the wings and blades—just not that + (see how the brush here is extending over onto the cone in front of the prop, but it’s not getting darker? That’s Auto Mask at work).

So, how do you know if you’ve really painted over the entire area you wanted to adjust? How do you know whether you’ve missed a spot? Well, if you turn on the Show Mask checkbox near the bottom of the panel, it puts a tint over the area you painted (as seen here, where I changed my tint color to red by clicking on the color swatch to the right of the checkbox), so you can see if you missed anything. If you don’t want this on all the time, you can just hover your cursor over any pin (which is what I’m doing here) and it will temporarily show the masked area for that pin. Now that you know where you painted, you can go back and paint over any areas you missed. If you want to keep the mask turned on while you paint, just press the letter Y on your keyboard.

Now, let’s unlock a little more of the Adjustment Brush’s power by adjusting more sliders. That’s right, once you’ve painted over (masked) an area, you can adjust any of the other sliders and they affect just the area you painted over (here, they’ll just affect the sky). Starting at the top, let’s drag the Tint slider to the right, toward magenta, to make the sky color more interesting (I dragged it over to +30), then let’s make it even darker by lowering the Exposure amount to –1.15. Now, head down to Saturation and crank that up a bit (I took it up to +60), and that flat dawn sky gets much more vibrant (as seen here). Yeah, that’s just like I remember it (wink). The ability to paint over one area, and stack up a number of adjustments on just that area, is what gives this tool so much power.

Next, let’s work on the plane (a P-51 Mustang). First, click the New radio button at the top of the panel, so we can paint over a new area (otherwise, the plane would get the same settings we used on the sky). Then, click the + button to the right of Exposure twice to reset all the other sliders to 0 and bump up the Exposure amount to +1.00 (twice the one-click amount). Now, with Auto Mask turned on, paint over the underside of the plane and the propeller blades (as shown here), which lightens those areas because you increased the Exposure amount by quite a bit. Also, notice there are now two pins, and the sky’s pin is now white, letting you know it’s no longer active. If you wanted to adjust the sky again, you’d click on its pin, and all the sky settings would come back.

Finish painting over the rest of the plane (wings, propeller blades), and then let’s add some more “juice” to it by increasing the Exposure amount a bit more (here, I dragged it over to +1.50), then open the shadow areas by dragging the Shadows slider a little to the right (here, I went to +10), and then let’s add some punch by adding Clarity (drag it over to around +17). Now the plane is really starting to pop, but you can see that I let the little + in the middle of the brush extend off the bottom of the wings a bit, and it started to brighten the tarmac (concrete runway) below them, which looks bad. So, we’ll have to deal with that next.

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TIP: Choosing What to Edit

If you have multiple pins and you drag a slider, Camera Raw will adjust whichever pin is currently active (the green-and-black one). To choose which adjustment you want to edit, click on the pin to select it, then make your changes.

Step 10:

If you make a mistake, or need to erase something that spilled over, just press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key and the brush switches to Erase mode. Now, just paint the area where you spilled over and it erases the spillover (as shown here). You can also switch to Erase mode by clicking on the Erase radio button at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel. When you switch this way, you get to choose the Size, Feather, Flow, and Density of the Erase brush (more on this in just a moment), so it’s at least good to click on the radio button, choose your preferred brush size (I set the Feather and Density to 100% for this brush), then from that point on, just press-and-hold the Option key to get it when you need it.

Here are a couple of other things about the Adjustment Brush you’ll want to know: The Feather slider controls how soft the brush edges are—the higher the number, the softer the brush (I paint with a soft brush about 90% of the time). For a hard-edged brush, set the Feather slider to 0. The default brush settings are designed to have it build up as you paint, so if you paint over an area and it’s not dark enough, paint another stroke over it. This build-up amount is controlled by the Flow and Density sliders at the bottom of the panel. The Density slider kind of simulates the way Photoshop’s airbrush capabilities work with its Brush tools, but the effect is so subtle here that I don’t ever change it from its default setting of 100. The Flow slider controls the amount of paint that comes out of the brush (I leave the Flow set at 100 most of the time these days, but if I decide I want to “build up,” then I lower it to 50). Below is a before/after, which shows how useful dodging and burning with the Adjustment Brush can be.

Note: I felt I needed to make one more change to this image. If you look back at Step 10, the yellow nose cone looks too bright, so I used the Erase brush to erase over it entirely. Then, I clicked the New button, reset everything to 0, increased the Exposure amount to +70, and painted over just the cone (as shown in Step 11) to get the final image here.

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