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Selective editing with the Smart Brush

Sometimes the best way to enhance a photo is to modify just part of the image, or to treat separate areas—such as background and foreground elements—differently, rather than applying an adjustment to the photo overall.

The quickest and easiest way to do this is to paint your adjustments directly onto the image with the Smart Brush tool. The Smart Brush is both a selection tool and an image adjustment tool—as you paint, it creates a selection based on similarities in color and texture, through which your choice of editing preset is applied.

  1. Isolate the Lesson 4 images in the Media Browser. Select the un-edited image DSCN0532.jpg, and then click the Editor button (editorbutton.jpg) in the Taskbar.
  2. In the Editor, click Expert in the mode picker, if necessary. In Expert mode, choose Window > Reset Panels. Click the Photo Bin button (photobin.jpg) at the left of the Taskbar to hide the Photo Bin; then, choose View > Fit On Screen.
  3. Select the Smart Brush (smartbrush.jpg) from the toolbox. If the tool options pane doesn’t open automatically at the bottom of the workspace, click the Tool Options button (tooloptions.jpg) in the Taskbar.
  4. In the tool options pane, use the slider to set a brush size of 25 px (pixels); then, click the colored thumbnail to open the Smart Brush presets picker. Choose the Nature category from the Presets menu at the top of the pop-up menu, and then select the Make Dull Skies Blue preset.

  5. Press the Esc key on your keyboard to close the preset picker. Starting above and to the left of the taller girl’s head, drag across the sky. If your selection expands too far, subtract areas such as the distant shoreline from the selection by holding down the Alt / Option key and painting carefully back over them. When you’re happy with the adjustment area, Choose Select > Deselect, so that a new stroke will create a new adjustment, rather than add to the current one.

  6. Starting at the left, drag to select the water. As long as the adjustment remains active, your strokes will add to the current adjustment area. Hold Alt / Option if you need to paint out submerged legs and the highlights on the girls’ arms.
  7. If you don’t see tabs for the Layers, Effects, Graphics and Favorites panels at the top of the Panel Bin, click the arrow beside the More button (morebutton.jpg) at the right of the Taskbar and choose Custom Workspace. Drag the Layers panel out of the Panel Bin by its name tab, and then hide the Panel bin by un-checking its name in the Window menu.

Two new layers have been created for the adjustments; each displays a colored icon representing the gradient used for the Blue Skies effect and a black and white thumbnail representing the layer mask through which the adjustment has been applied. Colored markers—Smart Brush adjustment pins—mark the points in the photo where you started dragging with the Smart Brush for each adjustment.


Click to view larger image

Each Smart Brush edit occupies its own layer, where it remains active and separate from the image itself—so you can add to or subtract from the selection, tweak the effect, or even change which preset is applied, without permanently affecting your original photo. The adjustment pins will be visible whenever the Smart Brush is active.

  1. Deselect the Blue Skies 2 adjustment by clicking the Background layer in the Layers panel. Open the Smart Brush presets picker by clicking the Blue Skies thumbnail in the tool options pane. Select the Lighten Skin Tones preset from the Portrait category. Press Esc to close the Smart Brush presets picker.

  2. Drag over the two girls, including their hair and swimsuits. If your selection expands to include areas of water; hold Alt / Option as you paint out the unwanted areas. Make sure the selection includes hands, elbows, and at least a little of the base of some of the windswept wisps of hair. You won’t see a dramatic effect in the selected areas yet; you’ll tweak the adjustment a little later.

A new adjustment pin appears on the image; in the Layers panel, a new adjustment layer is added for the Lighten Skin Tones effect. To the left of its layer mask thumbnail, the new adjustment layer displays a different icon from the Blue Skies effect, indicating that it applies a different type of adjustment through the painted mask.

  1. Right-click / Control-click the new adjustment layer (not its black-and-white layer mask icon) and choose Duplicate Layer. Type Lighten Skin Tones 2 to name the new layer; then, click OK.

  2. Hold down the Alt / Option key as you carefully paint the girl on the right out of the selection completely; then, drag the new Smart Brush adjustment pin aside a little to see the marker for your original Lighten Skin Tones adjustment.

Tweaking Smart Brush adjustments

Each Smart Brush adjustment has its own set of controls that let you customize the effect—even in a later editing session, as long as you’ve saved the file with its layers.

  1. In the Layers panel, double-click the gradient icon (gradientfill.jpg) on the Blue Skies 1 layer. In the Gradient Fill dialog box, you can modify the gradient’s colors, angle, and fade rate. Watch the sky as you choose Reflected from the gradient Style menu; then, click OK.
  2. Use the Opacity slider at the top of the Layers panel to decrease the opacity of the Blue Skies 1 layer from 75% to 30%. You can use the adjacent menu to change the blending mode, but for now, leave it set to Color Burn.
  3. Select the layer Blue Skies 2—the adjustment for the sea. Double-click the gradient icon (gradientfill.jpg) for Blue Skies 2; then, disable the Reverse option. Click OK. Reduce the opacity of the Blue Skies 2 layer from 75% to 40%.
  4. Double-click the Brightness/Contrast icon (brightnesscontrasticon.jpg) on the Lighten Skin Tones 1 to open the Adjustments panel in Brightness/Contrast mode. Set a Brightness value of +60 and increase the Contrast to +25. Repeat the process for the layer Lighten Skin Tones 2, at the top of the layers list. Set both the Brightness and Contrast to a value of 15; then, close the Brightness/Contrast controls.
  5. Click the Hand tool to disable the Smart Brush and hide the pins. In the Layers panel, toggle the eye icon (eye.jpg, eyeoff.jpg) beside each adjustment layer’s name to show and hide its effect so that you can assess just how the image has changed.

  6. Choose File > Save As. Name the file DSCN0532_SmartBrush and set up the usual save options. This time, choose the Photoshop file format and activate the Layers option so that you can edit your adjustment layers later. Close the file.
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