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Photoshop Tips for Photographers

Your sister's wedding photos are tainted with red eye and the sweeping landscape you shot in Yosemite is muddy looking and off-kilter. What's a photo hobbyist to do? Photographer Helen Bradley shows you great techniques for fixing these, and other common image problems, with Photoshop tools.
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Photoshop is the leading graphics software in the world today, and for good reason. Though the program is packed with all kinds of powerful features, this very fact can sometimes be off-putting to new users. When you're just starting out, it's often difficult to determine the features that you need and those that you can safely ignore. If you're a digital photographer, there are some key features in Photoshop that will make your work easier. Learning about these features and how to use them will make your day-to-day image processing tasks much easier.

In this article, I'll show you some Photoshop tools and techniques that you can use to edit your photographs. In my own work, I find landscapes taken using a teleconverter have a tendency to be a little muddy so I always check the levels. I also prefer to photograph kids at play indoors, using a flash with the redeye reduction disabled, so I always get caught having to fix red eye problems. (It's worth it—with the faster shutter speed I have photos that are worth fixing.) Most of these tools have been around for some time now, although some new features appeared in Photoshop CS and some older tools have been improved in Photoshop CS2.

Histograms make muddy pictures history

The smartest tool in your photo-fixing toolkit is probably the Levels tool. This tool lets you correct the tonal range in your image and can help you transform a so-so picture into something a lot more attractive—very quickly. The Levels tool displays the image histogram, or the chart showing the spread of light and dark pixels across your image, which you can find by choosing ImageAdjustmentsLevels. The area on the left of the chart shows the darks or blacks in the image and those on the right show the whites (as you can see in Figure 1). Ideally, the chart data should stretch between the left and right edges of the box it is contained in, although it's best if the chart doesn't bump up hard against either the left or right edge of the box as this is indicative of either underexposed areas (on the left) or blown out highlights (on the right). Once this data is lost, it's almost impossible to get back. Other than these basic guidelines, there isn't a particularly ideal shape for a histogram chart—the shape is dependent on the image itself.

Figure 1a Figure 1b

Figure 1a and 1b. The before image (shown in Figure 1a) is muddy and lackluster. We'll need to use the level fix to darken the dark areas and lighten the light areas, in order to improve the tonal range of the image and to reduce its muddy look.

Before you attempt a fix, make sure that you have the preview checkbox checked so that you see the result on your image at the same time that you perform the adjustment. The simplest histogram fix involves dragging the black marker under the left edge of the chart until it sits just under where the chart data begins. This darkens any dark areas in the image, and if there weren't any blacks in the image, puts them into it. Do the same on the right (by dragging the small white marker inwards until it appears under the very beginning of the chart data on the right) to whiten the whites. Of course, if the chart data already reaches either side of the window, you won't need to make a correction on that side.

Adjust the midpoint slider (the gray slider in the middle of the chart) to the left or the right as required to fine-tune the image to your liking. Dragging it to the left leaves more of the chart data to the right of the marker and lightens the image. Dragging it to the right leaves more chart data on the left and results in a darkening of the image. When you are satisfied with the result, click OK to confirm your correction. Often a simple histogram adjustment is all you need to add much needed contrast to your image and do away with the muddy look.

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