The digital age has created a revolution in photography with instant-gratification LCD screens on cameras. Even when those images don’t meet our ever-increasing standards, we now have tools like Adobe’s Photoshop to post process those images and bring them up to snuff. While there are a limitless number of digital enhancements you might consider, the following five will address your most common image problems.
Problem 1: Ho-Hum Composition
The well-known rule of thirds suggests visualizing your scene as divided into horizontal and vertical thirds and positioning the most interesting element (the subject) at an intersection of the imaginary lines that define those thirds. This creates dynamic tension in the scene and makes it more interesting. It’s harder to do than you might think, however, especially when you are snapping away.
Photoshop’s crop tool can come to the rescue. With it, you can create a frame that zooms in on your subject, eliminating uninteresting background, and better locates your subject per the rule of thirds. Consider zooming out a bit when you take your photos; this will give you more flexibility later when recomposing your image within Photoshop.
Problem 2: What’s That Doing In There?
Unwanted detail at the edge of an image, so-called edge intrusions, can capture a viewer’s attention away from your main subject and deflect their interest. These can be tree branches, people cut in half, anything that competes with your subject. The result is an image that can feel overly busy, maybe even confused. Your goal should be to keep the viewer’s eye in the interior of your image and on your primary subject (which you have placed per the rule of thirds).
These edge intrusions can actually be difficult to notice when composing pictures because your attention is focused on your subject. Photoshop’s clone tool, although designed to create copies (or clones) of objects, is a great tool for removing these intrusions. With it, you can copy adjacent scenery (grass, sky, etc.) over the intrusion and eliminate them altogether.
Problem 3: Everything Looks Washed Out
The human eye is very sensitive to contrast, the difference between the darkest dark and the lightest light. If the tonal range is black to white, the image has good contrast. All too often, however, the range is markedly less, with the darks (or shadows) not completely black and the lights (or highlights) not completely white. These images feel a little dull or washed out, as if they were taken on a hazy day.
While Photoshop has an Auto Contrast function that will make a big improvement, consider using a Levels adjustment to really optimize your image. Levels will allow you to darken your darks (referred to as shadows) and lighten your lights (referred to as highlights), while stretching all the tones in between. The result is a much more vibrant image, both in contrast as well as color.
Problem 4: Where’s the Color?
As taken, digital images often lack colors that really pop, even after fixing contrast. Boosting color with Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation adjustment will really make a difference. Increasing saturation makes every color more vivid and intense. The higher the saturation, the more vivid and intense the entire image becomes.
Color can get oversaturated, however, and often is by novice users. It’s so much fun to see the colors pop that it’s easy to make the image unrealistic and almost cartoon-like. New to Photoshop CS4 is a better alternative, the Vibrance adjustment. The beauty is that while the Saturation adjustment blindly increases the saturation of the color in every pixel, the Vibrance adjustment looks to see how saturated a color already is and modifies the adjustment accordingly. Pixels low in color saturation get a bigger boost than pixels high in saturation. No pixels ever get oversaturated. The end result is a far more realistic image, even when you dial in a big boost.
Problem 5: Your Subject Is Hiding
To really make your subject stand out and hold the viewer’s interest, give it, and only it, an extra color boost with Photoshop. Subtly done, everything will still look realistic. (A black and white image with a color subject, say a flower bloom, is an extreme example of this, but more of a special effect.)
Photoshop has several different ways to do this, but the easiest is with the Sponge tool. The Sponge tool “paints” on increased (or decreased) saturation. Using a soft edge and the “saturation” mode, brush over the key subject in your image and the heightened saturation will make it pop out. Just be careful not to overdo it. (Hopefully in future Photoshop releases, this tool will get a Vibrance mode. But it is not there yet.)
A second way you can direct the viewer to your subject, and to hopefully have their attention stay there, is to sharpen. The eye is naturally drawn to objects with contrast, color, and a sharp focus. The first two of these were addressed above. To address focus, you use the Sharpen tool.
The Sharpen tool doesn’t really improve focus; instead, it tricks the eye into thinking that the focus is sharper than it really is by increasing contrast at edges. It is also brush-like and you paint over your subject until it looks just a little more crisp. Using a soft edge will blend the effect with the neighboring background so that the enhancement isn’t obvious. As with the Sponge tool, be careful not to overdo it.
So that’s it, simple Photoshop methods to address five everyday digital photography problems. As you become more proficient with Photoshop, you’ll undoubtedly develop a host of other techniques for adding little extra touches to your photos. But the simple tips you’ve learned here will solve most of your digital image problems. And with the few minutes it takes to employ them, you’ll make your photos a cut above the rest.
Stephen Farnow spent 30 years in high-tech management at companies such as Texas Instruments and Intel. He is currently an independent management consultant and writes about graphic arts. He is author of “Photoshop: Just the Skinny.” For more information, please visit www.JustTheSkinny.com.