I'm not a professional photographer, and I have no aspirations to be. Like many people, I use my phone for the majority of the shots I take. That's what inspired me to write this article on basic image editing. We all experience similar problems with our photos, and for those moments that deserve more than the camera delivered, we can turn to Adobe Photoshop to quickly bring dull images back to life.
Photoshop provides several ways to edit images without making changes to the underlying data of the original image, which is known as nondestructive editing. One such way is the Camera Raw environment. Many people are either completely unaware of the Camera Raw editing environment in Photoshop, or they wrongly assume that using Camera Raw requires images to be shot in the RAW format. But you can indeed edit the JPEG files from your camera in Camera Raw, and once you do, you will see how powerful and intuitive it is.
All the edits you make in Camera Raw are stored back inside the original image metadata, so when you open the image again in Camera Raw in the future, all your edits can be adjusted or removed completely to return the image to its original state. Even image crops and touch-ups can be reversed.
In the Photoshop environment, you can make nondestructive changes to your images using adjustment layers (as well as using Smart Objects). However, most of the other changes you make in Photoshop result in permanent changes to the image structure. That's not a bad thing. After all, Photoshop is the world-standard tool for altering pixels, and that's why we use it.
We all have our own way of doing things, and I encourage you to develop your own photo-editing workflow. I make most of my basic image adjustments in Camera Raw. Then I move to Photoshop for touch-ups and more. Some people think this workflow is backwards, so feel free to reverse it if that's what you prefer. I start in Camera Raw because most of the time that is all I need.
But before you decide, let me show you my basic image-editing workflow using a picture I took using my phone's camera on a morning bike ride in Boulder, Colorado (see Figure 1).
This scene inspires me nearly every time I ride by it, and I take pictures of it all the time. However, this image has some very clear problems, and it doesn't represent the true beauty of the Flatirons that flank Boulder's West side. If you'd like to follow along as I edit this photo, you can download the original images (2MB, ZIP).
To open an image in Camera Raw:
If you have never used Camera Raw, this environment will be new to you. If you have used Adobe Lightroom, you will see a familiar toolset with a slightly less polished look.
If you see clouds of dots like the red areas in Figure 2, your Histogram panel (the colorful panel on the top right of your screen) is telling you that shadows or highlights in the image are being clipped. As a general rule, you want the bell curve of the Histogram to fit nicely within the end points. To turn these visual indications off or on, click the triangles at the end of the Histogram. In this case, you see that the highlights, which are indicated on the right side, are clipped and the light blue triangle is highlighted.
All of the sliders in this current view will affect the Histogram and the clipping of shadows and highlights. However, the Recovery slider is specifically intended to attempt to recover details from highlights, while the Fill Light slider attempts to recover details from image shadows without brightening the black in the image. You will see later that my highlights are no longer clipped after I make some initial image adjustments and decrease the Exposure setting.
The most obvious problem with this image is the orange fence. The sun was just coming up, so there's also a shadow that would have disappeared five minutes later.
From the toolbar at the top of your screen, choose the Crop tool, and then select the area of the image you want to save. I have cropped just above the fence line and shadow. I have also cropped the top of the image to give it a widescreen look and to bring the focus back to the mountains (see Figure 3). Press Enter/Return for the crop to take effect.
If you select the Crop tool again, you will see that your entire image is still there (and will continue to remain there after you click Done). This confirms that the changes were not made to the original image.
Camera Raw lays out the tool tabs in a left-to-right workflow that steps you through the image-editing process. But you can always go back and adjust previous changes, so feel free to run wild with your workflow.
The first tab is called Basic. Here you can adjust the image balance to see how changes affect the image and the Histogram in real time. Figure 4 shows the quick adjustments I made to bring more balance, color, and vibrancy to the image.
Using a simple slider approach with understandable names, the interface in the Tone Curve tab lightens and darkens the shadows, highlights, and midtones in your images. You can also use a Curve adjustment layer to do the same thing in the Photoshop editing environment. There are two tabs in Camera Raw, Parametric and Point, which enable you to work with the tone curve in different ways. Figure 5 shows what my image looks like after adjusting the tone curve.
Image noise is a grainy color and brightness variation that shows up in many photos. In this photo, you can see image noise around the clouds. Noise reduction is a balancing act between smoothing those small variations while maintaining image detail. Too much reduction with not enough detail will result in a watercolor effect.
Zoom in close enough to see the image noise, but not so close that you lose focus on important details. The rocks and trees of this image are good reference points to ensure you don't lose detail.
Click the Detail button in the toolbar on the right side of your screen. The Noise Reduction options become available below. Start by sliding the Luminance Noise Reduction slider until the noise disappears, but some of the detail remains. Then increase the Luminance Detail as necessary until more of the detail returns, but the noise doesn't.
Experiment with these sliders as well as the Color and Color Detail sliders as necessary. You might also want to experiment with the Sharpening palette after performing noise reduction. Once you play around with them, you'll see why all of these controls are grouped together.
Note: Image noise can also be reduced using the Noise Filter in Photoshop or through some tricky surface blurs and masking. I usually prefer to use Camera Raw because it offers an easier workflow with superior nondestructive results. However, you may prefer to target your noise reduction to a certain area of the image in Photoshop.
These three tool palettes cover the majority of the basic editing adjustments I make to most images, but take some time to get familiar with all of them.
With these basic fixes, my image looks pretty good. But if I remove those bushes in the foreground, it will look even better. So let's move out of Camera Raw and use some of the Photoshop touch-up tools.
To edit the image in Photoshop in its current state as a flattened rasterized layer, click Open Image. To edit the image as a Smart Object, hold down the Shift key and click Open Image. Many Photoshop tools work on Smart Objects, but the Healing and Clone tools require a rasterized image. To rasterize a Smart Object, right click or Control-click on the Smart Object Layer and choose Rasterize Layer.
Photoshop provides so many great options for touching up images. Personal preference, along with trial and error, will dictate which tools you use on a given image. The size of the area to be touched up and the objects surrounding the touch-up area will also factor into your success with any given tool.
The Spot Healing brush with Content Aware Fill does an amazing job for most small touch-ups, such as the branch in the lower left corner. (Tip: The Spot Healing brush works best on straight lines. If you have an area to remove that is not comprised of straight line, try using Selection with Edit > Fill: Content-Aware. To get the best result, select as small a selection as possible). I'm going to remove the little one on the left side first, as part of my overall strategy to get rid of the big bush in the middle.
Select the Spot Healing brush and make sure that Content-Aware is selected in the settings at the top of your screen. Adjust the brush size to be slightly wider than what is required to paint over any spots that need to be removed. To resize brushes quickly, use the ] key to increase brush size, and the [ key to decrease brush size.
In this case, I have used a small brush that's slightly wider than the individual branches. With a single stroke over each branch, they disappear, and Photoshop does a great job of automatically filling the area left behind (see Figure 6).
The original image now has the small branch on the left and a few other small artifacts at the bottom removed.
For that big bush in the middle, I found through trial and error that I get my best results using a large Healing brush to wipe the bottom of it out all at one time. The Healing brush requires you to select a source point (a background or texture you'd like to paint over the offending pixels), and then paint over the area you want to remove, but it also attempts to blend and match color. Photoshop has so many methods for doing touch-ups, but they don't all work for a given situation. So you sometimes have to use trial and error to find the best tool for the job (see Figure 7).
Removing the small branch gave me a nice clean area to use as my source, so I Alt-clicked that area with a brush that was about the size of the circle shown in Figure 7, and painted over the bottom part of the larger bush.
I then used the Clone tool to finish removing the smaller parts of this bush. Keep an eye out for redundant patches in your image created by the Healing brush or Clone tool. Because these tools grab content from other parts of the image, you can end up with patterns that make it obvious your image was altered in Photoshop.
When you're finished with these touch-ups, select the Sharpen tool and pass over some of the areas to get rid of that smudged look that can be left behind by these types of fixes. Figure 8 shows my image after it has been edited.
As I mentioned previously, adjustment layers are how Photoshop handles nondestructive editing. To create an adjustment layer, click the Adjustment Layers button at the bottom of the Layers palette, or select the Adjustments palette.
The mountains and foreground of my image are still just a bit too dark, but I like the sky as it is. Click the Brightness/Contrast Adjustment button, and it will create a new layer--as well as a layer mask. If you make changes to the brightness at this point, those changes will affect the whole image. To make brightness changes to only certain parts of the image, choose Window > Masks to open the Masks palette (if it is not already open). You have the option of creating vector masks and pixel masks with the two buttons in the upper right corner. Select Add A Pixel Mask and then click the Color Range button.
Using the Eyedropper tools on the right side, experiment by selecting portions of the image to see what happens. If you select the blue of the sky, the Brightness adjustment will affect the sky. I used the Eyedropper with the plus sign to select the foreground and then added the mountains and other small color selections with additional clicks. If you select something you didn't mean to select, you can remove it from the selection by clicking it again using the Eyedropper with the minus sign.
When you have selected everything you want to change, go back to the Adjustments palette with the Brightness adjustment layer selected and tweak the brightness.
To get back to the main screen of the Adjustments menu, click the arrow in the lower left corner of the palette. You can experiment with all the other adjustment layers to see how they affect your image. Keep in mind that they are layers, so you can also change their opacity and blend types, which creates an unbelievable range of looks.
Figure 9 shows the final image.
Professional photographers do most of their image preparation in the field, but I wondered how a pro with a better eye for photography would handle one of my mediocre mobile phone images. So I gave a similar photo to the best landscape photographer I know, Dejan Smaic of Spotif Images, to see what he would do with it in Photoshop. The image was a similar scene taken a couple hours later from the South side of Boulder (see Figure 10).
Dejan specializes in sporting images. But he does some of the most stunning landscape photography and Photoshop work I've seen. He believes that a good image begins in the field and that post processing just brings out the best in an image — what Mother Nature intended the scene to look like.
I asked him to perform two types of edits on the image: the most basic edits that he would perform on most of his images and any advanced edits a professional photographer would use to make this image look its best.
Figure 11 shows Dejan's quick and easy edits using the most basic Photoshop image-editing adjustments.
Figure 12 shows Dejan's advanced edits, which essentially turn my mediocre mobile phone image into a postcard-worthy picture.
When shooting pictures, you can overexpose an image by one f-stop to capture more image detail. Be careful not to overexpose too much. You can then make the adjustments in post processing to produce a great image. To test this tip, get out your camera and shoot the same image at one f-stop above the proper exposure and one f-stop below the proper exposure. Then download the images to your computer to compare file sizes. The overexposed image should be larger. The only risk you run is that in bright light, you may actually lose some of the image detail. So for bright light, use matrix metering, if possible.
To see more of Dejan's work, visit www.sportifimages.com.
If you're interested in an app for editing and sharing photos on the go, sign up for Photoshop Express, Adobe's all-in-one mobile photography app. Available for Android and iOS devices, Photoshop Express is free. It includes 2GBs of storage, a personal gallery page, and a host of templates for creating slideshows.
Dave Klein is an online marketing consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. He has worked with several Adobe partners focusing on 3D software and technologies since early 2000. Reach him at kleinnewmedia.com.