Making good photos great

Okay, so here’s our picture from a recent fishing trip at sunrise. You say “Hey, that’s a nice picture and all, I mean, I like the champagne colored sky and water, but I’m used to a sunrise being more orange.”

After initially wanting to smack you upside the head, I think to myself, this is a good idea. The picture could be improved upon and the champagne color is a bit drab. Often times, this happens in alot of the photos we take — they’re nice, but not spectacular shots. Let’s see what we can do to our sunrise to change all that.

Warming Up
BackgroundAs we’ve just brought this image into photoshop, you might have already noticed that the layer stacking order looks something like this to the left. By default all images opened in photoshop have their content placed on a “Background” layer.

Before I get too far ahead, I should tell you more about layers themselves. Layers in photoshop are literally just that — layers. For a visual explanation, imagine a few sheets of wax paper. Each sheet could be referred to as a layer in the grand scheme of the stacking order. What’s a stacking order? A stacking order, again, is literally implied to its meaning. You have these sheets of wax paper stacked on top of one another. If you have 5 layers of wax paper stacked up, you could can easily refer to each sheet by its layer number. In this case, the middle sheet is the 3rd layer in the stacking order. Are we crystal? Good, I thought so. If not, we’ll see this idea in more detail as we progress.

layer requester
Layer 0
Double clicking on the Background layer results in this requester box. Like anything computer related, the first number is 0 and not 1. For now, we can simply click OK and we’ll have our layer. Why do we do this? Because photoshop automatically assumes that the bottom, or first layer of our composition will never be modified. Notice that there is no longer a padlock icon on the layer. That means the layer is fully editable. From here, we can begin to incorporate the changes needed to spruce this photo up.

auto levels
The first thing you should do after converting your image to a layer is to use photoshop’s “Auto Levels” feature. What Auto Levels does is automatically sets the highlights and shadows of the image. Sometimes this effect can be dramatic, other times, not so. In any case, it gives you a better idea of what your image might look like. As an example my digital camera is notorious for having too much blue, so I can use photoshop’s Auto Levels to correct that problem in a single step.

Auto Levels is found by selecting Image > Adjustments > Auto Levels (SHIFT + CTRL + L)

Here’s our photo after using Auto Levels. As you can see, there’s not much difference between this and the one above. This is because there is alot of contrast in the image. You have the sun being nearly white and the fishermen almost purely black. Since this image has a good representation of highlights and shadows, there’s not much to adjust, which is why there’s not a significant change in the image after using Auto Levels.

Now it’s play time!
color balance
In the beginning of this tutorial we agreed on making the image look more like a traditional sunrise with lots of orange hue added to the photo. The first method to doing this that comes to mind is the Color Balance method. Photoshop has a great a way to adjust specific colors of an image and we’ll do that right now.

To open the Color Balance requester, navigate Image > Adjustments > Color Balance (CTRL + B)

By default, Color Balance will adjust midtones of the image. Generally this is a good idea when adjusting colors because you don’t want to manipulate your highlights or shadows, afterall, you just set those with the Auto Levels command, right? So let’s think back to grade school when we used to eat glue and lick the tempura paints during art class… What combination of colors yields orange? Red, yellow and blue are considered primary and colors like orange, green and purple are considered secondary. Remember that? Of course you did. So what colors combined make orange? That’s right. Red and yellow make orange.

It just so happens that the folks at Adobe built red and yellow into their color spectrum for the Color Balance feature. So let’s fiddle with these for a bit and see what we get eh?

color balance 1By pushing the red to +100% and the yellow to -100%…yes, I know. The slider says -100% even though there’s actually +100% yellow added to the image. This is because the slider is measured in terms of blue, not yellow. Technically there’s -100% blue to the image. However, we both know it’s yellow. No big deal. The idea is you added equal amounts of red and yellow and now have an orange hued image. Compare it to the one above, and it’s looking pretty snazzy now!! You can leave this image as is and it will look spectacular to anyone who sees it, but since we have the Color Balance already open, let’s mess around with the shadows and see what happens.

color balance 2Click on the shadows radio button and we’ll begin to adjust the shadows color balance now. Pushing the red +100% and the yellow -100% provides this look to the image. Pretty cool. Looks like something from a travel brochure of Hawaii with the way the reds and yellows are so dominant in the scene. To me personally, I think this is a bit too far for a standard photo. If we were incorporating this image into a marketing brochure, then this would do the trick. For a standalone photo, it’s a bit extreme.

Finalizing the adjustments
color balance 3By reducing the red adjustment to +50% and leaving the yellow as it is, we have a more evenly balanced image. The orange hue is vibrant, yet not obnoxious. The shadows and highlights are still preserved. Compared with the photo above, this is a dramatic improvement. This final image illustrates a good point about adjusting colors, you might have heard that old saying about women’s makeup: “The trick to makeup is making it look like it’s not makeup”. This is especially true in photo correction. If your photo looks like color balance 2, people will pick it out immediately unless it’s understood that the photo deliberately should look the way it does. Color balance 3 looks like that perfect moment in time captured through the lens of a camera. That is what a good photo does for the viewer.

Hopefully after completing this tutorial you’ve gotten a better understanding of color adjustments for photos. There are many different ways to accomplish this same effect, this is just one. Perhaps you’ll see another tutorial with an alternate method soon! Until then, EXPERIMENT ALL YOU CAN with settings, filters, and effects in photoshop. Personal experience is the best teacher!

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