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Photoshop - the digital dark-room

Editing digital images


Digital cameras are these days ubiquitous and the market for these and the peripherals, printers etc, is buoyant, providing a boost for the computer market also. For the average person, it is sufficient just to make a trip with the memory card to the photo shop for a set of postcard-size pictures. OK for snapshots of the family at the beach and similar, but images ex-camera could be made so much better with some tinkering on the computer. For those with a computer (and printer), this can be done with picture enhancement software, simple applications of such often coming bundled with a new camera on a CD.

I would recommend anyone starting out with the intention of "serious" photography, to use Photoshop Elements which is a cut-down (but still very effective) version of the daddy of them all: Photoshop CS[x], a present version still available being CS6 (I use CS5). The manufacturers, Adobe, try to bundle it with other graphics applications to form a package called "Creative Suite" (thus the "CS"). Now, however, Adobe have introduced a new series CC (= "Creative Cloud") which may only be purchased by an annual subscription - a retrograde step in my view. Photoshop is as important as the type of camera I use, but I resist upgrading unendingly, especially if that is available only by expensive annual fees.

An alternative or additional software application is Adobe's "Lightroom". This is particularly useful for the photographer who shoots pictures in RAW format. Lightroom has various beneficial attributes and one can process a photo almost exclusively using just that programme and importantly without destroying any precious pixels. It is nevertheless an expensive addition (but fortunately purchased at a one-off cost) and really only for the dedicated.

This is an image which I downloaded from my camera. Not so evident in this case but often I find the picture is not straight, so that needs to be checked. The image seems flat because it has little colour and contrast. Yet this was on a sunny day with strong shadows. It's not as I remember the scene when I took the photo. So the camera (or my misuse of it) was unable to reproduce the scene adequately. The framing of the picture was reasonably OK but it is rarely the case that any picture could not be improved with a measure of cropping from the edges. In total, quite a number of adjustments are necessary.

The adjustments may be few or extensive, depending on what is required. In this case, here is something like the procedure:

  1. Straighten the picture (or skew it to get the verticals/horizontal right).
  2. Crop, as desired (being careful not to lose too many precious pixels - severe cropping indicates poor framing in the first place).
  3. Adjust the "Levels". This spreads the range evenly from black to white where the image may be abnormally gloomy or bright.
  4. Adjust the contrast with "Curves". This brings life into the picture (but must not be overdone!). A new adjustment of Shadow/Highlight could be used in addition or alternatively.
  5. Adjust the Colour. Here, there are a number of alternatives to change the colour balance or bring out (saturate) one or more colours. There are several procedures and tools for this. A useful facility is to place any adjustments on separate layers so that with any adjustments one can go back at a subsequent stage, re-adjust and then merge all the layers (using any of a variety of merge modes). Another great boon is that the "History" of all adjustments is kept in memory and one can go back to any preceding stage and start from there again.
  6. Many other adjustments may be made e.g. removing blemishes and applying other effects which may be desired. Photoshop has a plethora of tools, filters and procedures to satisfy every need and it is easy to get carried away with it all. Although these provide much scope for artistic licence, it's also where too many pictures are ruined!
  7. Sharpen the image. Most digital cameras produce images lacking some measure of definition and it is nearly always necessary to sharpen the outlines, usually after other adjustments have been made. A problem with sharpening is that it can also introduce artefacts - unwanted white haloes and the like. Photoshop provides some sharpening tools (such as the "Unsharp Mask") but the artefact problem is so difficult many other techniques have been tried, some of the best in my opinion being described by Mr Clive Haynes FRPS on his web-site (see Links page).
  8. Apply a border which I think often enhances an (unmounted) image.
  9. Save in an appropriate format. In most cases, JPEG may be good enough but there is a case for saving in TIFF or other non-lossy format if the image is likely to be worked upon further at a later stage.

   As modified.

   As downloaded from the camera.

After some attention along the lines described above, here on the left is the modified picture. I think it looks better and hope you agree. There are some however who suggest that "cheating" with the tools supplied by Photoshop or other programme misrepresents the reality of the scene/subject. That is nonsense, in my view, and anyway, the modified picture in this case is closer to what I remember was the reality. Of greater importance however, the modified picture appears much more appealing as a picture, and that is the true test.

Although I have no compunction in "doctoring" a picture for artistic effect, I do think this should be treated with circumspection. If one is undertaking a project of surreal art or other flight of fancy (not, in my opinion, to be attempted lightly), then of course it is necessary to use a variety of techniques, but I find that in some cases the artist over-plays the craft-work, possibly because of the relish in being able to apply the tools (especially the filters and plug-ins) which Photoshop offers. The result may look not just contrived and too fanciful but also unappealing, with some unfortunate errors sometimes creeping in as well (such as changing the sky and clouds but forgetting the direction of the sun, as I have done).

In summary, Photoshop is everything I could wish for in the sheer range of facilities it provides. There is a steep and long learning curve, which some dislike but not me. There is always something more which can be learned, and that for me provides the enjoyment. I would be disappointed if ever I were to master its full potential, but that is as unlikely as Hell freezing over. I have been using it for now over a dozen years and still it has so many nuances beguiling me!


Plug-ins.

There are two main adjustments which are necessary for most digital camera images - to reduce "noise" and to sharpen the definition. The image produced by most digitals, if not all, lack full definition - it seems to be a characteristic of the imaging sensor. Some cameras provide a setting to effect a degree of sharpening but this is really best left to post-camera adjustment. Noise is the appearance of speckles and blotchiness in plain surface areas, the sky and the like, giving the grainy appearance of pictures which may have been taken with very fast film used in non-digital cameras. With the latest cameras of large megapixel capacities the noise problem increases, even when using very low ISO settings. So it becomes another problem to be addressed in Photoshop and/or Lightroom.

There are various techniques to sharpen images and Photoshop also has several tools for this purpose as described above. Likewise noise can be attenuated by judicious blurring and sharpening in Photoshop. Nevertheless it can be more satisfactory and less fiddly or time-comsuming were different tools used. These may be added to Photoshop as "plug-ins" and consist of software procedures dedicated to a specific purpose.

There are oodles of plug-ins on the market (or downloadable free from the net) and one must choose carefully in order not to be weighed down with a plethora of such procedures. For noise, I use "Neat Image". This determines from a sample square of the image the amount of noise and then applies a smoothing to the whole image according to the reading. It works well and I find that virtually all of my photos ex camera are improved with its application (before using any other).

For sharpening, I use and can recommned no better application than a plug-in called "Focal Blade". This comes from a German developer (Harald Heim) trading as "The Plugin Site", and Focal Blade produces really remarkable results. The Plugin Site also produces other handy plugins for such jobs as correcting colour cast, improving contrast, and noise reduction (in competition with Neat Image).

There is one other plug-in which I find very useful, called "Focus Magic". This quite effectively improves a photo which may suffer either from it being out of focus or from motion blur due to camera shake. Both of these are common faults and Focus Magic is uncommonly good at correcting them.

A further set of plug-ins which I have recently acquired come from Topaz Laboratories, and these provide much scope for exercising one's artistic predilections, turning photographic images into virtual paintings.

Yes, I do have a number of other plug-ins but shan't describe them here. All ways of how to keep on spending more money!

If you have any thoughts or tips, please let me know - by e-mail E-mail HMT.



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