As a photographer, and an obsessive-compulsive nut, I spend a lot of time working on tweaking photos in Photoshop. Inspired by a recent project, here’s my workflow for one image. Here’s what I started with:
It’s an aerial photograph, and certainly not a bad photograph. But it can be better!
The first thing I tend to address is how much detail is “lost” in the shadows and highlights. Often you’ll find a photo that looks washed out. (Less often, you’ll find one that’s excessively dark.) The good news is that, within reason, you can fix this up. The classic way is the Levels tool in Photoshop (Ctrl+L). But newer versions have a Shadows & Highlights wizard, something I’ve taken to using before I even get to Levels. The Shadows & Highlight tool (Image / Adjustments / Shadow & Highlight) gives you two sliders, one to bring out detail in the shadows (the dark regions), and one to bring out detail in the highlights (the exceedingly light regions). Here’s how it looks after a quick adjustment:
It’s definitely looking better. But it’s still not quite there. You have to be careful with the Shadows & Highlight tool, because applying too much results in an image that looks entirely artificial. You can adjust it so it starts to look like real life, but take it much further and you’re quickly at, “Wow, someone got carried away in Photoshop…” So I had to stop when the image was still slightly washed out. Take a look at the shadows cast by the buildings, which are the darkest part of the photo. The darkest part should be black, not gray. This is where Levels (Ctrl + L, or Image / Adjustments / Levels) comes in:
A few things to note. The graph is called a histogram, and it’s basically a graph of how much of the photo is each shade of gray, ranging from pure black on the left to pure white on the right. Short of just hitting the ‘Auto’ button (which often produces results I don’t quite like), the easiest way to tweak the levels is to drag the sliders appropriately. Pull the black arrow (underneath the graph, above the “0” text box) until it points to where the graph is just starting to slope upwards. (Or, more accurately, to where the graph is non-zero.) You could do the same with the whites, although in this case, it’s properly-adjusted.
In this case, this is all we need. Press “OK” and you’re done. (A more advanced technique that’s sometimes called for involves using the eyedroppers above the “Preview” checkbox. Click the black eyedropper, and then click on the photo to select what you want to define as 100% black. Do the same with the white eyedropper, selecting what should be pure white in the photo. The gray one is more tricky, as you’re setting color balance, but you essentially want to find a “neutral gray,” something like pavement. You really just click around until you find something that looks good. But in this case, none of this is necessary.)
After clicking OK, here’s what you get:
The shadows are now black. More generally, and perhaps more importantly, the photo no longer looks washed out. It’s properly exposed.
In this case it’s not bad, but the next step is to look at the color cast of the image. It’s more pronounced in other photos, which often have various color tints that they shouldn’t.
Here’s the Variations menu (Image / Adjustments / Variations):
Make a habit of clicking on the photo under “Original,” which will reset it. When you first start otherwise, it’ll save whatever settings you have from last time. Unless things are insanely bad, I tend to slide the slider over from the center to where it’s shown in the photo. Do this mostly just “to taste.” My end result is subtle:
Now, we’re basically there. One last thing. I like really “sharp” images. It’s not blurry per se, but it doesn’t have that “tack sharp” status. Photoshop makes it very easy to sharpen images. I tend to use the “Smart Sharpen” available in newer Photoshop versions, though the older “Unsharp Mask” remains popular and effective. Here’s the Smart Sharpen (Filters / Sharpen / Smart Sharpen…) dialog:
You set two things: the amount of sharpening to apply, and the radius of the sharpening. Here, I used settled on an amount of 66%, and a radius of 0.5 pixels. This sort of blend is common. Another alternative is the “haze” sharpen, which is something like 20/20 (a low 20%, but over a huge 20 pixels). Applying the 66%, 0.5-pixel sharpening gives us this image:
So here we are. We’ve made lots of subtle changes, but all of them are quick. But then jump back to where we started:
One additional tip: I didn’t need it here, but adjusting Saturation can help with some more dull-looking photos. Ctrl+U is the shortcut to memorize, but Image / Adjustments / Hue & Saturation is the menu entry. Just don’t go too overboard.