Fiddling With Knobs: How Chuck Edits Photos
I use Photoshop on every photo I post to the web. Every damn one. I know that some feel that the manipulation of the photo takes it too far from “reality,” but that’s a hunk-a-dung. What the camera captures is never true, but it can be authentic. (That’s a post for another day, by the way, as “authenticity” has something to do with writing, as well.) What the camera captures is rarely perfect, especially when I’m holding it. So, I use Photoshop with two purposes. First, I want the photo closer to how I remember the snapshot in my mind, and second, I just want the photo to look good (to “pop”) on the web. That’s it. Game over.
Besides, it’s not like I’m doing some wacky photo composition and manipulation. I’m not inserting robotic geckos or Frankenstein monsters in my work. (Though damnit, I’d love to be able to manipulate photos like the masters — at present, I’m mediocre.) All I’m doing is adjusting. I’m tweaking, retouching, fiddling with the knobs and levers.
Generally, I take each photo through the same process, though sometimes I’ll go through other steps to achieve different looks. But here’s what I do to get the photos in tip-top shape.
Step One: Open the photo in Photoshop. If you didn’t know this part already, we should probably talk about getting corks on the ends of your forks and knives.
Step Two: Create a new Adjustment Layer in your Layers panel — use Levels. It’ll pull up that magical little histogram which looks like some kind of mountain or island. On each side of the mountain might be empty space (the “plains” next to the mountain). Drag the black slider and white slider in until you’ve moved them past the plains and to the base of the mountain. No need to mess with midtones. If it doesn’t look quite right, move them back a little bit until you’re happy. (More on using levels.)
Step Three: Create a new Adjustment Layer — this time, Curves. Mmm. Yeah. Curves. That’s right, curvy lady. Dance for Daddy. … What? Oh. Oh! Sorry, got a little lost there. Curves is a tricky thing because you can do quite a lot with it. Over half the time, all I’m doing with curves is getting rid of “unused tonal range.” First, anchor a center point (click!) in the very center of the line and the graph. Then, take the bottom-most point on the diagonal line and pull it in toward the center (try 1/3rd into the first square). Then do the same for the top-most point. Already you’ll probably see an improvement, but you’ll need to play with it to get satisfying results. Why are we doing this? Punching up darks, and brightening lights. Better than using contrast, I feel. (More on using curves.)
Step Four: Create a new (drum roll please) Adjustment Layer! (Why do we work in layers? Because you can undo and readjust. Layers are king.) This time? Hue/Saturation. You only need to edit the intensity of the colors through saturation — up or down, whole image or by chosen color. In the image here, I actually downplayed the saturation because after using curves, it brightened the “green” (really, yellow) too much. I don’t mess with hue at all — if I want to change that, I go to Step Five, Selective Color.
Step Five: Say it with me — new Adjustment Layer. This time, Selective Color. I don’t use this one all the time, and only use it when the colors of the image don’t quite line up with what I remember or desire. So, with the image here, I’m effing with the yellow tone, and making it greener, because that’s how I remember it, and I think it gives the photo a more “verdant lawn” look. Since I was belly-down in the mud on our lawn to get this shot, my will be done! Resistance will be crushed! Yellows will be made green! Raaaar!
After That: I might be done. I might not be done. I’m unpredictable like that. You think I’m going to the store to buy some bananas, but really, I’m in your house building an evil robot. Or something. Anyway. Things I might do after this include putting some kind of color filter over the whole thing, just to see what happens (like the red color filter, below), or using Unsharp Mask to get the image sharper. Unsharp Mask can be tricky. I only sharpen those parts that need it (the razor-thin DOF, for instance), because if you sharpen the blur, you might get noise. Also: note that Flickr auto-sharpens your photos a little bit. Sharpen too much, and Flickr will add sharpening to that, giving your work a grainier look than you might prefer.
And that’s it. That’s how I edit my photos for web consumption. I’m always looking for new tips n’ tricks, though, so if you have ‘em, send ‘em.