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Technical

June 2008

George Cairns

It's best to think of Photoshop as a digital darkroom that’s packed with all the photo-fixing tools and commands you’ll need to produce correctly exposed shots with accurate colours. Many of Photoshop’s tools have direct links to the more traditional film-based darkroom techniques. For example, you can fine tune any tonal problems by lightening or darkening specific areas using the brush-based Dodge and Burn tools.

The Unsharp Mask command helps you increase the contrast around the edge of objects in the shot to make the image look sharper. Colour related problems caused by incorrect white balance can be tackled with ease using commands like Photo Filter. This mimics the colour-correcting filters you can pop over the lens to warm up cool down or even creatively tint a shot.

Photoshop comes in two flavours. Photoshop CS3 is part of Adobe’s Creative Suite, and it is designed to work seamlessly with to other creative suite packages like Adobe Illustrator. Photoshop Elements is CS3’s budget baby brother. ‘Elements’ is packed with many of the photo-fixing tools that are present in CS3, but the cheaper version lacks many of the high-end image editing tools boasted by its bigger brother which is thus the more rounded choice for imaging professionals.

© George Cairns

Find specific photos quickly in Adobe Bridge using a host of tools like keyword tags, star ratings and even onion-skinned stacks.

One of CS3’s most unique and useful properties is its ability to let you edit non-destructively using Smart Objects. If you scale down a photo in Elements and then decide to re-size it to its original dimensions the up-scaled shot will have a variety of artifacts, like fuzzy blurred pixels. If you turn the photo into a Smart Object in CS3 then Photoshop will remember the dimensions of the original shot and let you re-size it with no quality loss. There are other ways in which CS3’s Smart Objects can dramatically assist you in your image editing and we’ll delve into these in more detail in due course. In CS3 and Elements you can erase pixels with the Erasure tool. CS3’s layer masks enable you to show or hide pixels in a non-destructive way so that you can fine-tune your edit to perfection.

Before we get too distracted by CS3’s pixel-pushing, colour-correcting, tone-changing tools let’s take a step sideways and look at Adobe Bridge, a piece of standalone software that ships with CS3 and is a package that you’ll find very useful. One of the biggest problems faced by digital photographers is asset management. We have so many digital shots cluttering up various folders on our PC that it can take forever to find a particular image. Adobe Bridge is more than as a souped-up file browser. As well as enabling you to navigate to various folders it boasts a suite of tools designed to help you manage your growing library of digital photos more efficiently.

© George Cairns

Use the Loupe tool to examine a shot’s actual pixels for focus and artifacts without having to waste time opening the file.

Many of us may shoot dozens of consecutive photos of our subject using our Canon DSLR camera's continuous (or burst) mode. This can lead to folders that are crammed full of similar looking shots, which means lots of scrolling to find specific photos. However, you can stack similar files on top of each other to save space. You can also 'Onion Skin' a stack to display all the shots as semi-transparent photos, making it even easier to find files fast. To activate this handy feature right + click on a stack and choose Stack > Enable Onion Skin.

The beauty of Bridge is the fact that you can view your folder’s contents in a variety of different ways. You can shrink or enlarge the thumbnails in a filmstrip view and preview specific shot’s pixels in a larger preview window. You can even examine a photo’s actual pixels at full size without having to waste time opening the image in Photoshop’s main interface. The Loupe view (which has been ported across from Adobe Aperture) acts like a magnifying glass that you can drag over parts of the shot to check it for focus or artifacts like sensor spots, for example. If you’re interested in how the shot was captured there are several ways to view the metadata that’s stored with each image. By viewing in Bridge’s Detail mode you can see a preview thumbnail accompanied by information on the ISO setting, shutter speed and focal length used to originally capture the image.

© George Cairns

Adobe Bridge’s camera LCD style metadata display is a nice touch, though you can display more metadata using the Metadata Focus view.

You can also use Bridge to display a photo’s metadata as an LCD-style screen graphic that mimics those found on the back of a typical digital camera. This attention to detail demonstrates Photoshop’s bias towards the needs of digital photographer’s needs (although the package also has tools to help web designers, typographers, designers and even animators).

With Bridge it’s easy to create and assign new keywords to the existing metadata of your photographs. This makes it easier to find specific files more quickly in the future. Go the Keywords pane on the right of the interface and open an existing keyword set like People. Right + click to open a pop-up menu. Choose New Sub Keyword. Type in a keyword name. Then select all relevant thumbnails and tick the box next to the keyword to assign it to the images. To find all shots containing a keyword go to the Filter on the left of the screen and tick the desired keyword. The relevant shots will appear in the main window.

Once you’ve organised your shots using Bridge just double click on them to launch them into Photoshop. The default Photoshop interface places the most useful tools and palettes to the left and right of the main workspace. Other image-editing commands can be summoned form the main drop down menu. Palettes can be collapsed into space saving strips, or dragged to float closer to hand. You can customize the interface to suit your individual image-editing needs (and even save different workspace layouts).

© George Cairns

CS3’s interface is fully customizable, so you can have the right tools for the job close to hand and hide the rest.

The palette dock on the right is packed full of useful tools like the Histogram palette. The histogram graph works just like the histogram display on your Canon DSLR’s LCD, enabling you to see the spread of shadows, mid-tones and highlight pixels contained in your shot. You can also use histograms to accurately fix exposure-related problems. The histogram-centric Levels command is located in the main drop down menu. You can use it to remap the shot’s tones to new values in order to brighten up highlights or to reveal detail that is hidden in the mid-tones, for example.

If you’re in a rush to sort out tonal problems there are plenty of Auto fixes in the main menu like Auto Levels (Image > Adjustments > Auto Levels), though these commands won’t always do a good job and can even add colour casts to shots. As a professional photographer you’ll want to tweak the tones in each shot manually in order to minimize artifacts and get a healthier contrast.

© George Cairns

The Shadow/Highlight command lets you target and tweak specific tones with ease without altering correctly exposed areas.

If you’re faced with a high contrast shot that has blown out highlights and is missing detail in the shadows then the Levels command may struggle to rescue the photo. Fortunately CS3’s Shadow/Highlight command is powerful enough to restore detail to a problem shot’s darkest and lightest pixels to create a picture with a more balanced tonal range. The great thing about the Shadow/highlight command is the fact that you can accurately target problem pixels without changing the correctly exposed parts of an image. You can fine-tune how much of a photo’s tonal range will be affected by your image editing by using the command’s Tonal Range slider.

At the left of the interface is the toolbar. This is packed full of the most useful photo fixing and retouching tools, like the Dodge and Burn tools. If you want to re-touch a portrait to lose a few spots from your subject’s skin then the Spot Healing brush tool will banish blemishes in a click. Most of the tools in the toolbar are brush-based. As you select a tool the editable properties associated with it will appear in the Options bar. Here you can change brush size and softness to help you to re-touch your shot more delicately and effectively.

© George Cairns

Use the Vanishing Point filter to automatically clone out unwanted pixels in using the shot’s perspective.

The Clone Stamp tool is one of the most powerful image retouching tools. You can sample pixels from one part of the shot and spray them over another to remove unwanted objects. Thanks to the Vanishing Point command you can even clone in perspective. This menu-based command allows you to draw a grid on an object like the wall of a house. You can sample a window from the foreground and clone it over an unwanted object (like a For Sale sign in the background). Vanishing Point will automatically scale down the cloned pixels so that they match the picture’s perspective.

Once you apply a filter to an image its pixels become permanently altered. To restore the shot to its unfiltered state you either have to step back through the history states or choose File>Revert. If you close a filtered document remember that you then can’t remove the filters at a later date. CS3’s re-editable Smart Filters give you a more creative choice over the finished edit and help to speed up your image editing workflow. You can now experiment with multiple filters without permanently changing your source file. Non-destructive Smart filters are huge timesavers as you can change the filter’s effect at any time.

© George Cairns

Remove people from a scene using the Smart Object related Median command.

Another powerful non-destructive editing tool in CS3 is ‘adjustment layers’ (which you can access from the Layers palette). You can edit a shot's brightness and contrast using a Levels adjustment layer and then turn the layer on and off to compare the edited version with the original image on the layer below. You can access and alter the adjustment layer at any time to fine-tune its settings (even after the file has been closed and then re-opened). This lets you edit your images safe in the knowledge that you can't damage the original source file! You can combine tone and colour correcting adjustment layers to produce perfect pictures.

Photoshop has plenty of powerful commands to speed up tedious tasks. Imagine that you’ve taken multiple shots of a landmark that’s been obstructed by passing tourists. You could manually stack each photo in the Layers palette and then use the Erase tool to remove the people from one layer to reveal part of the unobscured building from the layer below. Photoshop CS3 can automatically analyze the difference between each shot, work out which objects are moving and replace them with still sections from other layers. This creates a scene featuring the landmark unobstructed by passers-by. This type of job would take ages to do manually, but can now be done automatically in a fraction of the time.

© George Cairns

CS3’s Raw editor places the most useful photo-fixing tools ‘under one roof’ and you can even use it to edit JPEGs.

If you’re a Camera Raw fan then CS3’s ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) editor has all the colour-correcting, tone-tinkering and retouching tools that you’ll need to polish up your pixels without leaving the comfort and quality zone of the Camera Raw format. To make use of all the information crammed into a RAW file you can edit in 16 Bits per channel. You can target and change specific tones with ease. The Recovery slider lets you claw back detail lost in blown out highlights without altering shadows or midtones. You can crop and straighten your RAW files to improve composition.

The ACR editor is well equipped to enhance colours too. The Vibrance slider lets you boost a scene's colours without creating orange-looking skin tones. All the changes that you make to your RAW file are saved as an EXIF sidecar file so that you can fine-tune the changes or return the shot to its default setting and start editing from scratch. In CS3 you don’t have to shoot in RAW in order to enjoy the tools in the RAW editor. You can now give JPEG and TIFFs a tweak by opening them in the ACR. This places most of the tonal and colour correction tools under one roof (in a similar way to Element’s Quick Fix menu).

We’ve just scratched the surface in relation to Photoshop’s photo manipulating tools. In following articles in this series I’ll put the package through its photo-fixing, artifact-removing, colour-correcting, tone-tinkering paces to demonstrate why the name Photoshop is synonymous with image editing.