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Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to Bring Out the Story in your Casual Photos with Photoshop Filters

I've been wanting to attempt an article for the scrap-booker or casual photographer (folks like me, in other words) to share how I get the most story-telling "bang" out of my casual photos. If, on your quest toward becoming the expert photographer who always takes the perfect picture, you're like me and can't afford really high-end camera equipment with larger sensors, or if you just don't quite have the on-the-spot photography skills to meet the demands of every memorable moment you encounter, you may end up with a lot of bad, so-so average, and merely "okay" photos. (I'm not saying, by the way, that becoming a better photographer is a bad ambition). In fact sometimes even your really good photos may not quite reflect the image you stored in your mind's eye when you pressed that camera button; and if you're like me, you're always seeking ways to make your photos look even better. But good, bad, or ugly, the photos you've already taken are your reminders of the memorable events or scenes of beauty from your life. They're too good to throw away, yet somehow they remain pale, distant cousins of the actual experience - and you desperately want to breathe life back into them. So what I want to discuss in this article are ways I've found in Photoshop CS5 to change my so-so images into the image I hoped I would get when I pressed the button on the camera. These techniques may also apply to Photoshop Elements and Light Room.

But first let me clarify that this article is geared toward the snapshot photographer rather than the fine-arts photographer. It attempts to bring out the essence in snapshots, not to create beautiful oil paintings, collages, and water colors or abstract images from them - although those are also worthy and fascinating topics. I also make no claims of knowing best practice. For all I know, a professional photographer might tell you this article offers the worst piece of advice they ever heard. I can only offer what I've come across that has worked for me. Also this article is a concept piece that is not fleshed out into a full-blown tutorial; therefore it assumes the reader has a fair amount of knowledge about the computer and image-editing software (but don't let that stop you from gleaning ideas from this article even if you don't).

 So in improving my snapshots, the first thing I had to get past was my attitude - wanting all my photos to look picture perfect as if a professional had taken them - all crystal clear and focused (or appropriately soft and subtle), deep and richly toned, bright and colorful, correctly exposed, and expertly composed. In studying my snapshots (seeing them enlarged on a computer screen is really helpful in that respect) and in experimenting with some of Photoshop's filters, I realized that while my images were rather average as photos, they could be pretty spectacular as photo-realistic drawings or paintings especially with a little quick and easy help from Photoshop's filters. When I started seeing my photos as raw material to use to create something better (sort of the way a sculptor reveals the shape hidden inside a rock or a block of wood) or to tell a story, I began to see wonderful little details and treasures in my photos that just begged to be revealed. Your snapshots are like that too. In fact you may end up with several versions of the same photo or break it into pieces and derive several different images from one original.

One advantage of using Photoshop filters on your not-so-optimal snapshots is that they allow you to zoom in much closer on precious details and present them in more acceptable fashion in larger sizes - not as photos but as "art." And in smaller sizes (e.g. Facebook pages or 3x5 to 6x4 prints), the emphasized edges are not as obvious and merely add a subtle improvement to the whole snapshot. Two of my favorite filters in Photoshop are the poster-edges filter and the accented-edges filter. Poster edges make a photo look more outlined, like a true-to-life drawing (an example will follow in a future edit). It's really startling how this filter can bring out the essence of a detail or a subject in your photo - almost the way a caricature would. Accented edges also outline, but make a photo look more like a painting and lend a brighter and more Impressionistic effect to the image (an example will follow in a future edit). I often combine these two filters in the same photograph, because some parts of the photo may look better poster-edged while other areas look better accent-edged. If the accented edges and poster edges filters don't do the trick for you, there are many other filters in Photoshop you can try. I also like the rough-pastels filter when I need to feature a really sketchy subject or detail in a photo. Some Photoshop filters (and other techniques) even allow you to add a canvas or water-color paper texture to make your image appear more like a painting (or you can just print it on specialty paper). The main point I'm trying to make with all this is that with Photoshop filters you can salvage your precious memories in almost any photo you have and turn them into what I like to call "photo art"!

So what are my tools in Photoshop for turning my snapshots into photo art?
  • First of all there are free tutorials all over the web on how to do things and where to find things in Photoshop. Take advantage of these. Just type what you want to know into Google. There is plenty of free video instruction available, but I personally prefer text-based, because I live out in the country where bandwidth is fairly slow.

    My college instructor in my design class used to make us review two or three of these sites a week – he advised us to stick to the mainstream sources for these - Adobe and its affiliates, etc.
  • I've already mentioned Photoshop's filters (available under the Filters menu). 
  • I also use the cropping tool (to zoom in on or feature a detail or a particular subject and to try to take advantage of the rule of thirds), the clone tool on occasion, the dodge and burn tools, the straightening tool, the spot-healing tool, and the brush tool, as well as various selection tools (all available by clicking the appropriate icon on the toolbar).

    By the way: selection tools in Photoshop allow you to easily make changes to only certain areas of your photo and can blend in the edges so that they are not so obvious. This may take some experimentation and practice with the "refine edge" options available with any selection tool (particularly "smooth" and "feather"), as well as with your brush settings (size, softness, and opacity).

  • I make use of Photoshop's image adjustments, particularly levels, curves, and shadows and highlights (available either as adjustment layers or from the Adjustments sub-menu under the Image menu).
  • I also make liberal use of Photoshop layers and vary their opacity and change their blending modes (I particularly use overlay, screen, and multiply). 
  • And most of all I make liberal use of layer masks and the brush tool to hide and to reveal enhancements I make with the other tools and features.

I know this may sound like gobbledy-gook to some of you, but once you know what these things are and where in the program to find them, it's so easy! You just draw or paint over your image with your mouse or pen and watch it magically come alive. And if you don't like what you see you can easily revert back. If it helps you at all to understand what these tools do, many of them (e.g., dodge and burn tools and layer masks) are based on techniques photographers used in the pre-digital era.

So here is the work-flow I generally follow with my snapshots.
  • First I make a copy of the original and decide where I am going to save it. 
  • The first thing I try with my copy is adding a levels adjustment-layer (by the way, that is considered to be best practice). The trick to this is knowing how to set each end point and then the middle point. Move the slider at each end while holding down the ALT key (the screen will either go all black or all white) until you begin to see a little detail in the main area of the photo. Then use the middle eye dropper to select an area of the image that is medium gray. This should correct the color and improve the overall definition of the photo (If it doesn't, just throw the levels adjustment-layer away and move on. There are plenty of other tricks you can try, as you will see if you read on). 
  • After trying a levels adjustment, if you feel the photo is still too dark or too light, you can create a "stamp" layer of the image (CTRL ALT SHIFT E). This creates and ensures a new opaque layer with the image in its current state (with all the changes you have made so far). If you haven't made any changes, just duplicate the layer (CTRL J). In either case, you can then try a shadows-and-highlights adjustment on this new layer. Katrin Eismann in her book Photoshop Restoration and Retouching recommends that the shadows should never be adjusted as much as 35% (which is the Photoshop default). (note : see errata at bottom of article, added August 20, 2015)
  • Another trick if an image is too light or too dark, is to create either a stamp- or a duplicate-layer and change its blending mode to screen (if too dark) or to multiply (if too light). You can then vary the opacity of this layer if it over-corrects the problem or you can duplicate the layer multiple times (if one layer isn't enough). I've found the screening trick used in conjunction with a layer mask to be especially helpful in brightening or revealing skin tones (e.g. someone's face in the shadows) or in highlighting someone's eyes. (note : see errata at bottom of article, added August 20, 2015)
  • Another trick for bringing out detail and improving color is to polarize the image (you can google for tutorials on how to polarize an image in Photoshop - this takes several steps: first create a stamp layer, then desaturate it, next invert it, then apply a Gaussian Blur filter with a setting of 30 to 50 to it, and finally change the layer's blending mode to overlay). I will often try this next, just for laughs and giggles. (Once you have created several layers in your image, be sure to name them appropriately so you know what you did in each layer.) The polarizing trick should be used carefully as it can create rather funky results which you may not like. I generally look to see which areas, if any, are improved with the polarizing trick, then I add either a revealing- or a hiding-mask to the polarizing layer and use a soft brush on only the areas where I want to show or hide the polarizing effect.
  • After I have corrected levels and taken care of shadows and highlights, I will usually create a stamp layer and apply a poster-edge or an accented-edge filter to it. Sometimes I create a stamp layer for each filter and then use masks to partially reveal portions of each. Or sometimes I use a poster edge layer at full opacity and lay an accent edge layer at 50 percent opacity over it. There are no hard and fast rules, just experimentation and choosing what produces results that you like.
  • Another trick is to use the emboss filter with an overlay blending mode on a stamp layer to give the image a sharpened effect.
  • In the end I will end up with several layers on top of the original layer that was there when I first opened the file. I find it helpful to create a final stamp layer of the image, and then hide all the layers underneath that except for the original layer - so I can compare the original image to the final result. Sometimes I like what I see. Sometimes I don't. If I feel like I've over-done it, I can turn down the opacity of the final layer to dial back some of my changes.
  • From here I just save the image in Photoshop Format (so I can go back and change it, if need be). I can also create a jpeg copy for uploading to Facebook or printing sites.
Below are some "before and after" examples of an image modified using the techniques I have described in this article. In the first set, the lighting situation was challenging - the moving wagon was still some distance away and was coming from the west on a beautiful bright, sunny day mid to late afternoon (ergo very high contrast, e.g., very dark shadows and very light highlights). The story the picture tells is one of a barn party we had this fall to celebrate my husband's 70th birthday and other fall birthdays. It was a gorgeous day. Nieces and nephews and cousins that we hadn't seen since 2009 came with their children. Mid-afternoon, our daughter Bonnie (white tee-shirt w/blue sleeves) hitched up our two draft mules Kate and Annie and took the kids for a ride. On the way back, cousin Colton (who was just a toddler when we last saw him in 2009) was driving the mules with Bonnie's coaching.

Probably the best way to compare or appreciate the differences at full-size  is to right-click on each image to open each in a separate tab in your browser. You can then click back and forth.

Original Image

Modified image

This next set of before and after images was also edited using the techniques described in this article along with a cloud filter technique described in Stephanie Laird's series of ebooks How to Create Art from Your Photos. These photos depict my daughter and a friend going on a sled ride with Kate and Annie (our mules) on a blustery February day a few years ago. The original image was very dark. I may have gone too light with the corrected image, but notice how the details - Annie's tongue, the mules' gear, and the expressions on my daughter, her friend's, and the mules' faces are illuminated; and how the photo now tells the story I wanted to tell in more vivid detail.

Original Image

Modified Image

June Bug
JuneBug's Blog

See more of June Bug's photo-editing techniques at and on this blog.

Other recommended articles:
The Art of Digital Photo Retouching by Alex Osborn (this author explains the philosophy behind photo-retouching so well!)

Some Corrections and Errata, August 20, 2015:

  • In instances in my workflow where I have recommended creating a "stamp" layer and then changing the blending mode to screen or  multiply to lighten or darken an image, I recently realized while re-reading Katrin Eismann's book Photo Restoration and Retouching that you can simply add a levels or curves adjustment layer and change its blending mode to screen or multiply to accomplish the same effect. This method is preferred over what I recommended and will also probably result in a smaller, more manageable file! You can work with these levels or curves adjustment layers in much the same way as I discussed working with a stamped layer. You can vary their opacity and work with their masks (adjustment layers are masked automatically).

    Note, you will still need to duplicate your background layer or create a stamp in order to use the shadows and highlights adjustment and the filters that I have discussed (at least in Photoshop CS5).

  • In my workflow above, I said that Katrin recommended never adjusting the shadows as much as 35% when using the shadows and highlights adjustment. That is incorrect. What she said was that the default setting of 50% is almost always too strong and that she usually starts with a 20% correction in both highlights and shadows and then adjusts the sliders as needed (p. 93, Photo Restoration and Retouching).

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