5 Photoshop Tools to Take Your Images from Good to Great

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Seascape image - Before and After image editing

Seascape image – Before and After image editing

We hear it all the time, “That photo has been Photoshopped”. Sometimes it sounds like the photo has caught a disease or that Photoshop is some undesirable effect that has been added to the image. Photoshop is the KEY to making your good images look spectacular. Yes, I said “good” images. Photoshop is not about fixing mistakes or trying to rescue a bad shot. It is more about refining your images and making them look amazing without overdoing it. Photoshop is a fantastic tool when it is used effectively but can be your enemy when you overdo it. Depending on what you want to achieve with your photos, this quick guide to five Photoshop tools will help you adjust your exposure effectively and make the colour really pop out of your image.

NOTE: the examples in this article simply show you how to make the adjustments on a separate layer. You could also use an adjustment layer which gives you much more control over the adjustment. The only tool that can’t be used with an adjustment layer is Shadow and Highlights. I will go into more details about adjustment layers in upcoming articles, for now, if you follow these guidelines, your images will look compelling and rich without looking overdone.

1. Shadow and Highlights Tool

This tool will be used to get more detail in the shadow areas of your image. Modern cameras can capture lots of detail, but depending on the light in the scene you are shooting, the shadows may be a little dark. The Shadow and Highlights tool will bring back some of the details in those areas.

Open your image in Photoshop and go to:  IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > SHADOW AND HIGHLIGHTS.

Finding the Shadow and Highlights tool

Finding the Shadow and Highlights tool

The tool will pop up and you will see this (as shown below), if you don’t see all these sliders, click “more options” to expand the box. You will use this tool to bring detail back into the shadows and you won’t be making any adjustments to the highlights. I find that the highlights part of this tool does not do a really good job, so I don’t use it at all.

Making adjustments to the Shadows in the image

Making adjustments to the Shadows in the image

The best way to work with the tool is to slide the Amount slider under the Shadows box to about one third across (33%). Then slide the Tonal Width slider to directly under the Amount slider. Lastly  bring the radius slider to directly under it. In most cases, you will want to have these sliders directly under each other (see screenshot below right).

shadows-highlightsThe important thing to remember here is to make the adjustments and take careful note of your image has been affected. Click on the preview button on the right hand side of the tool (you can do this with all the tools in this article) to see the “before and after”. You will be able to see at a glance how your changes are working. If you need to extract more detail from the shadows then slide the Amount slider to the right even more but make sure you line the other two sliders underneath it.

The amount that you decide to adjust the shadows is up to you. Be careful not to overdo it. Once you start seeing a “glow” around certain parts of your image, you may have gone too far. This glow is often referred to as a halo which can be avoided by watching carefully how your adjustments are affecting your image. If you see them appearing, simply drag the sliders back to the left until they disappear. Once you are happy, click OK.

2. Levels Tool

With your image open and the shadows adjusted, you will now adjust the overall exposure in the scene. If your image is a little over or under exposed, the levels tool can fix that. Go to: IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > LEVELS on the menu bar (or using the keyboard shortcut Command/Control+L). You will see the LEVELS dialogue box pop up and it will have a graph in it. This graph is called a histogram.

histogram

A histogram is simply a graphical representation of the pixels in the scene. If the graph is pushed over to the left side it means that your image has more darker tones in it, if the graph is over on the right side it means that your image has more brighter tones. There is no right or wrong histogram, it is simply a representation of the light in your scene. There are some great articles about histograms on the dPS site, so if you want to learn more about them, click on one of the links above.

Using the Levels tool to enhance the exposure and boost contrast

Using the Levels tool to enhance the exposure and boost contrast

The important thing to remember when working with levels is to make sure you don’t adjust your image so much that it causes the image to become under or over exposed. Thankfully, Photoshop gave us a way to see if that is happening, which I will explain shortly. Firstly, you will notice there are three sliders on the bottom of the histogram. The slider on the right is white (adjusts highlights) the slider in the middle is grey (adjusts mid tones) and the slider on the left is black (adjusts shadows). The levels tools will help adjust contrast and colour in your image. You can start the process by clicking and dragging the white slider in (move it to the left) to touch the edge of the histogram. Do the same for the black slider (drag it to the right). Your image will already look better.

Using the ALT key to see where the highlights are being overexposed

Using the ALT key to see where the highlights are being overexposed

Then you can move the middle slider to the right or the left to see which works better. Small changes always work best, so don’t make extreme changes on each slider. If you want to see how your adjustments are affecting your image, hold down the ALT key (PC) or OPTION key (Mac) while you click on the white or black slider. When you click ALT and hold down the white slider, the image will go black. As you slide to the left, you will see some red areas in your image (see above). When you see this, Photoshop is showing you which parts of the image will be overexposed, or clipped. The opposite is true for the the black slider. If you hold down ALT and click on the black slider, the screen will go white and as you slide to the right, the areas that come up on the screen will be underexposed, or clipped. It is a good idea to use this function if you are not sure if you have overdone your adjustments in Levels.

3. Colour Balance

This is a good tool to use to change the overall colour in the image. If your image is too blue and want you want it to be warmer, then you can do that by pulling up the red tones. Also, if your image has an undesirable colour cast, maybe the overall colour of the scene seems too green, then you can correct that by using this tool. The colour balance tool is found in the top menu bar under IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > COLOUR BALANCE (or using the keyboard shortcut Command/Control+B).

color-balance

Once the dialogue box is open, you will see three sliders (as above). The sliders represent the visual colours in the image, and are set in the middle by default. By moving them to the left or the right you will be able to change the colour in the image. The top slider affects Cyan/Red, the middle slider works on Magenta/Green and the bottom slider is Yellow/Blue. The colour will change according to which slider you choose and how far left or right you move it.

Note: you can also choose which area of your image to affect as in the Shadows, Midtones or Highlights but selecting the appropriate button in the Tone Balance section below the sliders.

You will want make small adjustments here too. A big adjustment can make your image look over saturated with a particular colour and that will look unnatural. The idea is to enhance your image by boosting certain colours in the scene. So, if you have a sunset image (as below) you may want to boost the reds, yellows and magentas. That will make your image look warm and will give the scene some colour boost.

Using Colour Balance to boost the colours in the image

Using Colour Balance to boost the colours in the image

4. Hue and Saturation

One of the most powerful colour tools in Photoshop is the Hue and Saturation tool. To open it go to: IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > HUE/SATURATION (or using the keyboard shortcut Command/Control+U). This tool can be used very effectively to adjust all the colours in your image. When you open the tool, you will notice that there are three sliders again, namely Hue, Saturation and Lightness.

hue-saturation

Hue means colour, this is not used very often as it will reassign the colours in your image, what you want to use this tool for is saturation. Saturation controls the richness or intensity of the colours in your image. Above the three sliders you will see a drop down box called Master. If you click on this, you can choose the colours that you want to saturate. This gives you very fine control over each colour in your image. You can select each colour individually and adjust it according to your preference. You may want to saturate the reds and yellows more than the blues, as an example, this tool allows you to do that. It is good to know that you are not adding colour to your image, you are saturating the colours that are there. Again, incremental adjustments are key. Don’t overdo it, small adjustments throughout this process will make your image look more natural and more dramatic

Getting the most out of the Hue and Saturation tool by saturating colours by channel

Getting the most out of the Hue and Saturation tool by saturating colours by channel

5. Vibrance

vibranceThe vibrance tool is found under IMAGE  > ADJUSTMENTS > VIBRANCE (no shortcut). It effectively saturates colours that are not completely saturated. This is a good finishing touch to your image editing to make sure your image gets a final boost. There is no real guideline as to how much you should adjust on this tool, but be aware of how it is affecting your image. Once this step is complete, your image should look remarkably different and if done correctly, the viewers won’t be saying those dreaded “Photoshopped” words.

The final step, boosting the vibrance to get that extra pop in the image

The final step, boosting the vibrance to get that extra pop in the image

In Conclusion

These five tools will help you make your good images spectacular. The important thing to remember in Photoshop is to make adjustments incrementally. As you can see from this process you slowly and incrementally make changes but the overall effect is dramatic without looking overdone. There are many other tools in Photoshop that can add even more enhancement to your images (I will be doing articles on those over the next few months) but start with these and get comfortable with how they work. To summarize, in Photoshop, slower is better and many small adjustments make a more dramatic impact on your image than a few large adjustments. Enjoy and experiment and as always, let me know what you think in the comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here. You can also join Barry on a photography workshop in Canada. Click here to find out more.

  • David

    It seems to me that all the tools you mentioned have suitable equivalents in Lightroom. Is Photoshop really worth the extra price if you’re not going to try to remove or add things?

  • barryjbrady

    Hi David. I would say that I partly agree with you. There are some tools in Lightroom that are very similar to what I have shown here, Hue and Saturation as an example. However, some of the other tools like Shadow and Highlights in Photoshop give you a bit more flexibility. You can adjust the amount of change, the tonal width and the radius. In Lightroom you can simply push the highlights up or down and the shadows the same. The same is true for the Levels tool in Photoshop, it is a very flexible tool and the method in this article is just the first step. From here you can use levels to correct colour casts, you can select a grey point or a white point to correct colour. You can work with the interplay between the tones in the image i.e. Highlights, mid tones and shadows. So levels alone gives you a lot of flexibility. The tone curve in Lightroom gives you similar functionality, but its not quite as powerful. I will be doing in depth articles on these tools to show you just how useful they can be. Lightroom is a great tool, but Photoshop gives you that much more flexibility and refined control and that (in my opinion) is one of the biggest differences between the packages. The Photoshop RAW converter looks very similar to the Lightroom Develop module, so normally I make some adjustments there before I even move the image into Photoshop. So, I see Photoshop as the fine crafting tool after all the rough edges have been taken off with Photoshop RAW or Lightroom. Is Photoshop worth the extra, I really think it is if you are willing to spend the time to learn what it can do.

  • alireiner

    Worth reading ;Try both LR and CS Adobe has refined their Photographers program Now with a fixed price structure $9.95 a month with only MINOR price adjustments for inflation.

  • Katherine Montjoy

    Can you explain to me why your preference for photo editing is PhotoShop as opposed to lightroom? I use lightroom and only lightroom and (I feel) get great results. But I’m always up for something new.

  • Katherine Montjoy

    I seriously just asked the same question. I’m gonna give PhotoShop a shot.

  • barryjbrady

    Correct Alireiner, at $10 per month, it is worth it. I am on that package and it works well!

  • barryjbrady

    I don’t prefer one package over the other, I simply use them for different functions. If I want to do some quick edits to an image, I use Lightroom. I use Lightroom as my image manager too. It is a great cataloguing tool. If I need to do more detailed editing like advanced layers, compositing or other advanced work, then Photoshop is the package for that. Lightroom is an awesome tool, so don’t get me wrong, Photoshop takes image editing to the next level though.

  • John Sole

    Why does DPS keep on advertising photoshop. With a few exceptions, Serif PhotoPlus will do all this for a fraction of the price.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for your comment John. This article is not an advert for Photoshop at all, it is about showing what is possible in the most used image editing tools (Photoshop in this case) Yes, there are other packages out there, however, Photoshop and Lightroom probably make up the lions share of image editors for most readers of this blog.

  • barryjbrady

    John, here is a link to a poll that is done every two years on DPS, it gives a breakdown of the image editing software being used by our readers.
    https://digital-photography-school.com/post-processing-poll-results/

  • earl jules

    Why don’t you ever date your articles…?
    I often find myself reading long tutorials and upon attempting to implement some of the techniques, find out my options don’t match with the options in the article.

    (sigh)

  • bruce vigneault

    Great article, Barry. I learned this general workflow years ago at a Scott Kelby seminar. I use both LR and PS now. But, I was not aware of the additional fine controls for Shadow areas in PS (as opposed to the LR control). I can’t wait to start ‘playing’ with these! Thanks for info!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Bruce, have fun exploring and playing!

  • Prathmesh Deshpande

    I want more tips about wildlife photography post processing.
    Could you please help me?

  • Nguy?n Vi?t Hoàng

    thank you very much for this detail article

  • barryjbrady

    Sure Prathmesh, what questions do you have?

  • barryjbrady

    Thank you for reading Nguyen!

  • This is a current article. What do you have that doesn’t match?

    No we don’t date them but you can tell my the date of the first comment on the article. Sorry I can’t explain why but there are reasons.

  • Yes as Barry said. Most of our readers use PS or LR or both. That’s why. It’s not advertising – we just try and write and provide tips for the most readers. Sorry if this is not what you use but often the other software options have similar tools.

  • Just for your reference I use Lightroom for about 90% of what I do with my images. I also use some plugins and PS but not as often.

    So it really depends on the workflow for you.

  • earl jules

    I suspect that the reason the date is absent is because visitors won’t read them if the articles have aged. . .
    but the way, a period is not a date. . .
    two months tells me when the comment was made,
    NOT when the article was published. . .
    * * *
    I have Photoshop CC v. 14 . . .

    My attempt to get to the first item at the top brings me
    a window that looks nothing like what the article displays. . .
    I dismissed anything else the author had to say. . .
    why should I trust anything else he has to share if we’re
    on different versions…?

    The recommended concepts are sound. . .
    the recommended execution is useless. . .
    I can’t follow along. . . (sigh)

    Which is why I would like to know how old an article is
    BEFORE I start reading it and trying to follow along.
    I suspect that hiding the date is definitely the case
    since the author never bothered to mention the version
    he was using. . . (sigh)

    Until that time. . . Earl J.

  • Naveen Kumar

    It’s verty use full to me . And I want to learn photoshop but I don’t have pin point knowledge about this can u teach how to start and how much effective it s

  • Fay

    I know you posted this 8 months ago – but you missed the part in the tutorial that said click the more options button to see the rest of it. I have CC14 and it works for me.

  • DD877

    I just did a Picture I took and it is very slick. Thanks…

  • You are welcome DD877

  • Good tools list. As a designer i think that the post is helpful for basic level designer. The color balance tools i like most. Thanks for sharing.

  • George

    Thank you for a quick and easy tutorial. great information without getting to technical for a begginer like me..

  • Michael Illuchine

    Thank you!

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