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Sometimes black and very dark tones in a photo can appear a little weak or washed out. There are a lot of ways to correct this, but some methods can sometimes cause other unwanted changes in your photo. I’d like to present a way I came across recently to increase the density and saturation of black while leaving other tones and colors unaffected.
I shot this photo on a very bright day in the afternoon. Given the brightness of the situation, I wanted a fast shutter speed, but the face of the sign was in shadow, albeit very bright shadow. I had to find an exposure that would retain the very bright background as well as the face of the sign — too long of an exposure would blow out all the brighter aspects, like the sky, and too short of an exposure wouldn’t show the darker face of the sign, which was my subject. I wound up going with 1/250 shutter speed at f/5.6.
The blue sky was retained and the sign face wasn’t too dark, but the lettering was a bit soft, and just not as defined as I wanted it to be.
After my usual workflow in Adobe Camera Raw (adjust white balance, tweak saturation and luminance of blues and greens a little bit), I opened the image in Photoshop. I then did the usual modifications: reduce noise, especially the noise in the blue sky; sharpen the image; add a vignette to bring attention to the sign. I added a Curves adjustment layer to increase overall contrast, but the results just seemed to lighten and wash out the brighter tones too much, and didn’t do too much to the darker tones. (I did however want to darken the green frame of the sign, so I selected it with the Magic Wand tool and added a Curves layer so that just the selected portions of the sign frame would be affected. I then just chose the “Darker” Curves preset).
I still wanted to make the black lettering of the sign really stand out. They are a huge part of the image. I knew Curves wasn’t going to work like I wanted. Levels produced pretty much the same story — washed-out highlights. Hue/Saturation didn’t do the trick either. After experimenting (i.e. messing around) with these different adjustments, I tried the Selective Color adjustment layer.
Selective Color always seemed to me just that — for color adjustments. But it turns out you can choose black as well as white and a neutral gray to adjust. I still wanted to limit the adjustment to the sign lettering only, so I drew a selection around the perimeter of the sign with the polygonal lasso tool.
This way, when I open the Selective Color adjustment layer, the active selection around the sign is assigned automatically to the mask that opens with the adjustment layer. You can see in the layer thumbnail that the area I selected is white, and the surrounding area is black. The effects of the layer are only seen where the mask reveals the adjustment, where the mask thumbnail appears white.
With the Selective Color layer restricted by the mask to alter only the sign area, I scrolled through the pull-down menu until I got to black. You can do all kinds of amazing color changes here by altering the amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow, or black in whatever color you’re working on.
I just wanted to increase the amount of black in black. An increase of 10% black made the letters pop out a lot more without altering the yellow around them. (I could have selected only the letters and then used Curves to darken them, but that would have required a lot more work in selecting and refining the selection).
By using the mask, I was able to easily isolate the black letters. And the yellow included in the masked area would not be affected by increasing the amount of black, since Selective Color adjustment layers allow you to pinpoint changes to one color at a time.