Fine-Tuning a Photo With Layers

Photographers are cheats. At least, that's what you might think when you learn about the techniques they use--it's impossible to achieve the results most professionals get just by clicking the camera's shutter release. Instead, you need to use an image editor to improve your photos. In the past, I've introduced you to the basics of using layers. This week, let's get a little more advanced. We'll see how to selectively apply edits to specific areas of your photo using adjustment layers.

Layers Refresher

As I've explained before, layers are pretty much just what they sound like. Imagine stacking several pieces of paper atop one another. You can see only the top paper, but all the others are still there, underneath. If the paper is partially transparent, you can even see some of the underlying sheets.

That's how layers in your photo editing program work. You can "layer" multiple photos in almost any modern photo editing program, and this allows you to do all sorts of cool things. Even better: If you save a copy of the image in the photo editing program's native file format, you can always reopen the file later and work on the photo with all the layers intact, just the way you left them. When you save the photo as a JPEG, though, all the layers are squished down to a single image.

Using Adjustment Layers

Adjustment layers are a little different from ordinary layers. Each adjustment layer is a copy of the same photo, but each layer is custom designed to allow you to tweak specific exposure-related aspects of the image. In Adobe Photoshop Elements, for example, you can create adjustment layers to change a photo's levels, brightness, hue, and saturation, to name a few. Corel Paint Shop Pro gives you similar adjustment layers options, but throws in the very handy Curves tool as well.

On the left in the image linked here, you can see the adjustment layer options in Photoshop Elements; on the right are Paint Shop Pro's options.

I'll demonstrate how to use adjustment layers in Photoshop Elements, but the general principles work in almost any modern photo editing program.

Fixing Your Photo

Open a photo and decide what kind of changes you want to make. Suppose you need to adjust the brightness and contrast, and you'd also like to desaturate most of the image.

First, we'll add the Brightness and Contrast adjustment layer. To do that, choose Layer, New Adjustment Layer, Brightness/Contrast. Click OK. Next, you'll see the standard brightness and contrast sliders. You can tweak the levels now, but it's easy to do it later, too. Click OK.

Now, let's add the other adjustment layer. Choose Layer, New Adjustment Layer, Hue/Saturation. Click OK. Again, you'll see sliders--this time for hue, saturation, and lightness. Click OK. Now that both of the adjustment layers are open, you can see them in the Layer Palette on the right side of the screen. Here is what the Layers Palette looks like in Photoshop Elements with both the adjustment layers in place.

Since we didn't fix the brightness and contrast earlier, let's do that now. Find the Brightness/Contrast layer in the palette and double-click the adjustment symbol (the white and black circle on the left side of the layer entry). Now you can drag the sliders around to change the photo. Notice that these sliders affect the entire photo. When you're happy with the result, click OK.

We also want to desaturate the photo; let's make it almost black and white. Double-click the adjustment symbol in the Hue/Saturation layer, and then move the saturation slider to taste. When you're happy with the result, click OK.

Painting Away Adjustments

At this point, you might be done--you've tweaked your photo and made custom adjustments to aspects of its exposure. You could save the photo as a Photoshop (.psd) file so you can work with the layers again some other time.

But what if you want only part of the photo desaturated? What if you'd like the brightness change you made to only affect the subject, not the background? You can paint away the changes you don't like.

To mask out the effect of an adjustment layer, just paint over it with black. Try this: Click the Hue/Saturation layer in the Layer Palette to make sure it's selected. Then click the Brush Tool (shaped like a paint brush, near the bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen) and, making sure that black is selected in the color palette, start drawing on the image. Everywhere you paint, the original saturation of the photo should return. If you look in the Layer Palette, you'll see black appear indicating where you've masked the adjustment layer.

You can mask each adjustment layer independently, so you can allow the brightness and contrast adjustments to reach completely different parts of the photo than the saturation change. If you look carefully, you can see how the black marks in the Layer Palette correspond to changes in this photo.

Control the Overall Intensity

You can also tweak the overall intensity of the adjustment layer's effectiveness. To do that, return to the Layers Palette, select an adjustment layer, and then drag the Opacity slider to the desired level. You can adjust each layer individually.

What Photo Editor Do You Use?

What is your favorite photo editing program? Are you happy with the way I use Adobe Photoshop Elements to demonstrate editing techniques, or would you rather see me mix things up with another program?

Vote in the Digital Focus poll by Thursday, April 1, 2010 to help me choose how I should cover photo editing in the future.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Light and Dark," by Sondra S. Ettlinger, University Park, Florida

Sondra writes: "While visiting a museum in Athens, Greece I captured this image with my Canon 20D. I had to wait several minutes until people stopped walking back and forth, and then only had to crop one other person out of the original to create the shot. Patience paid off!"

This week's runner-up: "Coronet" by Myka Peterson, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Myka writes: "I took this shot of my boyfriend's cornet while we were taking a break during brass band rehearsal. I used my Canon Powershot S90 set to a large aperture and macro mode in order to focus in on the first valve."

To see last month's winners, visit the February Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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