Digital Focus: Picture-Perfect Photo Editing

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Feature: Photo Editing With Adjustment Layers

There's a lot more to going digital than just using a digital camera. It also means loading your pictures onto a computer and using software to enhance them. Blurring, sharpening, color adjustment--these are all common strategies for improving photos. In fact, without an image editor like Jasc Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop Elements on your hard disk, there are few reasons to shoot digitally at all.

One of the problems people frequently encounter with image enhancements, though, is getting the perfect amount of a certain effect. If you're trying to soften someone's face with a little blur, for instance, it's easy to not add enough or to go overboard and make them look like a Denolian Space Princess from the original Star Trek series, who was filmed with a half-inch of gel on the camera lens. Hitting the perfect amount of blur--or sharpening or color correction or any other kind of edit--isn't always easy. Unless, of course, you do your edits in something called an adjustment layer.

The ABCs of Adjustments

Adjustment layers are easy to use and extremely powerful. Imagine loading a picture into your favorite image editor and, instead of immediately starting to sculpt it with your editing tools, you first make an exact copy and add it as a layer on top of the original. Now you can edit the top layer while the original remains unaffected. The bottom layer isn't visible to the viewer since the top layer--the one you're editing--obscures the one on the bottom.

When you're done making your changes, it's time for the adjustment layer to earn its pay. Image editors allow you to vary the opacity of layers--in other words, adjust how opaque or transparent the layer is. So, using a slider, you can reduce the opacity of the top layer, which consequently reduces the overall impact of the edits you made. By making the adjustment layer more or less opaque, you let the original unedited image shine through. And that means you can zero in on exactly the right effect to give you the picture you want.

Prep the Layers

Ready? Let's try this in Paint Shop Pro, though keep in mind that the technique is very similar in most other editors. Find a picture that you want to tweak. If you like, you can use one of mine.

In this example, we'll sharpen the image. When you're done, you can use the same image to practice using adjustment layers to add any other kind of effect. Once you know the basics, it's easy to experiment.

Our first order of business is to create the adjustment layer for this picture. Choose Layers, Duplicate from the menu. Paint Shop Pro copies the image and stacks the two resulting layers. You can see that in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen. Don't have the Layers Palette open? Choose View, Palettes, Layers. You should see two layers: "Background" and "Copy of Background."

To make it easier to keep track of these layers, you might want to rename the top one. Double-click on "Copy of Background" in the Layers Palette and change the Name field to read "Adjustment Layer." Then click OK to close the Layer Properties dialog box.

Time to Edit

It's time to edit the image. Make sure that the adjustment layer is selected--click on it in the Layers Palette. Then choose Adjust, Sharpness, Unsharp Mask. You'll see the Unsharp Mask dialog box, where you should set the Radius to 3.0, Strength to 100, and Clipping to 5. Click OK.

If you paid attention, you saw a rather dramatic change to the image when you clicked OK to apply the edit. In fact, it's probably a bit too much sharpening (but that's a matter of opinion, of course). If you think it's too sharp, don't worry--we can use our adjustment layer to back off a bit.

Double-click on the adjustment layer in the Layers Palette and you'll see the Layer Properties again. If you need to, increase the size of this dialog box so it's large enough to fill most of the screen. You can also use the magnifying glass under the image on the left to zoom in or out for a better view.

Finally, from within the Layers Palette you can reduce the opacity of the adjustment layer until you find the perfect balance between the original image and the sharper layer. Watch the preview image on the right. In my final image, I set the opacity to about 60 percent. Keep in mind that there's no perfect image--it's whatever you think looks best.

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