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Four Quick Tips to...

Four Quick Tips to Make a Decent Photo Great Using Photoshop CS(1-3)

I’m sure you’ve taken several digital photos and have wished they could have been better if only they weren’t so dark or if you had just cropped that crazy looking guy out in the background.

My goal in this article is to help you learn a few of the basic tools and filters in Adobe Photoshop that will help you take a decent digital photo and make it great. For a quick background on me, just so you know that you’re getting advice from an “expert” and not just a kid off the street, I have worked as a Graphic Designer for an advertising agency for over five years and have worked with Photoshop for over ten years. I’ve also been into photography for as long as I could pick up a camera. It’s one of my passions and joys in life. So here you go:

1. LEVELS: (Image >Adjustments >Levels)
The Levels option in Photoshop is used to move and stretch the brightness levels of an image histogram. It can adjust brightness, contrast, and even the tonal range by simply specifying the location of the three sliders you’ll find below the histogram. The three sliders control three ranges of tone—the complete blacks (black triangle), the midtones (gray triangle), and the complete whites (white triangle).

Keep in mind that each photo has its own unique histogram, so there’s never going to be one exact way of using the Levels option. By moving each slider, you’re going to redefine the image’s histogram. So, if I were to move the complete black slider from the left to the right, my image is going to take the darkest areas of the photo and make them even darker the further I move the slider. 

An image usually looks best when using the full range of the blacks and whites are used. Take a quick look at your image and find areas that should be completely black or completely white and move the sliders to get that look. Also, give the Auto button a try located to the right of the window and see how well that works for you. Sometimes it’s right on, and other times you’ll have to do it manually.

QUICK TIP: You’ll see three eye-droppers on the right, below the buttons. These can be used to point out areas on your photo that should be completely black or completely white. Click on the black dropper and then click anywhere in your photo that should be completely black, and vice versa for the white one. Once you do this, it will automatically adjust your levels to match the tone being used.

2. CROPPING: (Tools window >5th one that looks like two boomerangs overlapping)
The cropping tool is probably one of the easiest tools to use in Photoshop. It does exactly as it says and takes a photo and simply “crops” out the parts of the photo you’d rather not show. The tool is used by clicking in one corner and held to create a box around the area you wish to keep. Once you let go of the mouse button, you can then adjust the box further to your specifications (you’ll also notice that the “soon-to-be-cropped-out” areas are slightly shaded to help you see what your final crop will look like). Once you’ve adjusted the tool, simply double-click (or hit ENTER) to finalize your cropping. If it’s not to the desired look you can crop it further or hit CTRL+Z (APPLE+Z on a Mac) to go back to the original size.

QUICK TIP: Think of the picture as that of just one side of a Rubix cube showing nine smaller boxes. Photographs are generally better photos if the points of interest are located at the four points in which the nine boxes intersect each other. So when cropping, try and get your main focus of the photo to fall on those points. Also, if taking a landscape picture, make sure the horizon is straight across. You can use the cropping tool and take your mouse to one of the corners (once you’ve made your first box) and actually rotate the box to become parallel with your horizon.

3. REDUCE NOISE: (Filter >Noise >Reduce Noise)
“Image Noise” is the digital equivalent of what film would call “grain” in analog cameras. This will appear as random speckles throughout your photo, usually found on smooth surfaces. Unfortunately, every digital image will have some level of noise on the photos varying in the amount. Keep in mind almost all forms of noise are caused by the ISO speed setting of your camera (100, 200, 400, etc.) and can be reduced by selecting the correct ISO speed before taking the photo.”

Once you click on the Reduce Noise filter a window will pop up with the option of having the “preview” of your image to the left. For this tutorial, make sure the “Basic” button is selected. You should see four sliders: Strength, Preserve Details, Reduce Color Noise, and Sharpen Details. Each one of these sliders will effect the overall noise reduction of your photo. 

The first slider, Strength, will effect the intensity of the other three sliders below. The worse the noise on your photo, the higher you’ll want to set the Strength.

Secondly, you’ll find the Preserve Details slider. The higher the percentage of this will help to limit the amount of “blur” the filter will create while removing the noise speckles. You’ll have to gauge this on your own as each photo is different. Try zooming in on the picture and clicking the “Preview” button on and off to help see the effects (you can also click on the picture preview to the left).

Next is the Reduce Color Noise slider. This slider works by slightly or dramatically (depending on the intensity of the slider) dulling the color of the picture. Depending on how much of the contrast and color intensity you’d like to keep or lose, you’ll slide this lower or higher, respectively.

Finally, you’ll see the Sharpen Details slider. Increasing the level of this slider will help to clear up the dark contrast areas that may have been blurred out by the Preserve Details slider. If you use this slider properly in conjunction with the Preserve Detail slider you can get some outstanding results. Be careful though, overdoing the Sharpen Details slider can have some pretty detrimental effects.

To get the best results, use the “preview” option and mess around with the sliders a bit. Try pulling the slider all the way up and down to see what it can do.

QUICK TIP: You’re probably wondering what the heck that “Remove JPEG Artifact” is. Well many pictures are compressed as a JPEG (Joint Photographics Expert Group) file. When doing so, with any type of compression, you’ll lose certain details of a photo that were once on the original. JPEGs can have “artifacts” imprinted on them, especially if the file has been compressed and recompressed several times over. Most of the artifacts will appear near sharp edges of light and dark. Simply picture a check board with a few of the squares rotated a bit so that the lines no longer match. The “Remove JPEG Artifact” option can help to eliminate some of these imperfections.

4. SMART SHARPEN: (Filter >Sharpen >Smart Sharpen)
With a lot of digital cameras, the slightest movement can give you a blurry image. Sometimes the image is just barely blurry and you don’t notice it until after it’s too late to take another. The Smart Sharpen filter can help these types of images by clearing up the blurry lines and helping to give a crisper and cleaner looking photo.

Once the new window pops up it’ll appear very similar to the Reduce Noise filter option. Keep the “basic” button selected and move down to the sliders. In this filter you have two sliders, Amount and Radius. These are both used in conjunction with each other.

The first slider, Amount, acts similar to what the Strength feature does in Reduce Noise. The higher the percentage, the bigger the effect. Most often you’ll never go over 50 percent, as overly increasing the Amount will cause unwanted effects.

The second slider, Radius, is measured in pixels. Pixels are the very small boxes on your screen that are used to create the image we see. Digital camera quality can be measured in the amount of pixels a single picture can take (i.e ... five Megapixel camera). Zoom in really close and you’ll probably see the tiny pixels appear. The larger the radius is, the more dramatic of an effect. Try sliding it back and forth and view the preview to get the best possible results.

Next, you’ll see a drop down menu to the right of the word “Remove:”. The three possible selections are Gaussian Blur, Lens Blur, and Motion Blur. 

Gaussian Blur usually refers to an image that’s slightly out of focus due to improper focusing from the camera—it’s usually a “fuzzy” or “soft” looking image. 

Lens Blur deals a bit more with the improper focus as the picture was taken. It will appear as though lines have moved and you’re seeing double, perhaps as if two pictures were overlapping each other, but not exactly and both are blurred.

Motion Blur occurs when there’s quick movement in front of the camera, and is easily identified by long streaks behind what was a moving object while the picture was taken. If you choose to use this you’ll see an “Angle” percentage appear. Simply move the angle (shown in a circle to the right) and match it so that it’s parallel with the motion shown in your photo.

Depending on what type of blur you have on your photo, you can choose any of the above options. Once again moving the sliders and previewing the effects will be most beneficial.

By clicking the “More Accurate” option at the bottom will help to increase some of the contrast in your photo and, in turn, will usually provide a bit more crispness in your picture.

I certainly hope this has helped you not only understand some of the basics of Photoshop a bit better, but also how digital photography works. Feel free to send me a message if you have any further questions on this article or other Photoshop inquiries. Get out there and take some great photos!