In photography, the background can make or break a shot. Therefore, composing a scene in which the subject stands out against the background is important, as is the aperture we choose to control the sharpness or softness of the background. Of course, choosing a background that complements the subject is also important. Many times, however, we're not in total control of the background. Sometimes the subject looks great, but the background looks distracting, bad or boring.
In this column, we'll take a look at a few quick fixes for the background. I used Photoshop CS6 for my enhancements here, but you can make similar enhancements using other image-editing programs.
The opening image is an enhancement of this photograph, which I took in Merritt Island, Fla. The background is busy, and the egret doesn't dramatically stand out. What's more, the other egrets in the scene detract from the main subject. The quick fix began with simple cropping and cloning. Darkening the background evenly was the next, and very important, step.
Notice I used the word "evenly" when I mentioned darkening the background. Trying to do this evenly with the Burn tool would be quite difficult. The key to darken the background evenly is to use a Curves Adjustment Layer: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves.
Once you create your Adjustment Layer, pull the Curve down to the bottom right-hand corner of the dialog box. That darkens the image evenly. (Pulling up the Curve to the top left makes the image uniformly lighter.)
After you make your Curves adjustment, your entire picture looks dark, making the main subject also look dark. That's where the Adjustment layer comes it.
When you create an Adjustment Layer, your adjustment is made on a new layer (the top layer seen here, in blue). On that layer you'll see a layer mask on the right, originally filled with white. Your goal is to "mask out" the Curves adjustment on the main subject. That's easy. On the toolbar, select black as the foreground color. Next, select a soft brush. Carefully paint over (mask out) the Curves effect on the main subject. You can see the result of your "masking out" on the layer mask. Here, it looks like a silhouette of the egret.
If you make a mistake and mask out some of the background, it's no problem. Select white as the foreground color and paint over that area. Remember, black masks out, white reveals.