One of the differences between a good photograph and a great one is how we handle the details. Check out this image of a beautiful Kuna woman who I photographed at the San Blas Hotel in the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of 365 islands that lies off the Atlantic coast of Panama. Compare it to the second and third photographs in this column, and you’ll see that it has stronger colors and more contrast. I’ll show you how to easily create a similar effect using Adobe Photoshop Elements. Of course, you can get to the same place using Adobe Photoshop.
I’d also like to show you something totally cool and actually rather amazing. Notice how the vertical edges of the door and windows are pretty much vertical in the opening picture compared to the way the doors and windows look angled outward in the second and third photographs. Believe it or not, that’s a quick fix, too! Let’s go.
Before we get going with digital darkroom stuff, I’d like to share a technique I often use when I want to photograph a person: I look for an interesting background first because the background can make or break a picture. I take a shot and check out my composition and exposure on my camera’s LCD panel. When I’m pleased with the result, all I have to do is position the subject in the scene, point and shoot. That technique lets me work quickly with a stranger so that I don’t overstay my welcome.
When I say that I’m “pleased,” I mean that I’m also pleased with the ideas I envision for enhancing an image in the digital darkroom, a major part of my photography.
Here’s the Photoshop Elements histogram, displayed in the Levels dialog box (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels or Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels) for the original image. It’s a great histogram! The different brightness levels of the image are fairly evenly distributed, from dark on the left to bright on the right. There’s a spike at the very far left, however, indicating that details in the shadow areas in the doorway will be lost, which is okay with me.
Hey, it was no accident that the woman is perfectly framed by the dark doorway. Before I asked her to step into the scene, I opened the door so that the shadow area framed her and made her stand out prominently in the photograph.
One reason for the good histogram was that the picture was taken very early in the morning in the shade on an overcast day. Those conditions created a low-contrast image.
By the way, there’s no such thing as a perfect histogram. How it looks, with its peaks and valleys, depends on the effect you’re trying to create.
After boosting the contrast (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast) a bit, from 0 to +9, the image took on a more dramatic look, as you easily see in the woman’s face and in her clothes in the opening image. More on that in a moment.
To re-create those colors, I clicked on the Polygonal Lasso tool on the toolbar and selected the painted part of the wall on which the woman was leaning. (Yes, I directed her to position her hands in that manner, too.)
After I made my selection, I went to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels and darkened that area by moving the Shadow triangle in the Levels dialog box to a position slightly inside the left side of the mountain range.
Next, after selecting the wall area again with the Polygonal Lasso tool, I increased the saturation by going to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation and then by moving the Saturation slider a bit to the right. The result of making those two color enhancements can be seen on the wall in the opening image.
At this point, my two adjustments were on two separate Adjustment Layers. That’s the beauty of working with Adjustment Layers. If you don’t like an adjustment, you can trash that layer and start over again. And, because a Layer Mask is automatically created when you create an Adjustment Layer in Elements, you can mask out or back in areas of the image to which you’ve applied an enhancement.
Now it was time to fix the distorted angles in the scene created by photographing the wide scene with vertical lines from a close shooting position and by using a 17mm setting on my 17-40mm lens on my full-frame digital SLR.
I selected the entire image area (Select > All). Then I went to Image > Transform > Distort and pushed in the top left and right anchor points until the doors and windows were vertical.
At first, I selected Image > Transform > Perspective and pulled the anchor points outward, thinking that technique would fix the problem because the perspective was off. It kind of worked, but I found that using Distort worked much better, again, as you can see in the opening image.
After having all that fun getting the colors to look vibrant in my image, I decided, as I often do, to see what a black-and-white version of the image would look like. After flattening the image, I went to Enhance > Color > Remove Color. That created a black-and-white image, a pretty flat black-and-white image. For a more vibrant image, I went to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast and boosted the contrast until I was pleased with the result. Try playing around with the contrast control the next time you create a black-and-white image in Elements. (In Photoshop CS3, use Image > Adjustment > Channel Mixer and click Monochrome. Or, better yet, create a great black-and-white image in Camera Raw.)
As a final touch to my black-and-white image, I cropped out the areas that I thought didn’t add anything to the image. Then, I added a Brush frame using onOne Software’s Photo Frame Pro 3. After that, I went back to my color image and applied the same cropping and frame.
Summing up, this column is about the image-making process: seeing a picture opportunity, making a picture on site and then transforming a straight-out-of-the-camera shot into an image that’s seen in the mind’s eye.
Rick Sammon (www.ricksammon.com) has published 27 books, including his latest: Idea to Image, Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photography 2.0, Rick Sammon’s Travel and Nature Photography and Rick Sammon’s Digital Imaging Workshops. He has produced a DVD for Photoshop Elements users, Three-Minute Digital Makeover, and three DVDs for Photoshop CS users: Awaken the Artist Within, Close Encounters with Camera Raw and Photoshop CS2 for the Outdoor and Travel Photographer.