Think Like A Painter

When I give a workshop, I stress to my students the idea of thinking like a painter because painters see and paint light on canvas in a unique and artistic way. I thought—and worked—like a painter to create the opening image for this column, enhancing my original RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop (picture below). As you can see, there’s a lot of data in a RAW file that may not be readily apparent.

In this column, I’ll share with you the enhancements I used on the opening image that illustrate some “think like a painter”

digital darkroom techniques. I’ll use Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS5, but these basic enhancements are found in other image-editing programs, too.


Here’s the basic “think like a painter” concept:

Decide what you want in the frame and what you don’t want in the frame. First, crop in-camera accordingly. Then, while you’re composing your picture, envision how you (and a painter) would crop the image in the digital darkroom. Also, consider how you can use the Clone Stamp tool to remove unwanted objects in a scene, or how you can use the Color Replacement tool to change the color of an object in a scene.

See the shadow and highlight areas in a scene, and then envision how a painter might represent them on canvas—perhaps letting the viewer see more into the shadows and toning down the highlights. You can do the same thing with a digital file using the Shadow/Highlight control.

See the color of light, and interpret that light in your own unique way by adjusting the color balance and tone of a photograph.

Think about sharpness. We usually see scenes totally in focus and sharp. Painters have control over sharp and soft areas of a scene, just as you do when you sharpen or soften areas of a photograph.


Compare these two screen grabs from the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) dialog. On the left are the default settings. On the right, you’ll see how I boosted the following enhancements.

Recovery: To retain detail in the highlights
Fill Light: To open up the shadows
Blacks: To add some drama to the image
Clarity: To remove some of the softness that’s associated with all RAW files
Vibrance: To add saturation to the colors in the image that weren’t already saturated


Next, I cropped the image—cutting out areas of the scene that aren’t very interesting with the goal of drawing more interest to the areas in the scene that are interesting. By the way, never underestimate the importance and power of cropping. Which would you rather have: a picture with impact or a picture with boring dead space? Again, think like a painter.

After clicking Open Image in the Adobe Camera Raw dialog, which opens the file in Photoshop, I used the Burn tool to darken the sky and tree line in the distance. I also used the Clone Stamp tool to remove the top of the dead tree on the left side of the frame.

Here’s an important note about using tools and brushes. First, I suggest using a Wacom tablet and stylus ( rather than a mouse. The tablet/stylus combo lets you “paint” in effects, as a painter would use a paintbrush. What’s more, the tip of the stylus is pressure-sensitive, so you can use the stylus as many brushes packed into one. You also can create your own custom brushes.


As always, I checked the Levels of the image, which shows, via the histogram, the distribution of the shadows and highlights in a file. If the “mountain range” of brightness levels isn’t fully to the right and left ends of the histogram, I make adjustments via the highlight and triangle sliders. If you’re not checking your histogram, in-camera and in the digital darkroom, you’re probably not getting the best quality image. Check your histogram, or else!


Originally, at this point in the image-editing process, I thought my work was done. However, because I was thinking like a painter, I chose to apply a painterly effect using the Painting-Venice effect in Topaz Adjust, a cool plug-in from Topaz Labs ( With this effect, as with all the effects in Topaz Adjust, you have unlimited control over the end result by adjusting the sliders on the right side of the dialog.


Here’s a painterly version of my photograph. To dress up the image, I added a creative Image Border in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4 ( While showing this image during one of my presentations, someone in the audience said, “I don’t like that image. It looks like a painting.” I gently suggested to the participant that when you remove some of the overall sharpness of the scene, you remove some of the reality, and when you remove some of the reality, a picture could become more creative and artistic. Then, I said thank you, because I wanted the image to look like a painting.

On that last topic: Follow your heart when it comes to digital enhancements. Some folks will like your work, while others may even hate what you do. For example, if you want to have some fun, do a Google search on “I hate HDR.” You’ll get hundreds of pages of comments.

Until next time, have fun with your own Quick Fixes on your photos.

Rick Sammon leads workshops and gives seminars around the world. He has been nominated for the Photoshop Hall of Fame. Visit Rick at

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