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Cropping, Levels: First Steps in Photoshop

By Chris Malinao

Admittedly, Photoshop is a beast. It’s hard to learn, hard to use— true— if you’re just beginning. But you need/want to use it because you’re a photographer and you’re with fellow photographers who showed you how their photos went from blah to bloom because they used Photoshop. And someone showed you how he did it in Photoshop, showed you step by step how to transform an ordinary picture into a drop-dead gorgeous image. The picture has vastly improved; the composition is just right, the exposure perfect, and the colors outstanding. And you want that, too, you want to learn Photoshop.

Then your friend tried to teach you, “This is the toolbar, this tool does this, that tool does that,” and he went from tool to tool…and you fell asleep! Do you need to learn about each and every tool all at once? No. There are almost 70 tools in Photoshop as of last count, nestled under various categories: Selection Tools, Crop and Slice Tools, Measuring Tools, Retouching Tools, Painting Tools, Drawing and Type Tools, and Navigation Tools. Then there are Layers and Blend Modes. It will take a long time to learn Photoshop if you go that way.

The thing to do is to learn only the tools that you need for the moment, what tools you should use to develop a photograph at hand. And then go to the next photograph, then the next, and so on, remembering every step of the way what toolsyou used and how you used them. How do you remember all these? By writing them down. Post-processing in Photoshop is like cooking, you follow a recipe. If the outcome is good, you keep the recipe for use the next time.

As you do this over time, you get to learn the tools and how to use them. If you keep doing it, expanding your learning each time, you become proficient with it. If you’re dedicated, you become an expert.

Let’s begin. Say, you have a photograph. You open it in Photoshop by going to File > Open. Alternatively, you may also drag and drop a picture from the File Explorer (Finder in the Mac) into the Photoshop work area. Now, you have it open in Photoshop. Where you see it in Photoshop is called the Canvas Area, or work area. The whole interface you see right now is your Photoshop workspace. If you go to the upper right corner of your workspace and click on a dropdown menu there, you will see options for workspaces: Essentials, 3D, Graphic and Web, Motion, Painting, and Photography. Don’t mess up your mind, choose Photography and be sure there’s a check mark there.

CROPPING

The first thing you usually do is cropping, if you need to improve your composition, get rid of the extra space that does not help tell your story. Press “C” on the keyboard to activate the Crop Tool . Press “C” again if you got the Perspective Crop Tool instead, they are grouped together. To help you with composition, click on the Overlay Icon on the context menu across the top of the canvas area. The overlay defaults to Rule of Thirds but there’s also Grid, Diagonal, Triangle, Golden Ratio, and Golden Spiral. Cycle through the different overlays by pressing “O” on the keyboard; Shift+O to reverse a triangle, diagonal, or spiral. If you don’t see the overlay on your image, you might need to move one side of the crop tool first. These overlays are there to guide you with composition.

LEVELS

After cropping, do you need to improve exposure? One approach to do that is via Levels. But before we go to Levels, let’s first duplicate the image on another layer by doing CTRL+J. Now you have two copies of the same image. Let’s rename the new layer “Levels,” we will do our editing here, and we will not touch the one below so it preserves the original image.

Now, do CTRL+L on the keyboard and the Levels dialog box appears.You can also make it appear by going to Image > Adjustments > Levels from the menu at the top.

Levels is about exposure, for tonal and color adjustments. It’s a great tool for quickly and easily setting your black and white points, adjusting your individual red, green, and blue color channels, adding or decreasing contrast, and adjusting global luminosity levels.

FIG. 1. In the Levels dialog box (1), there are 3 sliders: A for the black point at left, C for the white point at right, and B in the middle for the midtone or gray point; you can move them. The histogram above represents a typical underexposed image. You can move C to the end of the histogram (2) to improve exposure. The corrected image will show the histogram at (3) where the black point and the white point are at the extremes, meaning, optimum contrast.

FIG. 1. In the Levels dialog box (1), there are 3 sliders: A for the black point at left, C for the white point at right, and B in the middle for the midtone or gray point; you can move them. The histogram above represents a typical underexposed image. You can move C to the end of the histogram (2) to improve exposure. The corrected image will show the histogram at (3) where the black point and the white point are at the extremes, meaning, optimum contrast.

The example in Fig. 1 shows a histogram for an underexposed image, its right edge not reaching the end at C, meaning it does not have the correct highlight values. You can move the white point slider at C to the end of the histogram to improve its exposure. Then try moving the B slider also, the midtone or gray point slider, to get to a point where exposure is best for your taste. One trick to indicate where to move the black point slider at left and the white point at right is to hold down the ALT key (OPT for the Mac) while moving the sliders. Your image will turn white when you move the black point slider at A. Stop when you see the first specks in the heat map. Alternatively, your image will turn black when you move the white point slider at C while holding down the OPT key. Stop when you see the first specks in the heat map. Then adjust the midpoint to where you want your exposure to be.

In the above example, we have played with the Input Levels on the histogram. Don’t bother with the Output Levels yet, that will be for another day. But drop down the Channel menu to see channels for red, green and blue colors. This is where you could correct for color casts if your photo missed its white balance. The 3 eyedropper tools you see offer another way for setting your black, gray, and white points. Using the appropriate eyedropper, just click on the darkest area of the image to set your black point, click on the whitest part for the white point, and any tonal value in between to set your midtone or gray point. Then adjust accordingly. You can see the before and after views by clicking the eye icon  on and off on the “Levels” layer.

One last point, we made the Levels dialog box appear when we highlighted the duplicate layer named Levels in our example, the better for us to appreciate its details in full glory and discuss its aspects. The more efficient way to do this, however, is to call up the Adjustments Layer option  at the bottom of the Layers palette, click on it and choose Levels. The same Levels dialog box will appear, only smaller. But it’s the same.The beauty of this approach is that you can always come back to this if you need to re-adjust your settings. Simply double-click on the adjustment layer and the same dialog box will show up again, for you to apply additional adjustments. Adjustment layers are excellent tools to apply edits because they are re-adjustable later. Photoshop is cool!

As you learn Photoshop, you’ll know there are a number of ways to do the same thing. It will just be a matter of preference. For the exposure adjustment we just did, we used Levels. But if you go to Image > Adjustments, you’ll find that Levels belongs to a group that also include Brightness/Contrast, Curves, and Exposure. You’ll find that group too when you click on the Adjustment Layer icon . And let me emphasize, using the adjustment layer is the more efficient method because it is re-editable.

Chris Malinao teaches digital post-processing methods such as the Lightroom workflow software and Photoshop editing software to photography students at the Federation of Philippine Photographers Foundation (FPPF), a non-profit organization that offers year-round workshops in Comprehensive Digital Photography, Lighting Essentials, Wedding Photography, Strobist Lighting, Food Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and other specialty photography workshops. For details, visit https://ift.tt/1FeRSAK.



Source: Manila Bulletin

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