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The How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, Part 5: Beginner Photo Editing

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Photoshop is named “Photoshop” for a reason; it’s for editing photographs.  Take a look through some basic photo-editing techniques and learn how you can improve your own family photographs.

This is part 5 of a multi-part series. If you need a primer on the tools and skills covered in part 5, you can start at part 1, and learn about the toolbox. But, if you’re ready, we can cover four techniques that can help you create better memories.

Cropping Images for Better Composition

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Oftentimes, when you take a digital photograph, you’ll end up with a lot of information that you may not want. One of the first things you’re going to want to do is learn how to crop your images, and the most convenient way to do this is using the Crop Tool.

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Press the c key to select your crop tool. Use your mouse to click and drag, creating a box inside your photograph.

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You’ll notice a tick-box in the corners of your crop-box. You can move and resize your crop area to select the precise area you wish to crop.

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You can press the enter key to release your crop. You can undo with ctrl z and redo your crop at any time, if you feel so inclined. Cropping can eliminate areas of your image that you don’t want to see, or can also create a more interesting composition for prints or the web.

Adjusting Contrast with the Levels Tool

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Shooting images on overcast days can give you gloomy images that are either too dark or devoid of detail. While the Brightness and Contrast tool is an acceptable way to adjust your images, the best tool to use is usually the Levels tool.

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With your photograph open, simply press ctrl L to open your levels dialog box. By default, this is what it looks like.

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The three sliders (the sshot-791 arrows illustrated above) represent Shadows (your photograph’s darkest areas), Mid-tones (the middle darkest areas), and Highlights (the brightest areas of your photo). By adjusting them as illustrated above, brighter whites are created, mildly darker shadows, and the Mid-Tone point is moved closer to the shadows, allowing for more space between the Mid-Tones and the Highlights.

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Clicking OK will close the Levels and render them. Immediately, we see more detail in the bird, and our sky is less overcast and gloomy. With little effort at all, you can give your photographs a more naturalistic look and bring out detail you might not have known that you even had!

Adjusting Color-Shifted Lighting

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One of the biggest problems with taking pictures indoors is that a lot of indoor lighting will be tinted with a yellow, red, or blue cast. Your eyes may not pick up the difference, but your camera “sees” light very differently than our eyes do. Here’s a simple way to remove reduce the color of an overwhelmingly yellow image.

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You’ll want to navigate to Image > Adjustments > Selective Color.

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Selective Color is a tool that allows you to adjust your image through various primary colors. These are: Red, Green and Blue, the primary colors of light; Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, the primary colors of printing; and also by Whites and Neutrals.

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Since our image has a yellow cast to it, I select “Yellows” from the “Color” menu box. You can use the adjustments illustrated above, or find the ones that work for your image. The basic premise is to reduce the color(s) you wish to remove (in this case, Yellow) and, in some cases, add color to the opposing primary colors (in this case, Cyan, Magenta, and Black.) That’s basically a complicated way of saying “less yellow, more red, blue, and black.”

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Compared to the original image, the lighting on this now appears as clear and white as natural sunlight and the original looks aged and yellowed. If you notice this yellow cast on your images and want to remove it, this can often be your best bet.

Sharpen Blurry Photographs without Damaging Color

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Sometimes dim indoor lighting can give a warm and fuzzy effect to your photography. Unfortunately, the “fuzzy” bit is a problem, as dim indoor lighting tends to make images come out blurry. There are many Photoshop filters that can sharpen an image, but many can damage color or heavily distort an image. This surprisingly easy trick can help sharpen shots and keep color intact.

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Lab color is an alternate color space, like RGB and CMYK. It is unusual and most digital art files outside of the professional photography world will not use it.

In order to switch your photograph to Lab color, to go Image > Mode > Lab Color, as illustrated above.

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Changing images to CMYK will give you a color shift—not so with Lab color. Your RGB image remains identical without any sort of color shift. On to the next step.

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Flip to your Channels Panel. If you cannot find it, you can always retrieve it by going to your menu Window > Channels.

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Pick the “Lightness” channel, which will look like a grayscale version of your image.

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If your image doesn’t change to grayscale, try again. We need to work exclusively in this grayscale channel for this tip to work.

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Navigate to Filters > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. Unsharp Mask can increase contrast and tighten edges Photoshop perceives in images. The illustrated values are overdoing it somewhat—find values that work well with your own image.

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Still in our Lightness channel, enter renders our filter. Oftentimes the Unsharp Mask filter can create to many harsh darks, so for this particular soft image, a round of Level adjustment can help counter the harshness of the filter.

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ctrl L brings up the levels tool. Adjusting the Midtones and Highlights (as in the example earlier) can create a softer look without sacrificing the faux-sharpness added to the image.

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Our final result is a fair improvement over the soft-edged original. You can return your image to RGB color by navigating to Image > Mode > RGB and save it as a PSD or JPG file. It’s also a good habit to save multiple versions of your Photographs in order to return to the original, effectively undoing your edits if needed.

Photoshop tips left you confused? Start at the Beginning! Check out the previous installments of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop.


Come back to How-To Geek for the next installment of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, where we’ll cover tools for design, painting, and filters to create great works of digital art!

All images created by the author, hereby released under Creative Commons 3.0 Unported License.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 11/12/10

Comments (12)

  1. Paul Collins

    Fantastic series of tutorials for a Photoshop noob….keep up the great work!!!!

  2. Hatryst

    I’ve never seen a guide this easy to understand. Great job Eric ;)

  3. Eric Z Goodnight

    You are too kind, Sir the Hatryst. I’m pretty proud of this one.

  4. Hatryst

    Hey Eric, I’m not ‘Sir The Hatryst’ :D You can call me “buddy”, though ;)
    I really appreciate the effort you’ve put in this series of tutorials !!
    I’ll be looking forward to the upcoming articles, and some video tutorials as well (if it would be convenient for you)

  5. Billy J

    I have been using Photoshop for about six years and have got into a rut of how I do things ..this is refreshing to read I seem to be missing some of the fundamentals thanks for doing this interesting tutorial

  6. Polar

    Cool! I learnt a new trick for sharpening blurry photos. I noticed that when you are using the crop tool, there are dotted lines in the crop area. How do you get that?

  7. Pam

    Hey Eric, you’ve made this easy enough that even I get it!!!!!!!

  8. Tommie

    Eric, nice one. However, the result of your sharpening technique leaves me a bit worried! ;) However, good articles…

  9. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Tommie: Worried how?

  10. chess

    bookmarked!! thanks!

  11. Frank

    I saved all 7 parts so far with each part in a Word document. Could you suggest a better way to save them? They are priceless.

  12. Eric Z Goodnight

    Warms my soul to hear that, Frank. Might I suggest CutePDF writer?

    Naturally, I would prefer you to keep coming back to the site, though. :)

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