Saturday, March 15, 2008

Which Tool to Use?

There's no good or easy answer to that question because it is not a good or easy question. Photoshop is a very subtle and complex image manipulation program, and your photographs deserve a subtle and complex approach.

The first step, though, to answering that question is to look at your photo as a collection of individual parts. Divide the photo in your mind into individual areas of interest, and decide what you like and what you don't like about each area. You might look at the highlights – are any too bright? Then you could look at the shadows – is there enough detail in the shadows? How about the colors? Do some areas have colors that are just right and others that are a little off? Another issue to examine is contrast – do the important elements of the picture differentiate themselves from each other enough – are your whites "bright" enough, or is there any overall gray cast to the picture? The final issue is sharpness – is the image "crisp"?

The picture above, of the 13th century Anasazi cliff dwellings in Betatakin Canyon at the Navajo National Monument in Arizona, was a deep disappointment to me when I returned home from our 1996 Western trip. A rugged and hot hike to these remote ruins did not reveal the images I had hoped for, although I tried very hard to capture the historic and other-worldly feel of the culture that once thrived here. As you can see the image is very "flat," as my Nikon FM2 film camera was not able to record the full tonal range of what I was seeing with my eye at the time. Although I made a few prints initially of this image, using "dodging" and "burning" techniques, there were simply too many areas that failed to reproduce as the eye and brain could see them in their original state. The contrasts between the interior of the cave, which shadows the ruins all year long except for a brief period of several days when the sun is low in the winter sky, was simply too much for a 35mm negative to handle.

Enter Photoshop. I started with the Image>Adjustments>Levels tool, adjusting the three sliders until I got a sharper degree of contrast while darkening the sky a bit and still keeping some shadow detail in the ruins. Then with the "Quick Selection" tool I selected one area at a time, changing the contrast and brightness in multiple areas of the picture with the Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast tool, working from the sky in the upper left first, then to the outside cliffs, then down to the ruins themselves. Finally I sharpened the image with the Filter>Sharpen>SmartSharpen tool.

The result is below – this is what I actually saw when I took the picture. Looking at my History palette, I see that I made at least seven separate adjustments to this picture.

To see a higher dpi of these pictures, click here.


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