Photoshop: Editing Pictures

Since a few of you commented asking how I got my photos to look so crisp in my vacation photo posts, I figured it was time for another Photoshop tutorial. I’ll pause here to give you guys the same spiel I give every time I do one of these: this is just the way I learned to do things in Photoshop over the years and I’m not saying it’s the best, easiest, or absolutely right way to do things. There are a million different ways to achieve different photo effects in Photoshop, and the tools I use are maybe 5% of what Photoshop is capable of. I don’t do too much editing (my Photo professor in college was always insistent that if you didn’t capture in the camera the first time, you didn’t get it and it can’t be faked) so don’t think of this tutorial as the gospel according to Erin, or anything. You might feel more comfortable doing things differently or even ignoring this all together. I just thought I’d share my process in case someone might find it helpful.

I should also note that I shoot solely in Manual. If you have a DSLR and you are shooting in Auto you might as well have a Lamborghini but no driver’s license. Grow a pair and learn to use your camera. I picked up my first SLR film camera in 8th grade (unless you count that report I did on the history of cameras in 4th grade) and wasted many rolls of film on under or overexposed photographs, but I learned how the camera worked. Now you can just hit “delete” and try again if your shot doesn’t come out right, and it doesn’t even cost you a frame. I think I’ll do a Photography tutoria next week l to put my degree to good use, but just know that it’s taken me almost half my life to get to the point where shooting Manual is instinctual; I don’t even have to think about what ISO, shutter speed, or aperture to shoot in.

I’ll stop my ego-stroking/humble-brag here before you think I’m some Photo Magician incapable of producing a bad shot. Even with a 4 year degree and 13 years of using a camera under my belt, there are some situations where the lighting isn’t perfect. Or maybe it is, but I forgot to change the ISO. Or maybe the sky wasn’t as blue as it should be. Or maybe the picture is great but I want it to really  pop. That’s where Photoshop comes in. At the risk of sounding like the Dos Equis commercial: I don’t always edit my photos, but when I do, here’s what I do in Photoshop. (I’m using CS5, but this tutorial was checked on CS4 and CS2 and everything was the same. I’m assuming it’s the same for Photoshop Elements, as well.)

For this tutorial, I used a photo from Ghent that came out particularly muddy straight from the camera. I’ll show you 6 easy steps to give it a quick edit without having it look blatantly Photoshopped and overdone.

1. Resize. I don’t know about your camera, but the images I download from my memory card are like, 5000px wide or something. Which is awesome for printing things (read: vacation photos) large format, but inconvenient and unrealistic for posting on the internet. For one, a file that large would take forever to load and would crash your server or my browser, and I know I’m not the only one who gets frustrated if a site takes longer than a half second to load, right? Right. So our first step is to resize the photo to a workable size.

Under your top menu bar, select Image, Image Size. A dialogue box will pop up prompting you to enter the new dimensions of your photo. My blog width is 625px, so that’s how large I’ll make this photo. For yours, pick a width and stick to it.

Make sure that little lock appears next to your dimensions. That means the proportions are being constrained so that your photo resizes evenly, rather than getting stretched out or something. You can click “Constrain Proportions” at the bottom of the window if you don’t see a little lock.

Hit OK. Your photo will shrink to an itty bitty little size. Grab the Magnifying Glass from your left toolbar and zoom in until it’s at 100%. You can also hit Command + Z to switch to the Magnifying Glass.

2. Shadows/Highlights. This tool is awesome. It’s a one-click edit that instantly brightens and adjusts for dark shadows. I like to pretend the little man who lives inside Photoshop just flicks on a light-switch. You’ll see what I mean in a second.

Under Image, select Adjustments, and then Shadows/Highlights.

A dialogue box will appear. By default, the Shadows percentage is set to 35% on my application, but when I tested this is CS4 its default percentage was 50%. I stick to 35% since it’s what’s there and it hasn’t failed me yet. You can choose whatever your heart desires, just make sure the box in the lower right corner that says “Preview” is clicked, that way you can see your photo change as you adjust the slider bar.

Hit OK. You’ll notice the foreground of the photo is significantly brighter and better exposed than the original. However, it does slightly wash out the photo by adding so much light. So now we’ll use…

3. Levels. If I could draw little hearts around that word, I would. For years, Levels was the only tool I used. It is the function that most closely mimics the developing tray in a darkroom, by showing you the light curves of your photo and letting you drag little sliders to enrich the blacks or brighten up the whites. It is my favorite.

Under Image, select Adjustments, Levels (or Command+L, it’s like having it on speed dial).

A dialogue box will appear with a chart showing the levels of black, gray, and white in your photo (the sliders from left to right, circled). This is one of those tools where there are no hard and fast answers as to exactly what to do. Each photo is different because it is exposed differently, so every photo you open will have a different Levels curve. What I like to do is increase the black so the photo has some depth but also bring the midtones (grays) up a bit to give a little bit of light.

Again, I unfortunately can’t say, set the black Input Level to this, set your white Input level to this, and voila! This is where you have to drag things around to see what looks best for YOUR photo. Generally though, I like to bring the left slider (blacks) to the right a bit, and bring the middle slider (grays) to the left a bit. As long as you have the “Preview” box clicked, you’ll be able to see how each little change affects the picture.

When you’re satisfied, hit OK.

4. Hue/Saturation. Another one of those magic options. Hue and Saturation give you the option to increase how vivid the colors are and what hue you want things (like, more yellow if you’re going for a 70s, old polaroid vibe). Under Image, select Adjustments, and Hue/Saturation.

You’ll get a dialogue box that gives you the option of editing the color hue and saturation for the entire photo as a whole, or breaking it down by individual color to add some pop to something specific. Since there is a big swatch of sky in this photo, I’m going to isolate just the Blues and add some saturation to make the color really bold. Select Blues from the drop down menu.

Drag the Saturation slider to the right to add more color, or to the left to fade it. I sometimes use this for when I take photos in my house; a lack of natural light creates a yellow tinge so I isolate the yellows and drag the saturation down so it’s not so much.

Like the Levels tool above, this is a matter of personal preference and being completely specific to the individual photo. You’ll have to judge how much color increase is good and how much is too much. When you think you’ve got it right and the sky is a deeper, more saturated shade of blue, hit OK.

5. Vibrance.  This is sort of the finishing touch to the photo, it gives things a general boost to the saturation without really making things noticeable. It plays with the less-saturated elements of the photo without over-saturating the rest of the already highly saturated parts. I’m going to level with you and say that I don’t really understand what this tool does aside from make everything look glossy and bright.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but…under Image, select Adjustments, and then Vibrance. You’ll get (wait for it!) a dialogue box with (you guessed it!) more sliders.

By default, both are set to 0. I just failed to grab a screenshot of both the sliders set to 0. Like Levels and Hue/Saturation, how much Vibrance to add is determined by the individual photo. For this photo I set things to +24; not a hugely noticeable difference right off the bat, but enough to give the photo some juice. The number you end up using for your photo might (and should) be entirely different.

There is also an additional Saturation slider in this dialogue box that is actually different from the Saturation slider in Hue/Saturation above. It isn’t as severe or drastic as the other Saturation slider. This one works on the overall tone of the picture rather than individual colors. I bump this slider up to sort of match the Vibrance. I’ll just beat a dead horse here and repeat that what works for this photo will be different than what works for YOUR photos. Don’t automatically set your Vibrance to +24 and your Saturation to +26 and then freak out when it doesn’t look right. This is a pure judgement call on your part.

You’ll also notice in my History pane on the right side that after I messed with Hue/Saturation, I went back and did another round of Levels adjustments. I repeated step 3 to bring in a little more light by sliding the middle slider (grays) to the left to brighten things up. That’s okay! If you need to repeat any of these steps to make some more adjustments, go ahead. This is not the definitive method, and I found that after I saturated the blues, it made things a little darker in the foreground. If you need to fix things or re-adjust out of order, feel free! No one is going to yell at you.

6. Save for Web & Devices. I’ve covered this step in a previous tutorial, but using a traditional Save option will create a file that is still fairly large. Photoshop has an option that allows you to save your photos or layouts in web compressed files that are smaller than they would be from just hitting Command + S (for Save).

When you’re ready, under File, select Save for Web & Devices.

You’ll get a dialogue box where you can select the image’s resolution and see the output of both what the photo will look like and how big it will be, file-size-wise.

I generally don’t save anything above a Quality of 80, since it still counts as a “Very High” quality but isn’t as large a file size as something at 100. Plus, it’s never going to look 100% perfect on every single monitor.

When you’re ready to save, hit Save. You’re done!

You know, for a tutorial that was supposed to be “quick and easy” this was the longest post I’ve ever written (true story). That’s insane! If anyone has any questions, feel free to post a comment and I’ll do my best to help. And I really do hope this was helpful for you guys! Or at least applicable in the slightest.

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June 5, 2012 / art / photo / Photoshop Tutorials / LEAVE A COMMENT / 9


  • Erin- the difference in the two photos is really incredible. Thanks for demystifying the process. Now I just have to save up and spring for photoshop… I’m still using a mix of iPhoto, Pixlr and ipiccy for my editing. I’d love a tutorial on using the camera in manual! I took a class last year on the basics of apperture, shutter, speed and ISO, but left a little confused and I’m one of those who regularly uses her SLR on automatic. The horror!!! Help!!

  • As always, I adore your tutorials dearheart! I need to keep a file of them handy! The difference between the two photos is amazeballs. (And Jennifer, Photoshop Elements does almost all the same stuff at a fraction of the cost, if you’re interested… just sayin’!) It’s going to take me awhile to adjust to the new layout, but I’m having a bad day and change is hard on me. ;)

  • Erin, you are the best teacher:) I do it the same way (give and take) and love your tutorials.

    I am rather jealous you are so proficient in Manual shooting. I only got my first SLR just over a year ago and am still practicing. In other words, I take sometimes 100’s of shots just to make sure I get some good ones. The worse bit is when I interview people or shops etc. I shoot 90% Manual but then, just because I might never get there again I will take some Auto’s as back ups. Hope it will get easier:)I suspect it will and I practice enough, right??

    And then there is Photoshop…… thank God!

    Funky new layout… interesting… have to get used to it. When I see it on blogs I don’t know or follow I struggle a bit with the overwhelming feeling and log out. Of course, In your case it’s different:)

    Hope you found something to entertain you… I ‘ve had an amazing and very much needed break!

  • Thank you, thank you! I reference your PS tutorials often. Most recently for the Somethings post where I added a layer and blocked out the type. Yup, learned that nifty trick from you. Can’t wait to try this tutorial on some of my photos.
    I really look forward to your manual tutorial. I don’t have an SLR, but I have a 4/3 that let’s me shoot in manual. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t used it in a while and have resorted to using my iPhone. It’s just plain laziness!
    PS~Like the new blog layout. I’ve been seeing more and more people (designers especially) using this format.

  • Thankyou for this. I specialize in fashion/beauty/lifestyle blogging, and I like that you have a quick tutorial for this – I don’t want to spend hours on a picture, it’s just not necessary for what I need them for :)

  • Thank you thank you super useful. Gonna spend some time on this later and store it for reference.

    Grow a pair and learn to use your camera – I’m trying! My issue lately is taking pictures into the sky (street signs for example) and they always come out underexposed. The tutor for the ecourse i did told me it was metering so that’s what I’m practicing at the moment and it’s making a real difference. I’m working on Aperture mode at the mo which is enough for now. I think i’ve said before but I’d love it if you put some of the data with the photos like what aperture etc.

    TBH i struggle to care enough to fix them in photoshop, that’s really bad isn’t it? Must stop being so lazy. As your tutor says, I’d rather get them right the first time. So um don’t suppose you fancy doing a wee photogrpahy column? Befores and afters for ISOs, metering etc would be brilliant! then you can start charging a lot of money and scale it like BYW! Awesome!

  • Er, OK, I’ll try to grow a pair of “lady balls” as Julia Louis-Dreyfus said on VEEP.

  • Erin, thank you for the tutorial! I have to admit I’m always to lazy to fiddle with the pictures and only have been cropping the ones I use for the blog. Already used the tutorial last night for the photos in my post today. Thanks a million! And yes to shooting in manual but I still need to learn some more about my camera and always take a lot of shots to get it how I want it…

  • hello erin,
    you are a great teacher! i have neither a dslr nor photoshop, but i DO love to see your photo and what you did with day i will have time to learn photography.

    joy to you, n