One of the most impor­tant skills a design­er can devel­op is the abil­i­ty to see through all the garbage in a bad project and notice the poten­tial. One area this can be most promi­nent is in pho­to manip­u­la­tion.

In my cur­rent job, I am often giv­en pho­tos that have been tak­en with a poor qual­i­ty dig­i­tal cam­era. It is my job to enhance those pic­tures and try my best to bring a pro­fes­sion­al feel to them. Some­times this is very dif­fi­cult. At oth­er times, the ele­ments are just right for me to do some­thing good with the pho­to.

Here are some of the fea­tures I look for to make my job eas­i­er.

As large of an image res­o­lu­tion as pos­si­ble

Hav­ing a large res­o­lu­tion allows me to get rid of a lot of the arti­facts and unwant­ed pix­els when I reduce the image dimen­sions to fit on the screen.

Pic­tures that are not too over exposed or not too under­ex­posed

Even if pic­tures are under­ex­posed or over­ex­posed some­what, as long as there is a suf­fi­cient amount of light and shad­ows, the image is still work­able.

Detail in the sub­ject

When edit­ing the image, I will try to bring focus on the sub­ject of the image (usu­al­ly peo­ple). If there is good detail in the sub­ject, then the atten­tion of the view­er will be drawn to the sub­ject and the imper­fec­tions in the back­ground.

Good com­po­si­tion

Again, if the pho­tog­ra­ph­er chose a pose that is eye-catch­ing, the atten­tion of the view­er will be drawn to the sub­ject and away from the back­ground.

When­ev­er I am giv­en an image, I rarely leave it as is. I always try to manip­u­late it some way to enhance it. I have a foun­da­tion of pro­ce­dures that I use in near­ly every image. Some images require me to use more than these, but vir­tu­al­ly every pho­to I touch goes through the same process. The three pro­ce­dures are as fol­lows:

  • Adjust Lev­els
  • Adjust Colours
  • Cre­at­ing Depth of Field

I decid­ed to show you the process I use for these three pro­ce­dures on an image I took two sum­mers ago. The pho­to­graph was tak­en near Pen­tic­ton, BC, at the wed­ding of my wife’s sis­ter and her hus­band. It is of my daugh­ter and a friend. The pho­to­graph was tak­en with a cheap, fif­teen-dol­lar cam­era, so it didn’t come out very well.

Original photo of Sinéad and Kerri in apple orchard.


The first thing I did was open up the Lev­els dia­logue box (Image>Adjustments>Levels) in Adobe Pho­to­shop. I noticed there was a lot of emp­ty space on the left hand side of the graph. This side is what rep­re­sents the dark areas of the image. The lack of dark areas explains why the orig­i­nal image was so washed out. By bring­ing the slid­er over to the graph, I could eas­i­ly bring the dark areas to a more rea­son­able area. In areas where the image is too dark, you’d want to bring the right slid­er (rep­re­sents bright areas) over to the left. The mid­dle slid­er will dark­en and light­en the entire image rather than cer­tain areas.

Levels dialogue box in Photoshop

Colour Balance

The next step was to change the colour bal­ance. I start­ed with the high­lights and raised the reds to +9 and the blues to +19. This helped to bring up the colour of the girl­s’ dress­es.

Colour Balance dialogue box, highlight options

Then, I adjust­ed the mid­tones by bring the greens up to +9. This brought out the colour of the leaves and grass. It brought out the colour of the apples as well, but the apples are not notice­able in this pho­to.

Colour Balance dialogue box, midtone options

Final­ly, I adjust­ed the shad­ow colours. By bring­ing the reds up to +18, I brought out the colour of the soil.

Colour Balance dialogue box, shadow options

Depth of Field

At this point, the image looks not too bad. It is no longer washed out and the colours are more vibrant. Yet, it is still miss­ing some­thing. This is where my favourite pro­ce­dure comes in. Cre­at­ing a depth of field is one of the most impor­tant tools in mak­ing an image appear to be more pro­fes­sion­al. If you flip through any mag­a­zine, you will notices many pho­tographs in the arti­cles and ads will have depth of field used in them. And you thought those per­spec­tive exer­cis­es in high school art class­es were mean­ing­less.

The first thing I do is press Q on my key­board. This enters me into quick mask mode. You will notice the colours in your tool­bar will be black and white. Make sure the black is the fore­ground colour. Now choose a brush. For this pic­ture, I used a size nine brush with­out a soft edge. If your sub­ject is larg­er than mine is, you could get by with a larg­er brush.

Now colour in your sub­ject. The colour will be red. Don’t wor­ry; that is how you know you are in quick mask mode.

Original photo with the girls highlighted in red.

Once your sub­ject is coloured in, press Q again. This will bring you back into stan­dards mode. You will see that every­thing but the sub­ject has a selec­tion around it. This is what you want.

Now, go to Select>Feather and select a feath­er of 2 pix­els. Next, go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and select a radius of 0.3 blur and press OK. You will notice that every­thing but the sub­ject has been blurred slight­ly and the sub­ject is stand­ing out more.

Press Q again and paint more of the area around the sub­jects. The idea is to blur the back­ground in stages so the fur­ther back you go, the more blurred it is. At this point, I decid­ed to paint in the tree above the chil­dren and direct­ly behind them. I also paint­ed in the ground in front of them and up to the tree.

Original photo with the girls and a nearby tree and ground highlighted in red.

Press Q to enter stan­dards mode again and press Ctrl+F (Command+F for Macs). This will apply the Gauss­ian blur fil­ter again. Alter­na­tive­ly, you can also go to Filter>Blur Gauss­ian Blur and make sure the radius is set to 0.3 and press OK.

Press Q to enter quick mask mode and paint some more of the back­ground. For my pho­to, I chose the next line of trees.

Original photo with the girls, ground, tree and next line of trees highlighted in red.

Press Q and then Ctrl F.

Press Q and paint in more of the back­ground image. I paint­ed in the next line of trees, which is the line right in front of the tables with white table­cloths.

Original photo with the girls, tree, ground and first and second rows of trees highlighted in red.

Just keep going back and forth using the above step until you have the back­ground com­plete­ly done. I am stop­ping at this point.

Now, I press D to des­e­lect the selec­tion. And I see the fol­low­ing result

Same photo as original, but with better colours, depth of field and darker shadows.

Original photo of Sinéad and Kerri in apple orchard.

While it is not the best image out there, con­sid­er­ing the state of the image with which we start­ed, it looks much bet­ter.

The more you prac­tise this three-part process, the bet­ter you will become at mak­ing images more pro­fes­sion­al and find­ing what ele­ments are impor­tant in an image.


About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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