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Lesson 6: Having Fun With Adjustment Layers

In our second lesson we made a sweeping overview of working with layers. Well, now it's time to discover adjustment layers, which you'll use time and again with your images. Adjustment layers are incredibly powerful, and fun, because they enable us to make subtle edits that are also 'non-destructive'. Let's get going...

Destructive vs non-destructive editing

Destructive editing in Photoshop is where changes are made directly to the original image (background image in the layers panel). These changes cannot be removed at a later point, or re-visited and tweaked. They're done, and that's that.

Non-destructive editing uses layers to apply changes to an image, without directly altering the background image. These changes exist on layers, with all the flexibility that brings. Whenever possible you should choose to use non-destructive post-processing techniques.

The power of adjustment layers is that they allow us to make clever edits, non-destructively. The same changes could be made destructively, by going to Image>Adjustments and choosing from the list.

We won't be doing that. Instead, go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer and choose from the list.

Alternatively click on "Adjustments" in the layer panel and choose from the options that are displayed. Or another route to the same thing is to click on the half white/half black circle at the bottom of the layers panel, and choose an adjustment layer from the list.

 

Creating a Levels adjustment layer

So let's see adjustment layers in practice now. Click on the Adjustment panel to expand it and select Levels from the options (it's the symbol that looks a bit like a fire, but is meant to be a histogram!).

So, with a Levels adjustment layer we have a histogram and the opportunity to re-set whites, blacks and midtones. Notice the sliders beneath the histogram, with the whites slider on the far left, the midtones in the middle and the blacks on the right.

If you're unfamiliar with histograms, we covered them in lesson 4 of this series: How To Read A Histogram. Basically, it's a representation of all the tonal information in an image. Everything to the right of the white point is pure white, and everything to the left of the black point is pure black.

Drag the black slider to the right. Where you place the black slider is the point at which shadows become pure black. So, obviously, this has a knock-on effect for the rest of the image, making all the dark areas a bit closer to black than they were before.

Now drag the white point to the left. This brightens the lights and highlights throughout the image, making them closer to pure white than they were. Adjusting the white and black points in this way is a great way to add contrast to an image. Using the middle gray slider increases/decreases the midtones.

Now click on the eye icon to toggle visibility on/off. See how easy it is to remove changes made with an adjustment layer?

Before:

After:

 

Vibrance Adjustment Layer

Click the back arrow at the bottom of the Adjustments panel to return to the main menu. Select Vibrance, represented by a 'V' shape. Drag the vibrance slider to the right to intensify the colours in your image.

Before:

After:

What about the saturation slider beneath it? Saturation increases all colours in an image indiscriminately. This often means that the colours that are most intense to begin with end up looking really artifical and garish. Vibrance, on the other hand, targets the least saturated colours, which produces a much more realistic effect.

So vibrance boosts the colour intensity of an image, without over-doing it in certain places. Meanwhile saturation can be a bit heavy-handed. To some extent this is a matter of personal taste, so play around with both sliders.

Having made your vibrance adjustment, you might feel that you went a bit too far. In which case, click on the layers panel and reduce the opacity of the vibrance adjustment layer with the opacity slider.

 

Curves adjustment layer

Curves is a really useful adjustment layer that lets you make some very subtle changes to both tone and colour. We'll look at the colour correcting features of curves in more detail in a later lesson, but for now let's look at the basics of what can be done.

In the adjustment panel click on Curves, which is represented by a curvy line on a graph.

The Curves layer shows a graph with a straight line running from the bottom left (shadows) to the top right (highlights). There is also a pale histogram displayed.

Click on any point in the graph to set a marker. Drag the marker either up or down to increase or decrease the corresponding tone in the image. As a simple way to increase contrast, create an S-curve on the graph:

Place a marker at the top right intersection point and the bottom left interesction point. Drag the top point up to increase highlights and drag the bottom point down to darken shadows.

Another really great way to change the tones in your images is to use the targeted adjustment tool in Curves. Click on the pointing finger symbol, with an up/down arrow alongside it (located at the top left of the Curves layer).

What this tool does is allow you to manually click on a part of the actual image and increase/decrease the tones in that area. So it's very intuitive, but also precise. Click and hold somewhere in your photo, then drag the cursor up to lighten the area, or down to darken it. Note that the changes you make to the tone in the part of the image you've selected will also be made elsewhere in the image where that tone is present.

Curves also allows you to correct, or alter, colours. See the 3 pipette tools located to the left of the main graph. Click on the white one and hover over a part of your picture that is meant to be pure white. Click once, and the whole image will automatically correct. Try the same with the gray and black pipettes. I find the gray pipette the most useful.

Another way we can adjust colour is to choose either the red, green or blue colour channel from the drop down menu above the graph (set to RGB by default). Choose the red channel and place a marker on the graph in the highlights and the shadows. Drag the highlights marker up and the shadows marker down to see. This increases reds in the highlights and reduces them in the shaows.

There are loads of cool effects that playing with colour channels in Curves can achieve. It's a great way to change the 'mood' of photographs. One fun technique is called 'cross processing' and produces the effect in the image below: Cross Processing Tutorial.

After:

 

Black and white adjustment layer

The black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop has been much improved over the years. It's now a feature that enables us to create wonderful black and white images from colour originals.

Open an image that you think might look good in b/w. Choose a b/w adjustment layer from the Adjustments panel, represented by a half black/half white rectangle divided diagonally.

We can choose to apply a pre-set filter, from the drop-down menu, or adjust the colour sliders manually, or use a combination of the 2. The basic rule of thumb is this: to brighten a colour in the b/w conversion, increase it on the slider. To increase the contrast within an area of colour, increase a colour on the opposite side of the colour wheel. So to brighten red lips, increase the reds. To make red lips more 'contrasty', increase the blues. Here's a colour wheel to help you out:

The Colour Wheel:

The pre-set options in the black and white layer are often pretty good, and I usually end up applying one and then fine tuning it with the sliders.

But there's another very good way to adjust colours: the targeted adjustment tool.

This tool works in the same way as the one in the Curves layer, only here it is used to increase/decrease colours in a selected area of the photo. Click on the pointing finger icon and left click and hold on a part of the photo. Drag right to increase the colour found there, and left to decrease it.

For a more detailed tutorial: Converting Black and White Photos In Photoshop.

Using Masks

Again, we'll look at masks in more depth later, but this will get you started. Notice that every time you create an adjustment layer a white rectangle automatically appears next to the thumbnail in the layers palette.

This white rectangle is called a 'layer mask', and with normal layers we would have to manually add it. Masks allow us to specify which particular parts of an image the adjustment is applied to.

So, with your black and white adjustment layer still active, click on the layer mask to highlight it. Now select the brush tool from the toolbar and make sure that black is set as your foreground colour.

Paint over the image in an area where you do not want the black and white adjustment to appear. In other words, we will be 'painting' the colour back in. This is actually a technique called colour popping: Full Colour Popping Tutorial.

The great thing about masks is that if you make a mistake, it doesn't matter! Simply change the foreground colour to white and paint over your mistake, to return the adjustment in that area.

If you only intend an adjustment to to apply to a very small area of a picture (e.g. increased highlights in the eyes of a portrait photo), fill in the entire layer with black by going to Edit>Fill and choose 'foreground colour'.

Then select the brush tool, change the foreground colour to white, and paint the adjustment back in where you want it to appear.

 

Summary

So that's the end of lesson 6! Adjustment layers are, without doubt, one of the most useful and powerful features of Photoshop. We're going to be using them a lot in this Photoshop series. You now know why it's important to use non-destructive adjustments, how to create Levels, Vibrance, Curves and B/W adjustment layers and how to make use of layer masks with adjustment layers. I hope this was useful!

For a beginner-friendly book with step-by-step Photoshop tutorials, I recommend "Photo Nuts and Post" by Neil Creek.

Photoshop Tutorials For Beginners

Lesson 1: Getting Started In Photoshop

Lesson 2: Introducing Photoshop Layers

Lesson 3: Organizing Photos In Adobe Bridge

Lesson 4: How To Read A Histogram In Photoshop

Lesson 5: Photoshop Blending Modes and Techniques

Lesson 6: Having Fun With Adjustment Layers

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