Using Adjustment Layers
to 'Finish' a photo.
When I worked at a camera store many years ago,
we were known as 'photo finishers' and that's honestly what we
often did with customers pictures. When we developed a customer's
film we would create prints from the negatives and it was the
customer's expectation and our job to get the best image possible
from those negatives - whether they were over exposed, underexposed,
shot in a school gym under mercury-vapor lights or inside under
incandescent bulbs. We would try to make the best prints for
the customer we could by adjusting color and exposure and if
they weren't happy, we'd reprint them again.
Somehow, that concept of 'finishing' has escaped
most digital photographers; many accept what they get from their
cameras as the final product. Well, folks, it ain't so. All professional
digital photographers have a range of tools they use to create
a digital workflow for touching up and adjusting their digital
images. And, with some of the tricks you have learned here, you
too will perhaps start thinking that taking the image and getting
it into your computer is just the starting point in creating
a digital image.
In this tutorial I'll introduce you to some additional
tools that many digital photogaphers use routinely in their workflows
to make adjusments to their images.
In the past couple of tutorials I have shown you how multiple
layers can be used for borders, titles and making a collage of
images. Now that the concept and power of using layers has been
dealt with a bit, we can explore another aspect of layers - the
adjustment layer. Up until now I have shown you how to make corrections
on the image layer itself, but that results in altering the layer's
pixels. By using adjustment layers you are essentially stacking
a number of layers above the image that each changes how the
image appears - yet the base image itself will remain unchanged.
Think of this as layers of glass stacked above the image, one
may slightly change the brightness, one the color balance, one
the range of brightness levels in the image. When you look down
from above you see the effects the layers have on the appearance
of the image below, but that image itself will not be changed.
This allows you to try many different adjustments - adding and
deleting as you choose until you get the desired result.
Let's begin with a snapshot taken this past summer (2007) at
the National Convention in Minnesota by my friend Greg Kaufmann.
Because the camera's meter was adjusting for the bright light
off the variegated Hosta behind, this flower itself appears flat
and underexposed. If you want to follow along, just right-click
or Control-Click the image above and choose Save Image as...
or whatever option will save the image to your local drive so
you can open it in Photoshop.
The first things to find is where to add an adjustment layer.
There are two places - one is in the Layers Menu above - pick
New Adjustment Layer and it will pop out a submenu to choose
from, or my preferred method is to create the adjustment layer
in the layers palette itself.
||On the bottom of the layers palette
you will see a number of small icons, the one that's a circle
- half white, half black is the one to click to create a
new adjustment layer. Note here that there is a small black
triangle beside the icon, this is like the triangles that
appear on the tool palette, they indicate that another tool
or menu will appear when you click the icon, in this case...
|what appears is the options for the different
kinds of fill and adjustment layers. We're not going to cover
all of these in this tutorial, but concentrate on the four
that are probably the most useful for any photographer trying
to create a workflow for adjusting images. These are the
four circled to the left. Levels - which controls where the
dark, midpoint and light are in the image. Curves - an even
broader set of tonal adjustments where up to 14 different
adjustment points can be established and manipulated. Color
Balance - where you can change the overall color of an image
- similar to using color correction filters on a camera -
this adjustment affects the whole image. And, finally Brightness
and Contrast. Sometimes you will want to only use one or
two of these on a image. Sometimes more. Note that there
is a Photo Filter adjustment too, if you are familiar with
the various color correction filters available for taking
images, they can be found in here and applied after the fact
I decided to start by adding a Levels Adjustment Layer - choosing
the Levels option brings up a dialog box like the ones below...
Here's the levels before I made adjustments.
The graph (called a histogram)
that appears shows the distribution of brightness levels
throughout this image. Where 0 represents pure black and
255 bright white, the center slider can adjust the
tonal range of the image by sliding it left or right -
moving the midpoint toward darker or lighter.
In the image above we can see that there blacks in the
stone wall behind and bright whites in the hosta leaf.
Since neither of these is our center of interest, we can
make some adjustments to these levels and they will affect
the background of the image more than they will affect
Notice too that there is a Preview checkbox that's checked
- that means that as you adjust the image by moving the
three triangles under the graph you can see the effect
on the image in real time as you make the changes. I played
with the sliders until I got the flower to look a lot better.
I 'clipped' some of the shadows and highlights, but since
this is an adjustment layer, they are still in the base
I moved the sliders to the points shown
on the left. This is all trial and error and personal taste.
My goal here is to bring the bloom into a state where it
appears natural but retains the proper color and tones
that I believe should be there. This is purely subjective
and others may find different settings that please them.
This adjustment layer got me closer to my goal.
Side Note: If you take a number of pictures in the same
location under similar lighting you can find a Levels Adjustment
that appears to work and then use the Save... option and
save that adjustment. Open another image, go to this dialog
and Load... that saved adjustment.
Second side note. At the top you'll see Channel and it's
currently RGB - you can click in the triangles there and
adjust the Red, Green and Blue Channels each separately
After making this adjustment, this is what the image now
Note that I sacrificed background details - there's
now more washed out areas and deeper shadows. The flower is
much improved, but still appears flat to me.
So, let's try adding another Adjustment Layer
above and see if we can make additional changes to improve the
This time I go to the New Adjustment Layer menu
and add a Curves Adjustment Layer.
The Curves Adjustment Layer
starts out with the tonal range shown as a diagonal line.
You can click on the line and this will add an adjustment
point which can then be pulled to the left or right, or
up and down to change that area of tonality. Again, this
is highly subjective and you can go quite crazy here getting
some pretty color banding and patterns.
I typically create an "S" curve adjustment, moving the
lower 1/4 point to the right a bit and the upper to the
left a bit, but for this image it didn't work. Normally
too these are very subtle adjustments that can be seen
in the preview as you are working.
I played with a number of attempts, before settling for
the settings below.
Since the Hosta area appeared burned out,
I actually dragged the white point at the upper right down
some and added three midpoints and dragged them all to the
Here, below, is the resulting image as it would appear
through both adjustment layers.
Again, I was working toward improving the flower. Toward that
end, I added another adjustment layer for Brightness and Contrast
and made these adjustments.
One objection to the image above
is that it's got too much contrast, so I pulled that down
first in this dialog and then increased the brightness to
bring back some detail in the throat that went AWOL when
I made the contrast change.
The final result appears below - putting your mouse on
top of the image below and then pulling it off will show
and hide the adjusted version and the final version after
Now, when I save this image as a .psd
I retain all the image layers and their adjustment settings, I
can go back in later and alter them.
You can also click on the eye icon beside each layer to make
that layer visible or hide it (when the eye is there the layer
To give you an idea of that - below is the image above with
the Levels Adjustment Layer hidden...
And, again below with the Levels Layer back and the Curves Layer
You can see that each layer adjustment works with the others
to eventually get something I was pleased with.
I encourage you to play with Adjustment Layers and make using
them to tweak an image a regular part of your digital workflow
when you 'process' your images.
My next tutorial will focus on Layer Masks, stay tuned...
Tim Fehr - Eau Claire, WI
© 2008 by Tim Fehr - all rights