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Improving a photo with adjustment layers

From: Up and Running with Photoshop Elements 10

Video: Improving a photo with adjustment layers

When you want to make corrections to color or lighting in a photo here in the Full Photo Edit workspace, you can do that either with a direct adjustment or with an adjustment layer. I prefer to use adjustment layers, because they're nondestructive of the original photo, they remain editable, and you can target your adjustment to just part of a photo when you apply an adjustment layer. But if you're in a hurry, you might want use a direct adjustment, so let me show you where those are located. Those are up here under the Enhance menu. There are some Auto adjustments here, and then in this section, there are some adjustments over which you get some controls.

Improving a photo with adjustment layers

When you want to make corrections to color or lighting in a photo here in the Full Photo Edit workspace, you can do that either with a direct adjustment or with an adjustment layer. I prefer to use adjustment layers, because they're nondestructive of the original photo, they remain editable, and you can target your adjustment to just part of a photo when you apply an adjustment layer. But if you're in a hurry, you might want use a direct adjustment, so let me show you where those are located. Those are up here under the Enhance menu. There are some Auto adjustments here, and then in this section, there are some adjustments over which you get some controls.

But I like to use adjustment layers, for the reasons that I mentioned before. So let me show you how to add an adjustment layer. Over in the column on the right, I've closed some of the panels to make more room for my Layers panel and my Adjustments panel. If your Layers and Adjustment panels aren't showing, go up to the Window menu at the top of the screen, and choose them from here. To add a new adjustment layer, I'll go to the bottom of the Layers panel, and I'll click this icon that looks like a black and white circle. The adjustment layers are in the second and third sections. Those I use most are the Hue/ Saturation adjustment layer to intensify or deintensify color in an image, the simple Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer, or the Levels adjustment layer, which gives me the most control over brightness and contrast adjustments.

I am going to choose Levels here, and that does two things: it changes the Adjustments panel to show the Levels controls, and up here in the Edit menu, it creates a brand new layer; an adjustment layer. An adjustment layer affects the content of all the layers below. In this case, there is just the one background layer. An adjustment layer comes with its own layer mask, which is represented by this white rectangle. We'll get to that in a minute, but first let's see how to make a levels adjustment. I'll move down to the Adjustment panel. Here is a histogram, or a bar chart, that shows the tonal values in this image.

The darkest possible tonal values are over on the left, and the brightest over on the right. As you can see from the shape of this mound, the tonal values in this image are all in the dark area, and in some of the gray areas. There are no tonal values in the brightest areas, and that's why the image looks kind of dull. To increase the contrast in this image, I want to set a white point, and I also want to expand the tones in this image across the full tonal range, from dark to light. To do that, I'll use the Levels controls right under this bar chart.

I'll take the White slider, and I'll drag it just underneath the first of the pixels in this image, and that pushes those particular pixels to pure white, and it also takes all the other pixels in the image, and expands them across the tonal range. I'll take the Black slider, and I'll move that over slightly too, to push the darkest pixels in the image to pure black. Now there is a lot more contrast in the image. To show you a before and after view, I'll go down to the eye icon here at the bottom of the Adjustments panel, and I'll click to show you how I started, and click again to show you where I am now.

I mentioned that one of the advantages to an adjustment layer is that it doesn't directly impact the photo. So if you got up to the Layers panel, you can see that that adjustment is located on this adjustment layer only. If I make the adjustment layer invisible, the original photo on the background layer remains as it always was. And because this adjustment layer is a separate layer, I could do something like lower its opacity, using the Opacity slider, or if I didn't want the adjustment anymore, I could even drag it down to the trashcan at the bottom of the Layers panel to delete it all together.

Another advantage of this adjustment layer is that it remains editable, as long as I save the photo in a format that retains layers, like the PSD format. So let's say I were doing something else to the photo, like working on the background, I could always come back and click on that Levels adjustment layer. That brings back the controls for levels here in the Adjustments panel, and I could make a change. So I might take this Gray slider and drag it more to the left, which will brighten up the photo overall. The third advantage of an adjustment layer is that it comes with its own layer mask.

When a layer mask like this is white, it's really not impacting the photo at all, but if I paint with black on part of this layer mask, that will hide the adjustment from those parts of the photo. I am going to go back over the toolbar, and there I'll make sure that the foreground color is set to black. I'll only see gray, white or black, because I'm working on a layer mask. If your foreground color is white, just click the double pointed arrow here to switch it to black. Then I'll go up and get the Brush tool, I'll make sure that my brush is relatively large and soft using the left and right bracket keys that are to the right of the P key on my keyboard.

Pressing the left bracket key makes the brush tip small, pressing the right bracket key makes it larger, and holding the Shift key as I press the left bracket key makes it soft. Now, with this soft brush, I am going to paint over some parts of the photo from which I want to hide this adjustment. So these parts of the photo are going back to the original photo. They're no longer lightened, and more contrasty, which I had accomplished with that levels adjustment. And that focuses attention here on the center of the image, where I still have my adjustment showing.

If you look at the layer mask thumbnail, you can see where I painted with black to hide the adjustment, and where the thumbnail is still white showing the adjustment. So that's how to correct a photo using an adjustment layer. I do suggest that wherever you can you use an adjustment layer over a direct adjustment, because you get so much more flexibility with an adjustment layer, and the adjustment layer is not destructive of your original photo.

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Up and Running with Photoshop Elements 10

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