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The Curves adjustment in Adobe Photoshop has a reputation for being challenging for some photographers. In this workshop, Photoshop expert Tim Grey takes you step by step through every aspect of the Curves adjustment, helping you truly understand the concepts behind it so that you can quickly and easily maximize tonal range, optimize contrast, and enhance your photos' color balance. Note: This course was recorded in Photoshop CS5, but was created with users of both Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop CS4 in mind.
Here I have a photo of some buoys photographed in a small fishing town in Northern California. When I took the image I loved the arrangement of buoys from foreground to background. But later I decided that all of the buoys were competing for my visual attention. My thought was that by darkening up the background of the image, the viewer would focus more attention on the buoy in the foreground. Let me show you how I would approach this. I'll start off with a general adjustment with curves so I'll add a curves adjustment layer and take a look at my black and white points. I'll adjust the white point with my clipping preview turned on by holding the alt key on windows or option key on Macintosh and the black point with the same technique. In this case the tonal range is alreayd pretty well maximized. I would, however, like to darken the overall image just a littel bit and maybe even boost contrast a hair.
In other words, I've applied a bit of an S curve. It also looks like we might have just a littel hint of magenta in the image so I'm going to swtich to the green channel and I'll drag that channel upward just a tiny, tiny little bit. In order to compensate for that subtle little shift in color. At this point I think things are looking pretty good overall so I'm ready to darken up the background. Now of course curves focuses its adjustments based on tonal values within the image, and so in this case because there's no tonal separation between foreground and background I'm going to need to use a layer mask.
That also means I'm going to need to use a separate curves adjustment layer for this particular adjustment. So I'll click to add an additional curves adjustment layer and then make the adjustment that I think is most appropriate. I can always refine this layer so I don't need to worry too much about the particular adjustment. I'll use this as a starting point, an obvious darkening of the overall image. Next, I'll choose the gradient tool from the tool box, and then make sure that I'm using the foreground color to background color gradient. And that's the first option from the popup, here. Which, in this case, looks like a black to white gradient because my foreground color is currently black and my background color is currently white. I'll use a linear gradient.
And then I'll switch my foreground and background colors so that white is my foreground color. I can do that by pressing X on the keyboard or by clicking this double headed curved arrow icon at the bottom of the toolbox. Now, in this case, I want the adjustment to be visible at the top of the image and gradually taper off toward the bottom of the image. My layer mask for the curves adjustment I've just created is currently active. If I'm not sure, I can always click on it just to make sure that it is active. And so now I can simply click and drag in order to draw a gradient. I'll hold the shift key so that that gradient is constrained, in this case to a vertical.
Holding shift causes the gradient to be constrained to one of the principle 45 degree increments. I'll start dragging with the gradient at the position where I want the transition to begin and I'll release the mouse at the point where I want the transition to end. In other words, above my starting point the image will be affected completely by the adjustment layer. Below my finishing point the image will not be affected at all. And in between will be a gradual transition. As you can see, now I have a darkened upper portion and that gradually tapers off into the foreground. I could continue to refine this gradient, drawing a new gradient to replace the one I've already created.
I can drag in any direction. And the longer I drag, the smoother the transition. But of course, in this case, something going from about the top of the image, down toward the bottom, is most effective. I'd also like to boost the colors just a little bit. So I'm also going to add a vibrance adjustment. And then I'll increase the value for vibrance in order to boost the overall colors without creating an artificial appearance in the most vibrant colors. When you combine a curves adjustment with a layer mask that focuses that adjustment on specific areas of an image, you really have an incredibly powerful combination.
With these two powerful tools working together the only real limit is your imagination.
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