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Photoshop has lots of marvelous Color Correction tools, many of which are aimed at automating the color correction process, and they're all located in the Image Adjustments menu. Here we have Brightness and Contrast, Vibrance, Color Balance. There's lots of them. However, as a matte artist, you'll primarily be using only three of these tools, Levels, Curves, and Hue/Saturation. The keyboard shortcut for Curves is Cmd or Ctrl+M. Levels is Cmd or Ctrl+L. And Hue/Saturation is Cmd or Ctrl+U.
Levels and Curves have a lot of controls in common. You can do many of the same things in both of them, so let's take a a moment to talk about the anatomy of levels and curves. First, there is a graph of the image you are working on in the middle of both called a histogram. Here it is in the middle of Curves, and then it's darker and more squashed in Levels. The way the histogram works is that it shows the white tones of the image on the right side and the dark tones on the left or horizontally.
Then vertically it shows the amount of each tone in the image. So you can see this image has no whites in it, but it has a big spike on the dark side as indicated by this hump in the histogram. And you can see the Level's histogram shows the same thing, so just remember the whites to the right, the blacks to the left and the amount up and down. Levels and Curves also have the same sorts of controls. In the upper right corner of Curves is the White point and the White point in Levels is this slider on the right.
Same with the Black point. The lower left point in Curves is the Black point, as is the left slider in Levels. In Levels, there's a slider for the Mid-tones, but in Curves there's no preset control point, you just click on the line in Curves to set up a new point wherever you want one. If I click in the middle here, I can have the same control I have with the slider in Levels. The biggest advantage of Curves is that you can set points anywhere along the line, in the shadows and highlights for instance, and modify only that tonal range.
Levels doesn't offer that sort of detailed control. So you can think of Levels as a cruder tool, like a sledge hammer. Well, Curves can also be a sledge hammer. It's capable of doing very detailed work, like a scalpel. The truth is, is that when you become more experienced in Color Correction, you'll use Curves almost exclusively. Levels has another set of controls at the bottom called Output Levels, which are not available on Curves. If you pull in this left slider for the Black output level, you will lighten the image overall.
You can get the same effect in Curves by pulling up on the Black point. In Levels if you pull the White output point to the left, it darkens everything, and you can get the same effect in Curves by pulling down on the White point. Before we move on to work with Levels and Curves on an image, let's take another look at the histogram. It can tell you a lot about the image you're working on. For instance, in this image we see that there are no pure whites. That tones only start to occur about an eighth of the way across the histogram. Also, you can see that the blacks are all clumped up on the left side, which probably indicates that this picture was either poorly exposed or badly scanned.
When you see the tones running into the edge like this, it means that detail has been lost in the dark areas, and they will be completely black. So this image will not be an optimal piece of reference, since you'll never be able to recover the detail in the dark areas. Let's take a look at the photo this histogram represents. It's this Scottish castle. You can see there is no pure white in the picture. Even these clouds are slightly toned. The real problem shows up when you look in these dark areas.
These are completely black, with no detail. A better quality photo would retain that detail. It doesn't mean you can't use this as photo reference, it just means that the histogram gave you a heads up about potential problems with it. One last thing in this section. Be aware that any time you make a Color Correction to an image you are throwing away information. Let me do a ridiculous Color Correction on this photo just to make a point. Open up Levels, and pull the White point to the left and the Black point to the right.
Press OK to accept it. This probably isn't a Color Correction you would ever make to an image, but even a much less drastic move throws away some information. Now, reopen Levels and take a look at the histogram. You can see that there are now gaps in the histogram indicating that the relatively smooth gradiation in the original photo is gone. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, since you'll be adapting the photo reference for your project and that requires that you change the original. But it's worth remembering that any Color Correction you make to an original throws away some of the information in it.
Next, we're going to open a picture in the Camera RAW format and talk a bit about why Camera RAW is such a great format for matte painting reference.
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