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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.
The curves adjustment is by its nature something of a targeted adjustment. By that I mean that when you apply its curves adjustment you are able to focus your adjustment on a particular range of tonal values within the image. Of course in the context of the curves adjustment by itself the adjustment is only targeted based on tonal values not the location of pixels within the image. As you'll see in this lesson, by combing the targeted capabilities of curves and layers masks you can maximize your ability to focus adjustments exactly where you want them. In this case, for example, I'd like to darken down the sky in order to produce a little bit more drama in this image.
However, if I were to darken the sky, I would also be darkening other areas of the image. I could be very careful with my curves adjustment, making sure that the only tonal values that are affected are those found in the sky. However, the tonal values found in the sky are also found in the waterfall. So I need to make sure that the adjustment I'll apply will only affect the sky. For that, I'll make use of a layer mask. The easiest way to work with a layer mask for any adjustment is to start off by creating a selection.
I'll go ahead and choose the quick selection tool, and then simply click and drag across the sky to ensure that the sky is completely selected. With the selection active I can then add a curves adjustment layer. Adjustment layers always come with a layer mask by default. That layer mask usually starts off completely white. That means that the adjustment is affecting the entire image. For layer masks, what you need to remember is that black blocks and white reveals. Beause I had a selection active when I created this curves adjustment, the layer mask automataically reflects the selection.
You can see that the sky is white and the rest of the image is black in the layer mask itself. Now, when I adjust my curves adjustment, I'll only be affecting the sky. So, for example, I want to add some drama. I'll darken up the sky significantly, and as you can see, only the sky is affected. None of the rest of the image is being affected by this particular curves' adjustment. I'll also want to make sure that the transition along the edge of my selection is a little bit smoothed out. I could've feathered the selection, but I prefer instead to feather after the fact. Once I've created my targeted adjustment.
To do so, I'll go to the masks panel, and then increase the feather value. In most cases, you only need to use a value of one of two pixels for feather, in order to smooth the transition, between areas that are not being effected and those that are being effected by an adjustment layer. And of course I can always go back to my adjustments panel, to fine tune the shape of my curve if needed. By using a layer mask, along with the curve's adjustment layer, you can truly maximize the flexibility of a curve's adjustment, by not only focusing your adjustments on particular tonal ranges within the image, but also focusing on specific areas of the image regardless of tonality.
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