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Using adjustment layers: A basic workflow

From: Photoshop CS6 Quick Start for Photographers

Video: Using adjustment layers: A basic workflow

I tried to take a somewhat organized approach to optimizing the appearance of the image. That's not to say that I applied the exact same adjustments in the same way for every photo. But rather, that I try to take an organized approach. My general philosophy is to start with the most important adjustment for an image, and then work my way down to the less important adjustments. The ones that are really just about fine tuning the overall appearance of an image. Let's take a look at a basic work flow for optimizing the overall tone and color for a photographic image. I usually start with Tonal adjustments.

Using adjustment layers: A basic workflow

I tried to take a somewhat organized approach to optimizing the appearance of the image. That's not to say that I applied the exact same adjustments in the same way for every photo. But rather, that I try to take an organized approach. My general philosophy is to start with the most important adjustment for an image, and then work my way down to the less important adjustments. The ones that are really just about fine tuning the overall appearance of an image. Let's take a look at a basic work flow for optimizing the overall tone and color for a photographic image. I usually start with Tonal adjustments.

That's typically the most important adjustment for an image. At least, in my experience. And for that, I use the levels adjustment. So I can switch to the Adjustments panel. And then, click on the Levels button that will add a Levels Adjustment layer. I could have also gone to the bottom of the Layers panel and clicked the Add Adjustment Layer button and then chosen Levels from the pop up menu. On the Properties panel I can then adjust the settings for levels. Now levels at first glance appears rather complex, but it's actually relatively straightforward because you really only need to adjust three sliders in all of these controls.

That's the white point slider, the black point slider and the mid tone slider. I'll start off with the white point. This is establishing the value for white. In other words, which pixel values in the image will actually be white. If I move too far to the left, I'll lose considerable detail in the image. But I do want to try and produce an image where, in most cases The brightest pixel is white or nearly white. And for this image I do think that's going to be a good adjustment. So I'll hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh while adjusting the white point.

This reveals a clipping preview display so that I can evaluate my overall adjustment. I'm able to see where in the image and to what extent I'm losing detail because of my adjustment. I don't mind having just a slight amount of clipping in the highlights. So I might bring that value in just a little bit. Perhaps around there. And then I'll release the mouse, and evaluate the result. And there, as far as the highlights are concerned, I think I have a good adjustment. I'll then move to the blacks slider. And once again hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh. And increase the value for blacks.

Here again we have a similar effect the clipping preview which shows where I'm loosing detail in the shadows. I might not mind giving up a little bit of shadow detail but I don't want to give up to much. So maybe somewhere around there. Of course in all cases I want to make sure that I'm evaluating the actual image, not just the clipping preview, but the image itself. The clipping preview is helpful, but it's not the be all end all when it comes to determining the best adjustment for an image. Finally, I'll evaluate the mid-tone slider. And that allows me to darken or lighten the overall image.

I'll fine tune, in this case I don't have a clipping preview available. I need to trust my eyeballs for this one. And so I'll make an adjustment that produces what I think is the best overall tonality. That takes care of my overall tonal adjustment, now let's take a look at color adjustments. I'll start off with a color balance adjustment. I'll go ahead and go to the Adjustments panel. And I will choose the Color Balance option. When I click Color Balance a new Color Balance adjustment Layer is added for my image, and I can shift the balance for all the primary color's.

So shifting between cyan and red, for example. Or magenta and green, and finally yellow and blue. In this case, I think a bit warmer image might be helpful, so I might shift toward yellow just a little bit. And maybe just a little bit toward red. Not too much in the way of green or magenta there. I just want to neutralize things. So somewhere around there. I encourage you to play with these sliders, to shift back and forth. And get a better sense of what's possible in the image. I almost always work in mid tones, by the way.

We have the option for shadows versus highlights, but in reality that's just focusing the adjustment on a particular tonal range, and for most images working in mid tones will work out just great. I also almost always leave the Preserve Luminosity check box turned on. There are only special circumstances where you might need to turn it off. But frankly it usually provides a better adjustment with Preserve Luminosity turned on. I think my color's looking pretty good, in terms of being balanced, I don't see any problematic color casts in the image. So I'm ready to take my next step, which is typically to boost the intensity of the colors, just a little bit.

Sometimes I reduce the intensity of colors, but generally speaking, I like to have a little bit more vibrance in my images. And so I'll add a vibrance adjustment. In this case, I'll go ahead to the bottom of the Layers panel and click the Add Adjustment Layer button and then from the pop menu, I'll chose vibrance. That adds vibrance adjustment layer to the stack of layers I'm building up on my Layers panel. And you can see on the Properties panel, I have just two controls, vibrance and saturation. And what vibrance does is increase the saturation for colors that aren't all that saturated to begin with more than it increases saturation for colors that are fairly saturated. As such, it's my go to tool for boosting the colors in the image. So I'll start there, and boost the vibrance just a little bit, trying to bring out some of those colors.

I don't want to go too far, but in this case, I'd like to have some of those tones showing through, in the background. And I feel that's not quite enough, I can also boost the overall saturation, in a more even way. With the saturation slider. Or of course I could reduce saturation if I wanted to. But in this case I think a little bit of a boost will help bring out the colors that are somewhat subtle in the background there. That takes care of my basic adjustments. A relatively basic workflow that helps me optimize the overall tone and color in an image. At any time of course I can go back to any of my adjustments.

I can go back to the levels adjustment for example, and fine tune the settings there on the Properties panel. Keep in mind that these adjustments will stay here as long as I save this image with the layers intact. I'll always be able to come back to the image and refine my adjustments. Everything on the Properties panel will be just as I left it. I can also turn off any of the individual adjustments and turn it back on again by turning off or on the eye icon to the left of the adjustment layer. And if I want to see an overall before and after, in other words, with all of the adjustments disabled and then all of the adjustments re-enable.

I can hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh while clicking on the eye icon for the background image layer. That will hide all layers except the background image layer, and holding the Alt or Option key and clicking again, will reveal all layers. So I can go back and forth between the original image and the adjusted image. Hopefully the adjusted image is much better. But if not, you can always go back and refine your individual adjustments. That gives you an idea of the overall basic workflow I recommend for optimizing your images. It's just a starting point.

But I think it'll serve you well for most photos.

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Photoshop CS6 Quick Start for Photographers

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