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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 adjustments panel can be thought of as command central for the adjustments you apply as Adjustment Layers in Photoshop. In addition to providing you with controls for refining any Adjustments Layer you're working with, the Adjustments panel also includes options for creating and managing Adjustment Layers. In this lesson, we'll take a guided tour of the Adjustments panel so you'll understand all of the various controls available to you. If the Adjustments panel is not currently visible, you can enable it by choosing Window > Adjustments from the menu, a check mark indicates that the Adjustments panel is currently visible. You can then go to your Adjustments panel and see the available controls. We're able to add an Adjustment Layer simply by clicking on the button associated with the type of adjustment we'd like to apply. But we can also take things a step further and create a new Adjustment Layer based on a particular preset.
For example, in this case, we're obviously most interested in the Curves Adjustment. So let's take a look at the presets that are available there. If I click the triangle icon to expand the list of Curves presets, I can see all of the available options. I'll go ahead and add a new Curves adjustment with a Medium Contrast preset. This will add a new Adjustment Layer for Curves, of course, but it will also apply a default curve based on the preset that I chose. I could naturally continue to refine the curve as I see fit. Let's take a look at some of the buttons that are included as part of the Adjustments panel.
These buttons are available for all Adjustment Layers that you apply to an image and they're found at the bottom of the Adjustments panel. The first button is a back arrow, and that will take you back to the homepage for the Adjustments panel. This would be used for example, if you wanted to add an additional Adjustment Layer for the image. Once you've clicked back, notice that we also have a forward button, so that we can get back to the controls for our current Adjustment Layer. We can also adjust the size of the Adjustments panel.
This is a toggle that allows you to only switch between two sizes, large and small. If you click the button, the Adjustments panel will be expanded, and if you click again, it will be reduced in size. You're not able to resize the Adjustments panel to any custom size. Only these two sizes are available. For Curves, I prefer to work with the larger version of the Adjustments panel, in large part, simply because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more control over the Adjustment. The next button will cause the current Adjustment Layer to be placed into a clipping group with the layer below it.
In this case, that will change absolutely nothing. When I turn on the clipping option, you'll see that my Curves Adjustment has been indented and there's an arrow indicating that it's been attached to the background image layer. However, since the background image layer is the only layer, this doesn't cause any change in the appearance of the image. When an Adjustment Layer is in a clipping group with another layer, that Adjustment Layer will only affect the particular layer that it is grouped with. For example, if you created a collage that contains multiple image layers, you might want a particular Adjustment Layer to only affect a single image layer within that greater image. In that case, you could simply add the Adjustment Layer into a clipping group with the underlying image layer.
In this case, since it provides no benefit, I'll go ahead and turn that option off. The next icon is an eye that allows you to turn off the preview of the Adjustment Layer. This is the exact same thing as clicking the eye to the left of the thumbnail for the Adjustment Layer on the Layer's panel. In either case, clicking will disable the Adjustment Layer so that you can see the before version of the image. And clicking again will re-enable the Adjustment Layer so that you can see the after version. Over to the right, we have a set of buttons that relate to undoing particular adjustments for the current Adjustment Layer.
These buttons can be a little bit tricky, but once you see them in action, I think they'll make more sense. By default, initially, the Undo button will simply reset the overall adjustment. In other words it will take it back as though you had just created this particular Adjustment Layer. I'll go ahead and click that button, and as you can see, I now have a default Curve with no Adjustment applied. I'm going to go ahead and apply an Adjustment, in this case, using a preset. I'll simply chose the Increase Contrast option to apply a strong degree of contrast to the image.
At this point, notice that I have an additional Undo button available. This is the Preview undo. In other words, if I click and hold on this button, I'll get a preview of what the image will look like if I undo the current adjustment. But with the Adjustments panel, we actually have the option to undo in a couple of steps. The trick is, in order to be able to undo in specific steps we need to tell Photoshop when we're finished with one adjustment and we're working with a separate adjustment. The issue here is that if I keep refining my adjustment, Photoshop doesn't know which step I'd like to be able to go back to.
What that means, is that if I click my Reset button, I'll be resetting back to my original settings. In other words, no adjustment at all. To tell Photoshop that we're finished with what you might think of as version one of the adjustment, what we need to do is move away from our adjustment and then come back to it. So I'll go ahead and just click on my Background image layer, and then, click once again on my Curves Adjustment Layer. Now, if I apply an additional adjustment, Photoshop will recognize this as a separate stage of my adjustment. I'll go ahead and just choose another preset, something more dramatic like color negative.
As you can see this is a very dramatic change in the image, you can now think of the image as having three distinct versions. The first version would be the original image with no adjustment applied at all. The second version would be an increased contrast version of the image, and the third version is this color negative option. Notice that my Undo button now is just a half circle. And if I click on the Undo Preview button, you'll see that the image reflects the high contrast version, not the original.
At this point, if I were to click on my Reset button, I would be going back one step. In other words, undoing the most recent change and going back to my high contrast version of the image. So I'll go ahead and click that button, and as you can see, I'm back to the high contrast version. At this point, I can also reset the controls to their original defaults. That will take me back to the original image with no adjustment applied. So, I'm able to undo a couple different variations on my image as long as I give Photoshop an indication that I want to produce a separate version of the image.
In other words, this would be most useful when you've gotten to the point that you think you're happy with your Curves and Adjustment, but you'd like to play around with it just a little bit more. In that case, simply click away from from adjustment layer onto the background image layer, for example, and then go back to your Curves Adjustment and apply your additional refinements. That way, if you don't like your additional refinements, you can always take a step backward. Finally, we have a Trash Can button on the bottom right of the Adjustments panel. This is the same trash can you'll find at the bottom right of the Layers panel and they perform the same task. If you click on that Trash can button, you'll get a confirmation message that allows you to delete the currently active layer.
Simply click Yes and that Adjustment Layer will disappear. You can also accomplish the same task by simply dragging your Adjustment Layer to the trashcan icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. With an understanding of everything the adjustments panel has to offer, you'll feel much more confident in your ability to create and utilize Adjustment Layers in Photoshop.
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