How to Use Photoshop to Enhance Your Best Photographs

BlogHer Original Post

Every now and then someone asks me, "Do you use Photoshop?"  Sometimes, though not always, this question is sort of a test:  if I am a Serious Photographer, Someone Who Knows Her Stuff, then the answer expected to come out of my mouth is something in the range of, "Are you kidding me? Of course not.  I'm insulted you would even ask."

So you can imagine my questioner's dismay when I immediately respond, "Oh, HELL yes.  With gay abandon."

Back in the day, when I first started shooting, I used to absolutely hate Photoshop.  "Photoshop," I used to say, "is something for people who don't know how to take photos. Also? Photoshop is dishonest." And then I would turn on my heel and vanish in a choking cloud of self-righteousness, all the while secretly lamenting that every photo I took didn't look anything like I thought it would when I first framed it in the viewfinder of my camera.

Then one day, I was whining to an employee of my favourite camera store about how terrible all my shots were. "Like, look at that," I said, pointing to a large, framed photograph behind him. "Why can't my images look like that?"

"That?" he said. "Well, yeah, that's great shot, but you realize that's been Photoshopped, right?"

"NO!"  I was horrified.  "That is so disappointing."

"Why?" he asked, looking at me quizzically.  "There's nothing wrong with Photoshop.  It's just processing the image -- just like we used to do with chemicals before, in dark rooms.  I mean, think about it: What makes Ansel Adams amazing isn't the fact that he took a photograph of a tree in Yosemite, but the way he processed the photograph -- dodging, burning, manipulating the chemicals -- to get the final result. It's his processing that made him great."

Right at that moment, I felt like the scales had fallen from my eyes: it was the first time I realized that digital processing wasn't necessarily about deception, but more about artistry. Photoshop is simply the modern day processing tool that photographers use to help convey what they saw and felt when they squeezed the shutters on their cameras. Digital processing can help communicate a photo's imprint.

Each photographer who digitally processes his/her images uses Photoshop (or preferred digital processing software) differently, which is why each photographer tends to have a different vibe to their images, or a unique style. There is therefore no right or wrong way to digitally process an image -- it's a matter of personal taste. Since recently a couple of you have asked how I process my images, I thought I'd share my very simple methods step-by-step with you today.

In my case, I actually spend very little time processing my images -- about 30 seconds to a minute on each shot -- so, obviously, I don't do too much to my photographs. Still, I do enough that each image sort of has my signature on it, I guess.  In addition, I actually use Photoshop Elements -- sort of a cheap man's Photoshop -- and my version is years-old as well, making me somewhat pathetic, in a geek's world. No matter, it does the trick. Also, my main rule for myself is that I never delete pixels. In other words, I don't Photoshop out any imperfections, and I don't crop images, unless it's for the purpose of printing a hard copy to a standard photo size -- VERY rarely for the purpose of excising a mistake or distraction. I try to minimize any flaws by checking the background of my image, using the proper lens, getting my aperture and shutter speed right, and framing the image properly before taking the shot. My intent is to be mindful of the shot I'm taking, so I can minimize the need for post-camera processing as much as possible; doing it otherwise would make me feel like I'm using the software as a crutch. (Incidentally, this nonnegotiable Nondeletion of Pixels Rule has its risks: it generally pisses off my friends who ask me to take their photographs, when I refuse to remove a laugh-line or a mole, or shave off a few pounds. Still, I remain firm: we are all beautiful, and I figure my job as their photographer is to show them this, without having to resort to physically altering their likeness on "film.")

So let's get started.  The shot you see below is an unprocessed, straight-out-of-the-camera image of this year's Christmas angel, purchased at, as ever, Cost Plus World Market:

1sooc

 

As you can see, it's a perfectly acceptable image; however in my opinion, it's a bit flat.  More pointedly, it feels inaccurate:  it doesn't actually convey what I saw -- or more importantly, felt -- when I framed the shot.

And so, to fix it, the first thing I do is sharpen the image, by using the tool "Unsharp Mask."  Yes, I know that makes no sense to "unsharp" something when I mean to "sharpen" it, and it made no sense to me the first time someone told me about the tool, but trust me on this, it works.  The "Unsharp Mask" tool makes it so that you can see the details of each strand of hair, say, or blade of grass a bit more precisely.  It can bring out the texture in the image.  In this particular photo, however, it didn't make a whole lot of difference ...

 

2unsharpenmask

...  but I did it anyway.

The next thing I do is use the Contrast tool to increase the contrast.  I do this almost religiously -- in my opinion (and remember, when it comes to processing, it's all opinion, different photographers all have different philosophies), there is rarely a photo that can't do with a bit of contrast adjustment. So, when I upped the contrast here ...

 

3contrast

... you can see that the image becomes a bit warmer, a bit more striking.

And then finally, I love the "Gradient" tool in Photoshop, which I use to help "burn" the edges of my photos -- in other words, make the colours of the image just a bit deeper, like the fire inside of the colours and the shadows at the edges have been turned up just a touch:

 

4gradientfinal

And then at that point, I pretty much consider the image done!  Over time, how I process images has changed and evolved, and will likely continue to do so; similarly, the way I shoot and frame images has changed as well.  But for now, this is how I process 90% of the images you see here on Chookooloonks.  In addition, I'm constantly combing the internet for inspiration, bookmarking and revisiting the work of photographers who I think are masterful at using digital processing tools.  In fact, here are some current favourites:

  • Mark Tucker -- I think this photographer is masterful with his use of post-camera processing.  Be sure to check out his "Portrait" and "Jack Daniels" galleries.
  • Matt Hoyle -- Again, another great portrait photographer.  I was mesmerized by his "Barnumville" series.
  • Uwe Eischens -- My weak spot is landscape photography (which is why you see so little of it here on my site).  This photoblog makes me want to REALLY try, though.  Beautiful processing work.

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Karen Walrond is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. This article originally appeared on her blog.  Read/See more of her life at www.chookooloonks.com

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