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Reader Graham Long (no relation) sends in an image that he titled “An Almost Quite Good Photo.” As he describes it: “the shot was taken at Granville Island in Vancouver. My wife took the kids for a bite to eat and I rattled off more than 250 ill-considered shots in about 15 minutes.” Graham’s experience shows the merit of heavy shooting, as his blitzkrieg approach delivered an image that truly is almost quite good. However, there are just one or two issues that keep it from being a an outright quite good photo, and in this Before and After we’re going to discuss what those issues are, and explore some ways that you can fix them in an image editor.

Let’s start with the quite good part.

As someone who lives in an urban area with a lot of pigeons, I occasionally set out to try to get photos of them flying. When an entire flock takes off over an area, you can get some great compositions. Unfortunately, you never know when it’s going to happen, so capturing a moment like Graham has here is not easy.

The frozen motion on the pigeons is very nice, as is the soft background, which creates a great sense of depth, and a feeling for the pigeons being in a big 3D space.

Unfortunatly, the background is interfering with the foreground. The guy on the cellphone is wearing a color that’s very close to the magenta on the pigeon and he’s just generally in the way. While the soft background helps to create some foreground/background separation, it’s not quite enough to really make the pigeons stand out.

So, our general course of action will be to try to bring attention to the pigeons – to strengthen the sense of them as the subject of the image. That will be the main idea that guides our image editing decisions.

Usually, the easiest way to bring more attention to a subject is to crop it. We’ve definitely got room to crop this image:

But in this case, cropping doesn’t really help us very much, because Cell Phone Guy is still back there getting in the way. Also, with a cropped image there’s less of a sense of “where” to the image. Also, Graham’s original composition doesn’t feature the pigeons so perfectly centered, which gives it a nice sense of immediacy. I’m going to stick with the uncropped version.

Another good way to bring focus to a subject in the center of an image is to use a vignette. Vignetting, the darkening of the corners in an image, is usually something you try to avoid. Some wide angle lenses have vignetting problems, and a bad vignette can really wreck an image. But vignetting can also serve to obscure unnecessary edge details, without cropping them out completely, bringing more focus to your image.

Photoshop CS3, CS2, and Photoshop Elements 5 or later all have a very good vignette tool that can be used for removing or adding vignettes. With the original image open, we simply choose the Lens Correction filter from Photoshop’s Filter menu. In Photoshop CS2 or CS3, you’ll find it under Filter > Distort > Lens Correction.

The Lens Correction filter actually provides a number of important features including straightening, distortion correction, (for removing barrel or pincushion distortion) chromatic aberration correction, (for removing the colored fringes that can appear around high-contrast edges in an area) and Transform controls that can be used to correct perspective. For our problem, we’re going to use the Vignette sliders.

First, we want to deactivate the grid display that is on by default. The grid helps with straightening and perspective adjustments, and you can turn it off by unchecking the Show Grid checkbox.

The Vignette Amount slider is very simple. Slide it to the right, and the corners of your image will brighten, slide it to the left and the corners will darken. By sliding to the left, we can darken the corners, to bring more focus to the center of the image.

With an amount of -40, we get darker corners that do serve to make the pigeons in the foreground jump out a little more.

We don’t want to go too much darker, though, or the vignette will become distracting. If the vignette is too dark, it will become the focus of the image. Here’s the image with a vignette amount of -70.

We’re going to leave Amount set to -40, and move to the midpoint slider, which lets us control how wide the darkening is. A lower amount causes the vignette effect to cover more of the image. Here’s the image with a midpoint of +23.

By adjusting the Midpoint slider, we create a stronger vignette, but one that isn’t so dark and eye-attracting. This is the vignette we’ll stick with.

While this helps to bring more focus to the center, we’ve still got a lot of foreground/background clash. At this point, we can simply start experimenting to see what might create more distinction between the pigeons and the background.

Tonal Change

There are a few approaches that you can take to bring focus to a subject. You can try a compositional change, (cropping) or a tone or hue change. Vignetting is a simple tonal change – we’ve darkened the corners so that the center of the image appears brighter and more attention-grabbing. Let’s take this idea farther, and darken the background of the image.

In Photoshop, we can darken only the background by using an Adjustment Layer.

At the bottom of the Layers palette, you’ll find a pop-up menu called “Create Fill or Adjustment Layer.” Open this menu and select Levels:

Photoshop will present you with a standard Levels dialog box. Our goal is to darken the image, and increase the contrast. So we want settings like this:

In the process of doing this, we’ll be darkening the entire image uniformly, which means the pigeons will go dark along with the background. At this point, we have to not worry about that, and try eyeballing the background for the values we want. Because we’re working with an Adjustment Layer, we can always change our settings later, so it’s not critical that we get them perfect right now. With this Levels adjustment, our image looks like this:

We want to constrain our Levels adjustment so that it only affects the background of the image. All Adjustment Layers have a built in Layer Mask that lets you control which parts of your image get affected by the adjustment. You can see the mask in the Layers palette, it’s the white square in the Levels Adjustment Layer.

You can think of the mask just like a stencil in the real world. Where there’s white in the mask, there’s a hole which allows the effect of the adjustment layer to pass through to underlying layers. So, in this case, the entire image is being affected by our Levels adjustment, and so the entire image is being darkened.

Choose the paintbrush tool and some black paint and click on the Layer Mask in the Adjustment Layer to select it. Now paint over the pigeons in the image with black. As you paint, you’ll be covering that part of the mask, which will prevent the Levels adjustment from affecting the pigeons.

Notice that you can see a representation of the mask you’ve painted in the Layer Mask thumbnail.

If you make a mistake and mask something that you don’t want masked, just switch to white paint and paint over that area.

This is looking better, but there’s still not enough separation between the pigeons and the background. Let’s add another Levels Adjustment Layer, but set this one to brighten the image. With these settings, our entire image will get brigher:

Now we’re facing the same problem we had before: everything in the image has been brightened. We want to construct a mask that affects only the pigeons. Let’s begin by filling the entire mask with black, so that none of the image gets the brightening effect.

Select black as the foreground color, then select the Paint Bucket. Click on the mask of the new Adjustment Layer to select it, and then click somewhere in the image. You should see the entire mask thumbnail fill with black.

Now switch to white paint, select the paintbrush, and paint over the pigeons. We’re now effectively punching a hole in our mask, so that the brightening adjustment affects only the pigeons.

This is better, but Cell Phone Guy is still really in the way. We could use the Rubber Stamp tool to try to remove him, but that would be a lot of work. One problem is that his jacket is very close in hue to the pigeon. Let’s change the color of it to something more contrasty.

Hue Adjustment

From the Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the bottom of the Layers palette, create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. As you might guess, this adjustment lets us alter the hue and saturation in an image, as well as lighness. After selecting the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, you’ll be presented with the standard Hue/Saturation dialog box. We want to make a Hue adjustment – that is, a color adjustment – to the magentas in the image. From the Edit pop-up menu at the top of the Hue/Saturation dialog box, choose Magentas. (We’re picking Magentas, because Cell Phone Guy’s jacket is a magenta color.

Begin your adjustment by dialing in a big Hue shift. Slide the Hue shift slider to the right, to around 140. In your image, you’ll see some areas here and there where some bright purple spots turn green. The problem is we want more than just bright purple to be affected.

The color ramps at the bottom of the dialog box let you control which colors are affected by the adjustment. The two inner sliders control the hues that will be greatly affected, while the outer sliders control the “falloff”. That is, the colors delineated by the outer sliders will be adjusted by slighter and slighter degrees, to blend the adjustment into the surrounding colors. Adjust the sliders so they look like this:

Now your image should look something like this:

We’ve got a better color separation between the pigeon and the jacket, but we’ve also got some weird colors in other parts of the image. Some flesh tones have turned green, and some other purple things besides Cell Phone Guy’s jacket have been altered. Fortunately, we can easily constrain the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer using a Layer Mask, just as we did with our Levels adjustment.

Using a mask that looks like this:

We get an image that looks like this:

We’re getting closer now, but the pigeon wing is still a little bit lost in Cell Phone Guy’s sweater. One nice thing about Adjustment Layers is that you can go back and alter their settings at any time. Let’s try another tonal adjustment and darken Cell Phone Guy’s jacket, so it’s not so close to the tone of the pigeon wing.

If you double click on the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer in the Layers palette you’ll get the Hue/Saturation dialog box again. (Be sure to click on the left-most icon, not the mask icon.)

With the Edit pop-up menu set to Master, slide the Lightness slider to -24.

With the darkening, the jacket now has better separation from the pigeon wing.

Let’s try one last addition. We’ve now got an image with a fairly stylized look – it’s got severe vignetting and weird exposure. In other words, it’s got all the hallmarks of an image shot with a lens of questionable quality, using film that’s been pushed and manipulated. The problem is, it’s got a clarity of a digital image. So let’s muck it up a little bit with some noise, to give the image some texture that’s more in line with its tone and color qualities.

At the bottom of the Layers palette, click the Create a New Layer button. A new, empty layer will appear at the top of the Layers palette. Now choose a 50% gray tone from the Swatches palette.

Your image will appear completely gray. We want to blend this gray with the underlying layers, so choose Soft Light from the Blending Mode menu at the top of the Layers palette.

Press the D key to set the foreground color to black, then choose Filter > Noise > Add Noise. This will bring up the Gaussian Noise dialog box. Make sure Monochrome and Preview are checked, and set Distribution to Gaussian. You should see the effects of the noise right away. Play with the Amount slider until you find a level of grain that you like. It will vary depending on the resolution you’re working with.

Now we have an image that has some texture to it, and is a little more evocative.

One reason that I like this technique for adding noise is that it’s non-destructive. We can delete the noise layer at any time if we decide we don’t like the noise. Or, if we want a different amount of noise we can build a new noise layer with different settings. Also, we can further attenuate the noise by lowering the opacity of the noise layer.

How did I know to use Soft Light blending mode? Because I’ve used this technique a lot and just remembered it. But, originally, I learned it simply through trial and error. It doesn’t take long to work through all the blending modes until you find one that does what you want.

Now that I’ve led you through all that, I’m going to make one more suggestion: set this image aside, there might be a better idea.

As I mentioned before, in addition to separating foreground and background through cropping or tonal adjustments, you can also create separation through color adjustments. We did a little bit of that by changing the color of Cell Phone Guy’s jacket, but let’s try a more extreme adjustment.

Let’s return to our vignetted image – the one with no additional adjustments – and add a Black and White adjusment layer (Black and White is only available in CS3, but you can do a similar effect in earlier versions of Photoshop by using a Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer.)

Black and White will convert our image to, you guessed it, black and white. Like all Adjustment Layers, the Black and White Adjustment Layer includes a built-in Layer Mask. This makes it simple to block out some of the black and white conversion so that we can leave some parts of the image in color. In this case, we’ll let the background go to black and white, and leave the pigeons in color. All we have to do is paint black into our mask, as we did earlier. We end up with a Layer Mask that looks like this:

And an image that has something of a hand-tinted look:

You need to be careful with this effect, though, as it’s beginning to become a bit of a cliché. With this image, the color is nicely subtle.

Why did I drag you through all of that stuff at the beginning if I was also going to suggest a simple single-adjustment-layer fix? Partly because this is the workflow that I actually went through when working with the image. It’s important to understand that experimentation is often the only way to find the image you want. No matter how much you may understand about how to perform different types of corrections, and no matter how much theory you may have amassed about different approaches to foreground/background relationship, or composition, very often the only way to find out what works is to start trying things. Even experienced Photoshop users often have to just poke around until they figure out what works.

But I also detailed both fixes because I’m still not sure which one I like bettter. Graham is partial to the black and white conversion, and I can understand why, but there’s still something about the first version that intrigues me. Perhaps, since I can’t commit to it completely, it’s not yet done, and I need to spend some more time playing with it.

Before you make any kind of final evaluation in a situation like this, though, you should view your images using your intended delivery medium. If your goal is to print this picture, you should print both versions and see which one works. There’s a good chance that once they’re on paper, the better choice is obvious.

A big thanks to Graham for this submission! Check out his Flickr page, where you can see a number of other quite good photos.

If you’ve got an image you’re not sure how to correct, adjust, fix, or simply don’t know what it might need, send it to, and we’ll take a look at it.