Secrets of taking good pictures: A layer at a time
By TOM LANGFORD
Photography expert Tom Langford says that every picture must tell a story.
For photography enthusiasts
the digital revolution started in the year 2000: The first affordable digital
cameras with enough resolution to record a reasonable amount of detail were
becoming available. Many of the earlier digital consumer cameras made only very
small email-sized images.
Amateurs were experienced at using traditional
wet darkrooms. They would adjust the contrast of different areas in the picture
by altering the enlarger’s filters; they could darken and lighten different
features by giving them more or less exposure. It was natural for enthusiasts to
transfer these techniques to the “digital darkroom” and to embrace
Today the wet darkroom is now almost extinct and the skills of
crafting an image seem to be dying out with it. Enthusiasts are often content
with their pictures straight out of the camera and rarely take the trouble to
improve them in any significant way.
Applications, such as Picasa and
iPhoto can make excellent overall basic improvements, but are not intended for
detailed digital darkroom work. For this you need to be able to work on discrete
areas of the image, just as you would have done in a wet darkroom.
Here’s a brief demonstration of how basic Photoshop techniques can
enhance a picture. The methods closely match traditional skills used to make
decent black and white prints. Photoshop gives us the power to apply these
methods to color pictures too, and not even get our hands wet.
Here is a picture as it came straight from the camera. It
includes a lot of extra detail that does not add to the "story" so I’ll first
crop it in Photoshop to concentrate the viewer's attention on what is
I can now see that there are
two main areas that need improving: The pillow and bedding could be made less
prominent, and the background could be lightened by the top of the girl’s head.
Here I’ve used a Curves Adjustment layer to
reduce the contrast and darken the whole picture. This can be accessed by
clicking on the Yin-Yang icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette and choosing
“Curves” from the pop-up menu.)
On the New
Curves layer is a small white box called a Layer Mask. I filled this with black
(Edit > Fill > Use > Black). This “masks” the darkness and the picture
returns to its original look.
used a soft-edged Brush Tool to paint white into the Layer Mask. White reveals
the Curves Adjustment in the pillow and bedding areas that I’ve painted - so
they show the darkening and are now less prominent.
I have added another Curves Adjustment Layer, this time to
brighten all of the shadows. As before, I filled the Layer Mask with black to
mask this affect. I then used the soft-edged Brush Tool to paint white into the
Layer Mask and reveal the brightness around the top of the girl’s head.
also added a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer to remove a little of the bright
red in the girl’s hair.
It took me only a few minutes to improve this
picture from the comfort of my living room and with half an eye on the TV. In
the past, using film and traditional darkroom techniques it would have taken me
about three hours to achieve a similar result.
Cameras don’t take
Cameras don’t take pictures; they only record images. The slight amount
of “digital darkroom” preparation of this picture is the very least I would do
to any photograph that I wished to show. The improvements are solely intended to
bring clarity to the photograph and help focus the viewer’s
For me, if a picture is worth showing it is worth improving.
There are many online tutorials that deal with Adjustment Layers and Layer Masks
- the learning curve is a little steep but well worth the effort. My technique
of making an overall adjustment, masking it and then carefully painting the
adjustment into certain areas is not the only way adjustment layers can be used,
but works for me.
The beauty of using Adjustment Layers is
“editability.” When saved as a Photoshop Psd file, all of the layers are
preserved. I can open up this image in a few weeks or years time and make
further adjustments and additions to the layers. I can re-edit it and never
degrade the original picture.
As you work on more complex images and set higher
standards for yourself, the ability to fine-tune your images will become more
and more important. It’s so much fun and so satisfying that you will wonder how
you ever felt content to accept images straight out of the
Photoshop layering skills form the basis of more advanced work
and as a professional retoucher and a photographer I use them every
Every image on my websites has been improved using layering
techniques. When I work in advertising to retouch complex and creative images I
use these same basic methods. Starting to use the Layers Palette now will allow
you to develop your skills as far as you would like to take them.
If you would like to develop your photography skills, you are welcome to
send to me one of your pictures that I may publish with some constructive
feedback. Upload your picture here: http://www.clinic.langford.co.il
Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer:
http://weddingseventsisrael.com & http://www.langford.co.il
Details of his
next photography and retouching courses in Israel: