Secrets of taking good pictures: A layer at a time

Photography expert Tom Langford says that every picture must tell a story.

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 Photoshop.
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.Basic Improvements
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 important.
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.
I’ve now 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.
I 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 pictures
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 attention.
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 camera.
Photoshop layering skills form the basis of more advanced work and as a professional retoucher and a photographer I use them every day.
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.
Picture Clinic
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: Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer: & Details of his next photography and retouching courses in Israel: