Secrets of taking good pictures: Finishing off

Photography expert Tom Langford explains how to put the finishing touches to the perfect photo in a “digital darkroom.”

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Last week I demonstrated how to improve pictures by using the computer. This “digital darkroom” work is essential if you are to progress as a photographer: Pictures are taken in your head, captured with your camera, and shaped in your computer. 
It’s rare that I meet a photography enthusiast who has the knowledge and skill to apply “digital darkroom” techniques to their best pictures before they show them to the world. You don’t need to improve holiday or family snaps, but for the rest of your work my motto is: If it’s worth showing it’s worth improving.
Here is a picture I took of a girl with a favorite toy. As you can see, straight from the camera it looks a bit flat and washed out. Before I would dream of showing this to anyone here’s how I would treat it in the computer.
I opened it up in Photoshop and added a Curves Adjustment Layer by clicking in the yin-yang symbol at the bottom of the Layers palette, then choosing Curves.
When the Curves box opens you see something that looks like a straight-line graph. Clicking on the line creates an anchor point: I made three anchors and pulled and pushed the line into an “S” shape - this increased the contrast of the whole picture. The Curves Adjustment Layer gives you an exquisite amount of control over the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows and is worth taking the effort to master.
After doing this I went back to the Layers palette and clicked in the white box on the Curves Adjustment Layer to select it. This box is called a “layer mask”. I then selected a soft-edged black brush and painted over all of the areas in the picture that I didn’t want affected by the Adjustment layer. Because the mask was selected the black appears in the mask rather than the picture.
I painted black into all of the background area around the girl. This area is now masked and so the Adjustment Layer can only increase the contrast of the girl and the toy. I left the background it as is was, flat and washed out, as I only want to draw attention to the subject.
I now added a second Curves Adjustment Layer and this time pushed the line to make the whole picture brighter. Then I used the same black brush to paint black into the second layer mask to remove this brightness from the girl and the toy. The effect of these two curves adjustment layers is that the subject now stands out clearly against the lighter background.
The legs of the toy and the lower half of the girl still looked too pale so I used a third Curves Adjustment Layer, as shown below, to darken them down.
The picture is now almost ready to show, but there are some distracting details that I want to get rid of: I cropped the shot to bring greater focus to the girl’s eye and remove some distractions down the right side of the picture. Then I used the Clone Stamp Tool with a soft-edged brush to remove a few other distractions, especially the tree behind the girl’s right hand. Finally I increased the saturation slightly. Here’s the finished picture ...
I timed myself and found it took less than two minutes to improve this picture, even when working at a leisurely pace. In the past it would have taken about three hours to travel to the darkroom, mix up the trays of chemical solutions and use various skills to print and finish the picture to my satisfaction.
You might have noticed that I haven’t played about with all the fancy filters and effects that Photoshop is stuffed with. My aim is always to remain true to the original image that I observed and then recorded with the camera. I use the “digital darkroom” only to shape this image and bring it to life.
If you are learning these skills for the first time it will take you a lot of practice before you can confidently improve your pictures. There are many Internet videos and tutorials that will help you to understand the brief description I have given here. If you really wish to progress then please take the plunge and start to improve the pictures that you want to show to the world.
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Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. Details of Tom Langford’s photography courses at: Event Photography: Commercial Photography: