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Basic Photoshop Elements tutorials

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Using Photoshop Elements to improve your photos

The fundamentals



This article includes the full set of basic Photoshop Elements tutorials. Although written over ten years ago, they concentrate on the fundamentals of image editing. No ‘Click to fix’ or plugins, these basic steps were designed to give a real feel for -why- you are adjusting an image.

Article Index

  • Midpoint adjustment
  • Cropping for impact
  • Gamma and layers intro
  • Levels adjustment
  • Saturation changes
  • Straighten images
  • Cloning and repairs
  • Masked adjustments
splash landing

These articles were written for Photoshop Elements 2 – but are still relevant for the underlying image editing techniques in the latest versions. There may be new improved ‘automatic’ tools for fixing images, but an understanding of what’s actually going on, is always useful.

There are sample files that you can download to try out for yourself.

The aim is that when you look at an image you can visualise what end result you want and choose the possible techniques to get there. This approach may not suit everyone, there is no magic checklist, no list of instructions to follow. In our tutorials and articles section there are many other sources of info – try them out and see which you like the best.

Photoshop Elements is a very powerful program, with many useful features. Rather than just go through its functions and menus, Keith has picked 5 basic actions that you can take to improve many of your digital photos. Use the practice files and experiment with them.

Keith uses Photoshop for the images on this site, it is more complex than Elements, but many of the manipulations he carries out could be done just as well in Photoshop Elements. The courses use Elements 2, but you should be able to work through with the original version as well.

It is suggested that you go through the tutorials in order, since they do reference previous ones. There is a (2.9 Megabyte) zipped folder of the actual sample images you can download to experiment with.

Select each tab below to see the relevant section of the tutorials.

There are easier ways of doing many of the basic functions here – learn them later, and have a better understanding of how to get the photos you want.

Midpoint

A simple midpoint adjustment brings out detail

Lightening an Image

Open the image midpoint.jpg

The image is quite dark, but if you look carefully you will see there is plenty of detail in the dark areas.

Open the Histogram and look at the distribution of bright and dark parts of the image.

lots of dark bits in the picture

The black area represents the distribution of lighter and darker pixels in the image.

Notice how a large part of the data is to the left (dark), but also the small spike at the right which represents the bright area around the window.

The Histogram can be one of the most useful quick checks as to an image quality.

Open the Levels adjustment.

adjust levels

As a general rule -avoid- the using the brightness/contrast adjustments. There are much better ways of getting the changes you want.

Move the midpoint over to the left

the levels adjustment dialog box

Moving it to the left makes the picture lighter.

When you are happy, click OK to change the image.

Now look again at the histogram.

histogram of the brighter image

See how the image is less bunched up over to the left (dark).

Cropping

Much of the real impact of an image can come from cropping what you start with, to emphasise a subject or activity. It is usually best to do this when you take the picture in the first place, but sometimes an alternate view comes to mind after you look at the captured image.

Just remember that the more you crop an image the more work will be needed to make a larger print.

Open the images Splash crop 1 and 2

Before the splash

Splash-crop1

Select the zoom tool (press the Z key as a short cut)

zoom tool

and zoom out to fit each image comfortably in the view. If the magnifying glass has a + symbol you will zoom in (image gets bigger) and if it has a – sysmbol you will zoom out (holding down the alt or opt key will change from + to -)

Now select the crop tool

crop tool

Use it to select an area of the image

ready to crop

You can adjust this area (drag the corners and edges of the box) until you are happy with the image. Hit return and the crop is made.

Try the same thing with the second image.

splash landing

Now look at the two images and notice differences in the way you cropped them. Try some images of your own and see how different crops change the overall ‘feel’ of the picture.

Gamma adjustment

Setting the Gamma of an image is one way of adjusting the relative proportions of bright and dark areas – much the same way as in the midtones example. In fact it is just the same but we are going to use a layer.

Layers are one of the most powerful features in Photoshop, but a lot of people are initially a bit wary of them. Here we are going to get virtually the same effect as in the midpoint technique. In fact you can go back to the midpoint image and try the adjustment with layers if you like.

Open the image Gamma.jpg

Rotate it 90 degrees (Rotate is in the Image menu)

too bright picture of Ullswater

(We are going to do the adjustment using a levels layer)

Create a new levels adjustment layer.

creating a new adjustment layer

Accept the default name for the new layer created (a meaningful name can be useful if you are going to use lots of layers)

raising the midpoint to darken the picture

Raise the midpoint slider to darken the image to taste

Note that raising the midpoint moves more of the picture to below (to the left of) the midpoint – making it darker overall.

When you click OK the change is made.

So, what’s different to doing the same thing with a midpoint adjustment like we did at first?

Click the little eye symbol in the layers palette next to the levels layer (highlighted above). The adjustment is gone. Click the eye again and it is back. This allows you to selectively turn off adjustments to see their effect (you could have lots of different layers)

Secondly, you can click on the layer (the histogram like symbol) and change the adjustment later. If you had just done a simple midpoint alteration, you would be stuck with the change and would have to start over from scratch. The layer does not touch the original image information below it. Layers make it much easier to experiment without messing things up.

Lastly, there many more effects you can do with the layer now you have it. We will cover some of these later

Levels adjustment

Open the image levels.jpg

ant and wasp

Have a look at the Histogram.

The picture is very dark. Try the brightness and contrast adjustments if you like. They just don’t change the image in a useful way (they rarely do).

histogram from a very dark image

See how the distribution of light and dark pixels is all crunched up to the left side (dark)

The histogram display shows the distribution of light and dark parts of the image. It can often tell you the kind of adjustments you should try, just from its shape.

Just looking at this histogram would suggest that the picture is too dark with no light areas. We need to ‘spread out’ the curve so that the image has a good range of tones from light to dark.

Open a new levels adjustment layer (as in the previous Gamma section).

giving the picture a more balanced range of tones

Move the white point slider (right one) to bring most of the image data between the black and white points.

There is still a lot of the image data below the midpoint, so move it too.

You might want to crop the image as well, to emphasise the ant dragging the dead wasp back to its nest.

ant dragging dead wasp back to nest

While the midpoint adjustment is often enough to get a good image, there are times when the picture is too dark or light overall.

This is where we move the white or black points. You are effectively expanding the picture information to fill the available range from black to white (for these adjustments we ignore the colour side of things)

Note that we have done this adjustment in a layer, so we can have other layers and even change our mind later in the editing process.

Colour Intensity

Sometimes the colour in an image is too strong or weak for the picture we want to create. The sunset picture here does not have the deep colours that I saw. This is almost certainly due to the auto white balance feature of the camera, which has attempted to produce a more ‘neutral’ feel.

Open the image Saturation.jpg

sunset view

Rotate and Zoom out to view the whole picture.

We need a new adjustment layer for the colour

new hue/saturation adjustment layer

Raising the saturation brings the colours more up to how you might remember them.

deeper colours for the sunset

You might wish to add a levels layer to further enhance the image.

The adjustment also allows you to specify a range of colours (‘master’ refers to the whole image)

This allows you to selectively alter just a range of colours (such as blues and oranges for the sky)

A simple adjustment to the colour saturation gives a much more faithful rendition – note that an accurate rendition of the light at the time of the photo may not be the best looking one. Just be careful not to over do the adjustments…

Since we have used a layer, we could also include a levels adjustment layer, and tweak both to get the image how we want.

tilted lakeStraightening images

Everyone takes pictures on the skew sometimes…

Open the image straighten.jpg

Rotate it by 90 degrees and notice the slightly unnatural slope of the water…

Select the zoom tool (Z) and zoom out to fit the whole image comfortably in the view.

Try ‘Straighten and crop’ under Rotate in the Image menu– probably not what you wanted. Always be careful when using ‘automated’ repair and adjustment functions.

A better fix is often just as quick.

Go to the History palette

history palette

Step back to the rotate action

step back

The history palette is a record of your most recent actions on the image. It allows you to step back and undo things you didn’t like or just compare what you have done to what you started with.

Open Rotate|Custom and rotate the image a bit.

rotate 1 degree

(notice how you can use the edge of the dialog box as a ruler).

We are very sensitive to horizontal lines, so the adjustment may be only a fraction of a degree (0.25 degree is quite visible).

You will now have to crop the image to get the edges right.

But you may decide that too much is lost and want to go back and alter the rotation…

Cloning

Open the image clone.jpg

A nice view of Ulswater in the English Lake District. Unfortunately there is that tree branch I missed when I took the photo.

With digital imaging it is easy to remove stuff like this.

Some people take a very purist attitude when it comes to removing the odd tree branch and say you should never do it. Well, I don’t agree and rather than offend them I’ll leave it at that…

Ulswater february

Rotate it and zoom so as to clearly view the whole picture.

The branch on the left hand side is distracting – it has to go. A simple approach might be to crop the image and lose it that way, but it can be removed quite easily.

First duplicate the background layer (This is important when working on the actual image so we do not work on the original – ALWAYS a copy).

Zoom right in to the area we want to remove

branch

Select the Clone Tool – with a brush size of 12 pixels

selecting the clone tool

A circular outline appears – this is the brush size.

Alt-click (option/alt key and click) on a bit of the cloudy sky, just to the right of the branch. Then click on a part of the branch – the sky is copied in. Now ‘paint’ out the rest of the branch (you only use the alt key when selecting the source area for the cloning)

losing the branch

And the branch is gone…

no more branch

Minor imperfections can spoil the best images. Using the clone tool to copy parts of the image can easily fix problems. Just be sure to make sure you are working on a duplicate layer so if you go wrong you have not spoilt the original. You can also use the history to move back a few steps, but note that each clone action is an item in the history and it only has a limited number of steps.

The key to successful cloning is to select the correct source area for what you want to replace. Look for structure in images (ripples on water, cloud detail) and work with the ‘grain’.

Masked adjustments

A powerful feature of using layers is that you can mix them and selectively apply (mask) them

Cumbrian sheep

Open the image Masked Levels.jpg

Rotate and zoom to fit it all in view

The image has good detail but the foreground is too dark.

Look at its histogram

picture with distinct light and dark areas

There is a dark bit and a light bit to the image.

Open a levels adjustment layer and try some adjustments to the settings

Notice that if you get the sky right, the foreground is wrong and vice versa

By masking the layers you can do both, but it takes practice not to show the join

levels adjustment for foreground

Adjust the levels until the foreground is OK – notice how the sky is burnt out

The layers palette shows a blank white box where the levels layer has a mask

The layers palette

Where it is white the adjustment is applied, and where it is black it is not. The mask allows you to decide where you want the adjustment to take effect. At the moment it is all white, so the adjustment is being applied to the whole image. What we need to do is to stop the adjustment being applied to the sky.

Select the brush tool at a reasonable size and make sure that Black is your foreground painting colour.

Also make sure that the levels layer is hi-lighted as above – lest you paint on the actual image.

painting in the sky

The small squares in the left hand corner show that black is selected as the current foreground colour, which is what we will apply to the mask with the brush.

If the black and white boxes are in the wrong order, just click the small double ended arrow next to them

Now ‘paint’ in the sky…

masking the levels adjustment from the sky

Notice how your ‘painting’ appears in the mask view and the painted areas revert to the unadjusted (darker) levels

If you want to erase some of the mask, switch to white and paint it out. A quick way to switch is to click on the little double arrow next to the paint colour squares – it swaps the foreground and background colours)

The tricky part is the edge of the hills. You can turn down the paint opacity to paint in light grey.

setting the opacity to a low value for finer control

You can build up the amount of masking gradually this way

This allows a more delicate gradation between the masked and unmasked areas.

For an example of this file with adjustments in place open Masked levels.psd in the zipped collection of files.

There is a much more complex set of layers and masking used in my Making a B&W Print tutorial – have a look at it, and you’ll see many of the basic adjustments in these simple tutorials. You really are learning some of the basic processes I use with every print I make.

If you’d like to see more about using these basic techniques, see my From idea to print article.

Removing colour casts

Removing colour casts can be needed when you take pictures with some sorts of artificial light.

The example here was taken under a mix of fluorescent and high pressure sodium lighting in a sports hall.

It’s one way of fixing the problem – there are others suggested later, but this one emphasises the use of layers, which is a very powerful concept to grasp.

The files for this part of the exercise are in the Elements2 zip file: Open the image Fluorescent.jpeg

This picture was taken under strong fluorescent lighting which managed to fool the auto white balance feature of the camera (in this case an Olympus E20)

First make a duplicate layer (Layers menu > Duplicate layer)

This is so as to be able to compare versions of the image with the original. Also, some operations do not work as layers (this varies with version of Elements and Photoshop)

Create a new levels adjustment layer

Using the middle eyedropper, try to find something in the image that should be white and click on it.

This will use the colour under the dropper as white and make adjustments to show it as white in the image.

It is very sensitive and will often take many attempts to get a good white balance. There are several areas of the image that you might try (the paper, the coat)

Now try the individual colour adjustments and try to get the image looking better. The picture above show the blue channel selected with adjustments of the black and white points and midpoint (all three sliders)

Looking at the histograms for each of the primary colours (R,G,B) you can see that the lighting in the sports hall did not have much blue light in it.

You can also try the color cast adjustment

or the Quick fix

Don’t forget to do each one on a duplicate layer, so you keep the original

Remember that you do not have to get everything right with one adjustment. Sometimes two or three adjustment layers may be easier to use than trying to get it all done at once.

Try adding additional levels and Hue/sat layers and explore the effects.

There often many different ways to achieve the effect you are after. Here we have looked at different ways of correcting for awkward lighting. Needless to say it helps to know that your monitor is set up correctly, if you are going to be looking for subtle shifts of colour.

If your camera had recorded the original digital image in Raw format then the correction would be even more effective, but that’s another story

Converting to black and white

There are many ways of getting a black and white image from colour original. We have a page devoted to collecting different methods which you may like to try out. There is no ‘best’ way a lot depends on the image and the effect you want.

The files for this part of the exercise are in the Elements2 zip file: Open the image BWconvert.jpg

There are several different ways of going to black and white.

Remember, that when we look at a black and white photograph it is variations in brightness we are looking at, and it is the mapping of different colours to different greys that we are doing in the conversion (much as black and white film does when capturing an image).

Red and green may look very different to us but if they both end up the same grey, then red flowers in a picture could easily blend in with leaves.

The simplest method is just to desaturate the image (remove colour)

Layer based conversions

A much more powerful technique uses two Hue/Saturation layers.

In the example below we have duplicated two copies of the original image (Background). The top layer (Background copy) shows where we did a simple ‘remove colour’ and have de-selected the ‘eye’ so as to hide this layer. The two Hue/Saturation layers are going to affect our view of the layer ‘Background copy 2’.

One of the reasons for all this complexity is to allow you to flip between different conversions and compare effects. You can always delete unwanted layers later.

Create a H/S Adjustment layer but do not make any adjustments with it.

Change the layer blend mode (just below the layers tab) to Colour

Create another H/S Adjustment layer with Sat at -100.

Return to first H/S layer and tune the black and white effect using the Saturation and Hue sliders

First try with the hue slider – notice things like the clouds.

Newer versions of Elements have more complex built in B/W options, but the all work similarly to those described here

There is considerable scope for fine tuning your conversion from black and white to colour. Using multiple layers you can compare effects and decide which you like the best.

For more methods look at our conversion page and the section of the site devoted to Black and White digital photography.

Experiment with some of your own pictures. Black and white is -the- original photography – digital just added another way of doing it.

Other areas of our site that may be of interest...

All the latest articles and photo news items appear on Keith's Photo blog .

We've a whole section of the site devoted to  Digital Black and White photography and printing. It covers all the specialist articles and reviews written by Keith Cooper.

There is a gallery of landscape photography and fine art prints.

 


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