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Order of Photo Retouching



4:21 pm on Jan 13, 2010 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member eelixduppy is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

I have a pretty good idea as to how to retouch photos but sometimes I think the order in which I do things is random or out of place, and perhaps there would be a better way of ordering.

For example, when retouching photos I would as one of the first things remove any dust and scratches if they existed, as this makes the most sense to me. My next step would usually be to create a curves adjustment layer and fix some of the saturation and contrast with the image. Would it be best to do this now, though? Then there's lighting effects, fixing blemishes, color, sharpening, etc, that all follow.

So... what order do you usually retouch photos? My gut feeling is there is a great way to do this as to be the most efficient without undoing some of the things you've already done on different layers beforehand.


5:07 pm on Jan 13, 2010 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Good topic Eelixduppy.

I think a fair bit comes down to personal preference.

For basic 'out of the Nikon' shots I usually start by running an action (working in Photoshop) - it does the following:

  • Creates copy of the image layer and locks the original layer in a set and forgets about it (for posterity/comparison)
  • Creates a layer set of 4 adjustment layers - Colour balance, Brightness/Contrast, Levels and Hue/Saturation and places the image copy under them.

    From here I can edit the layer copy for any discrepancies - removing blemishes and relics where necessary using the clone stamp.

    Then I use the adjustment layers to correct exposure, colour and depth.

    If I need to do more, like painting out backgrounds, then I try to use masks, channels and adjustment layers as much as possible to maintain the integrity of the source image.

    Course, none of this comes from a proper post-production knowledge, just what I've worked out for a quick-fix on my own shots.

    Would be great to get artworker's/post pro's advice here. I'm sure there's some great tricks for quick and clean working.

  • rocknbil

    11:10 pm on Jan 13, 2010 (gmt 0)

    WebmasterWorld Senior Member rocknbil is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

    I'll chime in. :-)

    My experience comes from working in the print industry, where no matter how hard you try, "What you see is never what you get." That is, RGB values, being additive color, will rarely match CMYK colors off the press.

    I raise this point because your you think you see may not be what others see, so color "by the numbers" is far more important than a visual assessment. Argue about monitor calibration all you want - the bottom line is there are billions of monitors out there and there is only one common element among them: the numeric values of any given color value.

    So I start with that first: color, contrast, saturation, then move to image alteration, resizing, and absolute last, sharpening.

    I don't mess with adjustment layers, just leave the original untouched and save a copy. Less is more. :-)

    Color balance: Sorry, the color balance tool is absolutely worthless and always has been. I do color balancing with curves. It's about as useful, and can do as much damage, as the "brightness/contrast" tool.

    Open the Info palette, as this is going to become your most important tool. Locate a gray (grey for you across the pond :-) ) area of the image. It really helps to find grays of varying tones, dark, mid, light, but also find the absolute black and white point as well. Mouse over the grays. In the Info window you should find a set of tones within 1-2 levels of each other, with equal being perfect. Examples:

    white point: 254 253 254 (close enough?)
    light: 210 200 210 (Starting to see a problem)
    mid: 125 115 125 (still a problem)
    dark: 50 49 50
    black point: 1 0 1

    What does the above tell us? We have a slight lack of green across the board. The white point is the MOST important of any image as humans are far more sensitive to changes in light tones than dark (since we are trained by the fact that more light reflects from it.) It's also the one change you can make that will likely affect the overall image the most. So before fiddling with the other tones, start with the white point. Open the curves window, select green from the channels list, and only SLIGHTLY move just the white point, checking back with the Info window on the target area of the image as you do it. Here's what you're after, and might get, by moving ONLY the white point of the green channel.

    white point: 254 254 254 (perfect)
    light: 210 205 210 (better)
    mid: 125 120 125 (better)
    dark: 50 49 50
    black point: 1 0 1

    Look how much the green has moved in the midtones just by moving the white point. Before adjusting those, now fix the black point:

    white point: 254 254 254 (perfect)
    light: 210 207 210 (better)
    mid: 125 123 125 (better)
    dark: 50 50 50
    black point: 1 1 1

    OK now . . . take the midpoint of the green curve and slightly move it up (or down, depending on how PS is configured) to get the mid tones right, and the rest will follow:

    white point: 254 254 254 (perfect)
    light: 210 209 210 (close enough)
    mid: 125 125 125 (perfect)
    dark: 50 50 50
    black point: 1 1 1

    Now: an absolute white point should be 255 255 255, but if your image has a lot of light tones, you may "blast out" Those tones. So switch from Green to RGB, and about halfway between the white point and the 25% mark, CLICK to put a "lock point" on those light tones. Lift the white point JUST until your target area reaches 255/255/255.

    Make a similar lockpoint at the low end, and move the midtones if needed. Make sure your curve has a nice smooth shape, sharp jumps in your curve will cause loss of tones and areas of your image will look posterized.

    Click OK. If your image doesn't "look right," re-check your numbers. If your grays are gray by the numbers, ignore what you see. Your monitor is displaying improperly. No, don't go out and blow $300 on a monitor calibrator, I've used the "best" ones in my time and these things are a waste of money. Period. What are you going to do, run around and calibrate all the monitors of your customers too? :-) You have everything you need right there - learn to live by the numbers.

    Saturation: This is a GREAT tool, but be careful with it. As you adjust saturation of a color, watch what is happening to the TONES in the target color. High-sat reds are easiest to destroy. Adjust for saturation, click ok.

    Save your copy.

    Now we have a good image. If you want to clean up, do it now using the CLONE tool (rubber stamp) not a paintbrush or airbrush. This will give you flawless retouches, just don't sample too close to the paint area to avoid patterning (there's a name for this artifact, what is it? Can't recall.)

    If you want to knock out a BG, do whatever you do. I generally use the lasso tools for selection, add a 2px feather (4-6px for high rez) and always save the selection in case I get off on something else. The "magic wand" auto selection tool is highly unreliable, when I use it I spend more time picking up the random pixels it misses than anything, and you can spot retouches where it has been used very easily. It's the mark of a rushed job or an amateur/hobbyist, take your pick.

    Hair: This is the true sign of a PS expert, how well they can knock out a BG around hair. Once I've saved my "edged" selection, I go into quickmask mode, get out the Wacom tablet, and get to work. I can't describe the detail of this, as it varies, and no, you don't mask every.single.hair and spaces between them. But with a patient and careful manipulation of the original mask, you can come up with an extremely convincing hair mask.

    Save. You'll be prompted to save in .psd due to your extra channel.

    In most cases, the second to last thing you will want to do is resize. We all know how to do that, resize your image - and now it's lost sharpness.

    So the very last thing you do, especially after resizing a high rez image, is apply an unsharp mask. First you need to understand how unsharp mask works. I'll digress with a little history . . .

    In the "old days" we would sharpen an image by creating a blurred silhouette of highest contrast areas, then combine that with an overdeveloped negative of the same image. This is where "unsharp mask" comes from: we create a mask from the blurred image, then overexpose the final films just in the masked areas.

    The effect in Photoshop is similar: it takes areas of contrast, "darkens" (and widens) the dark side of a line, and "lightens" the light side of a line, giving the line higher contrast. When viewed with the rest of the image, the overall effect is one of greater sharpness.

    The degree to which this happens, and negative artifacts that can be created from it, are controlled by the three settings in Unsharp Mask (see manual.) As you play with these settings, use the preview window:

    - do not increase radius and percentage so high it forms a visible "outline"
    - do not increase threshold so high that non-sharp areas become "grainy."

    A decent starting point is .3-1.5 pixels radius, 85%-120% sharpness, and 2-5 threshold - but these will vary greatly with image size and resolution! Which is why you always sharpen last.

    Remove your selection channel, save, done.

    A final note: if you find you have to apply the same types of alterations on every image you shoot, you really need to re-assess your photography. There is zero truth to "everything you shoot needs to be Photoshoped" - this is completely false.

    You use your Photoshop alts to diagnose photography problems. Using my "color by the numbers" example, this would mean to me that my lighting source is coming up too green, either by the wrong type of light, dying bulbs, or ambient light affecting the image. It also says my white point is coming up on the dull side, and this can be addressed on the camera.

    Fix the photography problems, and you're down to just compositing. This is even true of background knockouts - if you do it right, very little work should be required. Which increases your production rate, and improves everyone's skills.

    I have many more tools in my box, but in respect to retouching photos, these are the basics . . .


    11:38 am on Jan 14, 2010 (gmt 0)

    WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

    Fantastic post Rocknbil. Loads to digest there.

    I'll put down the colour balance tool and start using curves. You've done enough to convince me :)


    5:09 pm on Jan 15, 2010 (gmt 0)

    WebmasterWorld Senior Member eelixduppy is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

    Nice replies, guys, thanks a bunch. I always love to hear different solutions to the same problem...opens up my mind. :)

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