Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Real-life retouch: a Paris bridge

As promised in my last mess of a post, I want to start doing real-life retouch examples of things I am actually working on. Right now, I'm still sorting through the 3000+ photos I took in Paris in July. The one above was taken on the beautiful Pont Alexandre III. I think it has potential, but I don't like how it's reading. As I take you through the steps that lead me to something I like, you will notice that:
  1. I believe in using a very intuitive approach
  2. curves adjustment layers + masks are my best friends
First, I identify what I don't like about the photo: the statue is too dark and I would like it better if the highlights stood out a little more.

My solution:
1. I add a curves adjustment layer.
you can add a curves adjustment layer from the fill/adjustment layer pull-down menu at the bottom of the layers palette or, if you have CS4 or later...
you can click on the s-shaped curve on the top row of all those boxes above your layer's palette. The curves adjustment layer shows you a histogram (the mountainous graph that maps your image information from dark[left] to light [right]). You can see that I have a lot of information on the dark side of things. To fix that, I click on the diagonal line (I happen to click close to the lower left corner—i.e. down in the darkest area, although it doesn't matter a lot in this case), which gives me a control point (a little dot I can use to drag the curve around). I don't use a formula, I just experiment and see what looks good. Here's the curve I end up with:

Had I pulled it in the opposite direction, I would have made the image darker.

2. "paint with light"
The sky is fine, it's the statue part that needs to be lightened. To undo the effect on the sky, I simply brush it out. First, I hit "b" to get the brush tool. Then I adjust my settings:
Once I select the brush tool (b), the top toolbar gives me options (click on the dot to the right of "brush" to see them) to change the size of the brush, the hardness, and so on. I start with a huge size (1600 px) because I'm making broad sweeping changes. However, I often change size on the fly by using the right (bigger) and left (smaller) brackets on my keyboard. I put the hardness all the way down to zero because I want completely soft, gradual transitions (fyi—you can also adjust hardness as you go by using shift with the left and right bracket keys). One more setting that I adjust as needed: flow. It's like controlling how fast ink is coming out of the brush. I want to paint in changes gradually so I can see if I like where it's headed, so I start with 17%—a fairly random choice.

One thing to keep your eye are those white and black boxes (if yours are not white and black, hit "d" to bring them back to default). Whichever color is on top is the color you are painting.
I want to paint with black because I am blacking out the effect on the sky. Toggle between white and black by hitting "x." As I said earlier, I like intuitive retouching. I simply paint until I like what I see. You can hit the backslash key to make your painting visible in red like this:
The red shows where I have been painting out the lightening effect on the curves adjustment layer. Here's what the black looks like in the curves adjustment layer mask over in the layers palette:
3. Are we done yet? No, one more curve.
For a moment, I think I'm done, so I go to the pull-down menu (the little triangle at the top right of the layers palette) and choose "flatten image":
Goodbye separate curves layer. Now I can save and quit...or can I? No, I'm still not quite happy. I would really like to see the highlights on the statue pop a bit more, so it's back to curves again. Instead of lightening everything and painting out everything but the highlights, I pull the curve down to darken everything...
And then I paint the highlights back to their lighter state:
It may seem like I just undid most of the lightening from my earlier curves adjustment—and maybe I did—but this is a try-as-you-go process and as long as it's moving me toward something I like then I'm happy.

4. Meh. The color isn't doing anything for me.
This isn't exactly the most spectacular sunset in the world, and although I like the gold, I don't like it enough to convince me that this wouldn't be better in black and white. Another motive: black and white sells better than color in home decor, and I've got bills to pay.

And here is where the "real-life" retouch gets hypothetical for a moment. The truth is, I like to do black and white conversion in Silver Efex Pro, but if I were to use Photoshop, I might pull up the black and white conversion from the Image Adjustments menu and start to play with the sliders:
Confusing? Yes, so I like to work on each slider, pull it to the extreme to see what part of the photo it affects, and then make a more subtle adjustment. Look at the "yellows" slider, for example. If I pull it all the way to the left to -200%, the gold virtually disappears:
If I pull it all the to the right (300%), the gold becomes shiny beyond belief:
Trial and error has shown me a way to make the gold stand out. So at this point, I would set it to something more reasonable (140%). There is also a "tint" checkbox that I decide to try for fun. I end up setting the hue to 35 and the saturation to 1% just to give a slight warmth to the photo. Where did I get those numbers? I just dialed the saturation up high, moved the tint around to find a good color, and then dialed the saturation all the way down. In Photoshop, I now end up with this:
It's a fairly nice black and white. But as I mentioned earlier, I usually do black and white in Silver Efex Pro, so in reality, I take the color version of the photo, and redo the black and white in that program instead. What I'm really in the mood for is high contrast and some grain, so instead of the more subtle black and white above, I end up with this:
It's all a matter of preference. I'm kind of waffling between the two versions. The latter version is perhaps too contrasty online, but print always tones things down a little. Either way, I like the end product way more than the beginning.

And there you have it. My first walk-through of a real life retouch.
Helpful? Not so much? Want more or not?


Unknown said...

I think that often the most interesting thing about such tutorials is not the 'how' but the 'why'. That's the thing I like about this one. I say keep it up.

Unknown said...

I don't know why it confuses me so much. I must not be as smart as you : (

I love all your posts though. I like the second version. Contrast is something I adore : )

Wanda said...

Want more please! I love this step by step process. Very useful. Thank you!

C said...

More please!

I have to say (and this is all with a grain of salt, since I have zero professional experience), I like the skyline a lot more in the first one, but the statue's saturation is so sleek in the second...I think I'd have to go with the second photo!

Interesting angle; I dig it.