May 7, 2009 / Photoshop/Illustrator

Beyond Basic Photoshop

Written by Bill Hankins

When I tell former photo students I have a large home darkroom (actually in my barn), and I have not used it in more than a year, they laugh. “You taught us there would always be a place for darkroom work!” I nod sheepishly. They caught me.

We are, indeed, in the digital age. The last five yearbooks I advised showcased photos that were either partially or totally digitally produced. Now, as a freelance photojournalist, I shoot with my Nikon D1x and print on an Epson 2000P printer. The results are better than darkroom quality.

The digital age increases the importance of Adobe Photoshop in yearbook photojournalism. Photoshop makes all the difference in the world in getting images ready to sparkle on the yearbook page. However, before discussing techniques to help in using this powerful program, let me start with some basic photo advice.

Acquire a photographers’s eye
First, no program is going to make a boring or technically poor picture exciting. So, start with content. As always, my advice to photographers is the old Cliff Edom adage, “be a reporter with a camera.”

Second, know your camera. If you have content nailed, you also should concentrate on capturing a sharp, properly exposed image at the highest resolution possible. Lower-end digital cameras make this more difficult, especially in the areas of capturing precise moments on disk (too much shutter delay) and getting high enough resolution. Whatever equipment you use, make sure you are getting the best images you can to bring into Photoshop.

Third, Walsworth’s new Digital Imaging Guide is an excellent resource for advisers and yearbook photographers. As an adviser, I made sure the yearbook photo editors knew the guidebook by heart and that they made certain their shooters precisely followed the recommendations. With the new guide and Walsworth Photoshop Enhancements, there is really no reason schools cannot be successful in making the transition from film to digital or from printing to scanning images.

To the next level
However, all advisers have had students who are ready to move beyond the basics or have special situations that demand larger photos or photos whose tonal values demand special attention. That is where we can learn from some professional photographers and Photoshop experts who spend a lot of their days fine-tuning images. Some students, perhaps your photo editor, may be ready to move up to the next level. Or some situations — covers, introduction or division pages, mini-mags, or tip-ins — demand that you get the most out of Photoshop. Let me be clear: Be prepared to utilize the awesome power of Photoshop when your needs arise and you have students capable of handling the following techniques.

Craig Sands, a freelance editorial and commercial photographer in Kansas City, Mo., has a precise protocol he follows when creating his own images for publication, whether for commercial or editorial purposes.

“One of the first things to do is decide what to crop out,” Sands says. He says you can throw out a lot of problems by cropping the image to include only what you want.

Tonal values in the photo are one of the key reasons for using Photoshop, so why worry over tonal values that will not or should not be in the final image?

The key tool for Sands is the Curves tool. Whereas Walsworth’s Curves guidelines are generic in order to do the best job for the most images, advisers may want to encourage their more advanced photographers to treat tonal adjustments as an analytical process and use Curves, which, as Sands said, is the most powerful and useful of the tonal tools.

Once you have decided what tonal areas in the photo need adjusting, open Curves and use the pencil tool to touch the problem areas in the photo, which will be represented by a dot on the diagonal Curves line. Anchor that point on the line. In the example of the dancing girl above, Sands wanted to lighten the deep shadows of the girl’s hair and let more detail in the face. Using the pencil on those areas, he then anchored points on the line that represented the shadow and facial tones in the photo.

Once he has those two points, Sands will adjust them up or down to get the desired tones. Use the preview button to constantly check progress, Sands said. Once satisfied, click OK on Curves and then analyze the new tones again. If more needs to be done, go back to Curves and, for example, select the highlight areas and brighten them with slight movements of new anchor points on the diagonal line.

If at any time you feel you have gone too far, go to History and click on the action you want to delete.

One handy aspect of Curves is that it is possible to constantly analyze your progress in tonal adjustments and go back in and nudge the tones ever so slightly.

Sands likens this analytical approach to a photographer bringing test prints out of the darkroom, analyzing the results, and then going back to the darkroom to add or subtract time or change contrast filters.

Chris Oberholtz of The Kansas City Star has developed a quick and simple way to adjust colors when the original image is somewhat underexposed.

“Using Levels is a good way to correct color,” Oberholtz says. However, his variation is to make changes in the histogram of each color channel instead of overall in the RGB channel mode. So, if the image is dark from underexposure, he goes to Levels, then Channels, and selects Red from the drop down. He moves the outer black and white triangles to the edge of the mountain slope. He does the same with the Green Channel, then the Blue.

“This keeps you from changing tones that you really don’t need to change,” Oberholtz said of the generic approach to adjusting the RGB histogram. “This should work 99 percent of the time, but if not, you may need to go back to Levels and make a slight tweak of midtones” in the RGB channel only. (See sample of the girl in the leaves above.)

Photoshop has been essential in the photo and printing business for more than a decade now, and Jeremy Harris of Antioch Printing in Kansas City North, Mo., says he often goes weeks before he does a commercial printing job without Photoshop.

“I couldn’t function without it,” Harris says. “It is probably a part of 70 to 75 percent of our jobs.”

One of the techniques Harris has found useful in commercial and creative work could have applications in yearbook photojournalism. Of course, yearbook photos that are documenting an activity, class lesson, sports event, or some aspect of student life should not tamper with reality. However, portraits for pulled quotes, info-graphics, photo illustrations, or photos used as art for specialty pages might be helped by Harris’ approach to using Photoshop’s powerful lighting effects. This technique is especially helpful when photographers have used their pop-up flash on their digital cameras and produced a somewhat boring, routinely lighted subject.

Harris said, though, this technique must be performed in RGB mode even if you have a black and white picture.

“The biggest thing I tell people is to duplicate their background layer in case of a mess up,” Harris says. “Then work on the copy layer.”

After performing usual tonal adjustments, you should go to Filter, Render, then Lighting Effects. Play with the various lighting effects to match the light source that works in the photo. Finally, set the background copy to Overlay and set Opacity to 75 percent. (See examples of the baby above and the set of hands to the right.)

In the final analysis, the more you work in Photoshop with these various techniques, the better you will become. Do not wait until you have a deadline for a really important image to practice what these three experts are preaching.

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Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.