When it comes to creating photographs, taking the actual picture is only half the battle. This has always been true, even long before the days of Adobe Photoshop. Editing with Photoshop just makes the process a lot easier. The photographs of Ansel Adams made nearly a century ago look nothing like the image captured on the negative. The final prints Adams made required painstaking hours in the darkroom, dodging and burning and tweaking contrast before the photograph you see hanging on the wall was ready for display.

Editing with Photoshop

Even photographers that didn’t manipulate their images as much as Ansel Adams still had to spend countless hours selecting, editing, cropping and tweaking their photographs before they were ready for the world to see. To think that manipulating photographs is a modern phenomena enabled by Photoshop and digital cameras is a fallacy. Photoshop has just opened the doors for quicker and easier edits as well as endless experimentation in real time. What took Ansel Adams hours now takes seconds.

The Initial Idea

With that in mind, I wanted to show an example of how I edit an image with Photoshop. I tend to start with an idea of how I want the final picture to look, but often the process of editing an image is nothing but a series of unexpected twists and turns. I’m happy to go along for the ride and see where it all leads. Photoshop makes that process easy.

In this case the idea was simple. I wanted to take a picture of some billiard balls against a neutral background. In my mind, I saw an image that almost looked like a painting, with very soft light yet the colors vivid. I started with two orange billiard balls on a middle gray background and used the biggest soft box I had positioned high and to the right. I set the lens wide open to achieve a very shallow depth of field which I thought would add to the painterly affect. When I took the picture, my camera was less than two feet from the billiard balls and the soft box was three feet away. That was as close as I could get and still keep the edge the soft box out of the frame.

The Image Before Editing

Billiard Balls, Original Camera Image

The original in-camera image captured with a Nikon 50mm lens against a middle gray background. Lighting was a single strobe in a 3′ x 4′ soft box. Aperture at f/2. Shutter speed at 1/125th second. ISO set to 100.

Softening the Light

Billiard Balls, After Softening Light

I used the clone stamp tool to remove a number of dust spots. A frequency separation technique and the brush tool was used to smooth the hard edges of the soft box light. I used a soft brush with a low flow setting, constantly sampling the colors as I painted to smooth the tones and give the effect of even softer light. This technique more than anything is what gives the image a painterly feel. This makes sense given the fact that I used a Photoshop brush to achieve the effect.

Tweaking the Contrast and Saturation

Billiard Balls, After Contrast Adjustment

In the next step, I muted the contrast and saturation using several curves and hue/saturation adjustment layers. I also slightly increased the warmth of the image to bring out the orange tones even further. These changes helped to make the light feel even softer. In addition, I used the clone stamp tool to remove the shadow between the two balls that made them seem as if they were touching.

Sharpening and Other Adjustments

Billiard Balls, After Sharpening

Next, I used the output sharpening tool from the Nik Collection of Photoshop plugins. Several curves adjustment layers and accompanying layer masks were used for some minor dodging and burning. I used another curves adjustment layer and a feathered layer mask to add a subtle vignette around the edges of the image.

The Final Image

Billiard Balls, Final Edited Image

The final changes included using a curves adjustment layer to tweak the overall contrast, a hue/saturation layer to adjust to the overall color, and a photo filter adjustment layer to add a touch more warmth. The total editing time was slightly over an hour. The majority of that time was spent using the brush tool to soften the highlights and shadows. This effect can be difficult to get right so changes need to be subtle and built up over time. For me, adjusting the contrast and tonality of the image is a matter of experimentation. To me this is where Photoshop really excels, allowing for easy non-destructive changes that can be evaluated on the fly.