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Adjusting images
Even the best photos can be improved with a few simple techniques

Doug Herman's three photos of the Nativity stained glass window, Sacred Heart Cultural Center, Augusta, Georgia. Notice that the bottom image is noticeably lighter than the other two.
Doug Herman's photos of the Nativity stained glass window from theSacred Heart Cultural Center in Augusta, Georgia, present me the perfect opportunity to share with you a few thoughts on image adjustment.

Know your camera—First of all, a word about your camera. I just taught a photography class in Chicago, and Doug's words echo those of my students. "I'm on a steep learning curve," Doug writes, "about my camera settings, pixels, etc., but making progress."

That's good to hear. All of those camera settingscan be confusing. Familiarity with your camera helps, but nowadays, all those bells-and-whistles can sometimes get in the way of having fun shooting.

What I do is try to shoot at the slowest hand-held speed possible, so I won't have to boost the speed (known as ASA or ISO) of the film.

I smile when I read that a camera can, "take photos in candlelight!" Because shooting at 3,600 ASA will allow you to capture that Birthday cake, alright, but amplifying the film speed will also cause "noise," visible as nasty black dots.

This can also be a problem when shooting indoors, and, as in Doug's case, in not always brightly-lit places like churches.

Exposure—And, in shooting the Nativity stained glass window Doug had to contend with two unevenly lit subjects: the church interior, and the brightly lit wndow.

In order to get the best exposure, Doug framed his photos (top of page) so that only the window was being photographed. Because, if he had included the church interior, his camera would have produced an overexposed image.

Why? Because the camera would "see" the darker church and compensate with a lighter image. The church might look better, but the windows would be overexposed.

As you can see, Doug took three horizontal photos. He did this to obtain the best possible resolution—the best quality—photograph of the window by "stitching" his photos together in an image-manipulation program like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.This is not always an easy thing to do, but Doug knew that those iron horizontal bars would make ideal "seams."

Doug's 3 photos "stitched" into one in Photoshop.Run your mouse over the image to see it that the bottom panel adjusted.

Levels & Gradient tools—At left you see Doug's image "stitched," in Photoshop: the three photos became layers 1, 2, and 3, and were aligned before they overlapped and trimmed to create this seamless photo.

Before we proceed I should mention that some cameras create panoramas, automatically stitching together 3 or 4 images. But they do so horizontal, landscape, mode.

So even if Doug had such a camera it would not have been of use here.

Take a look at the stitched photo at left, and you'll notice that the bottom frame is noticeably lighter than the other two.

This could be do in any number of reasons, including that, since the lower part of the window is closer to the floor, the floor could be acting as a reflector, causing the bottom stained glass frame to be lighter.

Now run your mouse over the image and you'll see the effect our first adjustment made with Levels and the Gradient tool.

The image with a levels adjustment. Run your mouse over it to see a color balance adjustment.
Adjusting the exposure of the lower stained glass panelwas done with aLevels layer (you see it in the image above) along with layers 1,2, and 3 that are the frames that make up the window.

But, whatever adjustment you make to this Level layer, it will affect the whole image.Choosewhite as the foreground color (tool palette); select theGradienttool, and with theShiftkey depressed drag with the mouse from the bottom of the phto to the first horizontal iron bar.

This places a gradient on your Levelpalette, 2/3 black on top, and white on the bottom 1/3. So, when you now move the midtone slider to the right in order to darken the bottom of the photo to match the top portion, only the bottom 1/3 of the photo will be adjusted.

Now make the levels adjustment in the Level's window (see image below), by moving he center midtones slider to the right until the image looks equally exposed.

Now you're ready to proceed with anoverallLeveladjustment of the image by adding anotherLevelslayer, selectingAuto Options, and choosing the one that looks the best.

I realize that all of this might sound a tad confusing if you've never used Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, but I assure you it's not at all as complicated as it may at first appear.

Once you understand how to use these tools in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, then all you need to do is let your eyes be your guide—something I always stress in my photography classes.

It's all to easy to get caught up in camera mechanics and forget that, in taking photos, your eyes are your best guide.Your second Levels layers made a huge difference in your image, as you can see be comparing the photo at left with that of the stained glass window above.

In fact, the photo looks so good you might not even notice that the Virgin Mary, Christ Child, the kneeling shepherd, and other areas of the image need to be adjusted because they're too light.

The photo with a color balance, over-all levels adjustment, anda levels adjustment for the light areas. Run your mouse over the image to see the Nativity without the light areas levels adjustment. (Photo by Doug Herman.)

Run your mouse over the image at left to see what a difference this added adjustment makes.

By now you probably can guess that this is accomplished by adding yet a third Levels layer, filling it with black, and, with the Brush tool and white as your foreground color selected, brush over the areas you would like to darken: the Virgin and Child, the kneeling shepherd, the lamb, etc.

Now make your levels adjustment by moving the center midtwones slider to the right until you're satisfied with what you see.

The beauty of all of the above is that, at any point you can change your mind about any and all adjustements.

For example, if this last level adjustment produced an unwanted result in any part of your image, click "x," and run your brush tool over that area to eliminate the added darkening.

If there's another area you'd like to darken, say the bottom stained glass panes, click "x" again—making white your foreground color—and brush over the areas you'd like to darken.

An added refinement would be to select a less than 100% opacity for the paint brush, allowing for subtler light and dark adjustments.

For a final touch, why not place a 3-point stroke around your photo as I have done, giving it a finished look?

To do this, first you must flatten photo layers 1, 2, and 3; command/shift the photo layer; select stroke from the Edit menu; choose width and color (chose 3 pixels and sample a dark gray from the image); and click OK.

Color Balance—Choose "color balance" by clicking the layers' window "Select New Fill or Adjustment Layer" icon.

Again, let your eyes be your guide, and move the midtones and highlights sliders towards yellow, and red as needed; the shadows slider toward blue and cyan.

Take a break—you've done it!

When Doug saw his finished photo, he remarked, "I didn't know I was such a good photographer!"

You can be, too—with a little help from Photoshop.

Have fun making your photos the best that they can be!


You may also enjoy seeing a larger image of the beautifulSacred Heart Cultural Center stained glass window of the Nativity and reading about how a closed church became, in Doug's words, "One of Augusta'smost cherished and most photographed treasures."

© 2022

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