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Adjustment Layers Are Your Friends
Tips I Picked Up at Photoshop World


Russell Abraham


Russell Abraham


Russell Abraham



The importance of Photoshop in any pro’s business cannot be overstated. Even if you only shoot film, you’ll find that your clients are becoming aware of all the magical things you can do in Photoshop. I spent three days in March at the Photoshop World Conference in Miami Beach, where I learned enough skills to significantly change the way I work with images and how I shoot digitally. Following are a few techniques I picked up from Ben Willmore’s class on adjustment layers. Layers Intro

Adjustment layers are your friend. You can make almost any adjustment with an adjustment layer that you can from the pull-down adjustment window in the main Photoshop toolbar.

When you use a layer to create an adjustment, such as Levels or Contrast, it leaves the original background layer unchanged. You can always return to that original—like a digital negative.

Also, when you save your file, all the adjustments are saved as layers. You can then go back and rework those adjustments as necessary. If you make all your adjustments on the background layer, those adjustments will permanently change that image. You will not be able to redo what you have done once you close the file.

Possibly the most important factor is that each adjustment layer comes with its own mask. Learning to use the masking feature is key to gaining significant control of your image.

A mask is a representation of your image area that lives between the image and the effect you wish to apply. It tells the effect where and where not to apply.

The mask appears as a white box. By adding black to the box, you create areas that stop the adjustment from applying. Click on the white mask window on the Layers palette, then activate the Brush tool to paint on the image the areas where you don’t want the adjustment to apply. Remember: White passes the effect or adjustment; black stops it.

At the bottom of the Tool palette, you’ll see a white-and-black square, which you can toggle easily to add or subtract mask area. I like using a soft brush, but you can use almost any selection tool, including the Gradient, Marquee, and Lasso tools.

Exposure Issues

Adjustment layers coupled with masks have dozens of practical applications, from darkening backgrounds to extending dynamic range. Usually there is considerably more dynamic range in RAW files than what appears on the screen. If you’ve shot a scene where the foreground is exposed properly, but the sky is washed out, try this:

• Open the file and get a good foreground exposure, keeping some detail in the sky. Grab the sky as a selection using any of the selection tools. The Wand tool works well for this.

• In the Layers palette, click on the Adjustment Layer icon (the half-circle at the bottom). When you select Levels or Curves, your selection will become a mask to adjust the sky.

• Adjust the Levels or Curves tool to your desired darkness and contrast. Keep in mind your adjustments are both saveable and changeable.

Whether trying to grab sky detail in a scenic shot or window detail in an architectural interior, extending dynamic range can be challenging. Here is a nifty PS trick from Jack Davis, author of The Photoshop Wow! Book:

• Take two shots of the same scene about two to three stops apart (a tripod is useful here). Create two files: one for shadows and one for highlights. With both images open on-screen, grab the darker image and drop it as a layer over the lighter image. The easiest way: Open the Layers palette, grab the layer bar of the darker image, and drag it to the lighter image.

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