Have you ever taken an image that would be great if it weren’t for that one little, niggling discrepancy? Let’s fix it in Photoshop and bring the image back to life! Here are some of mytips and tricks for giving your broken photos a digital breath of life.

So, there are generally two schools of thought when it comes to the application of Adobe Photoshop to photography: There are the people like me who believe in the power of postproduction and, morals upstanding, will edit anything, anytime, anyhow; and then there’s a hardcore clan of camera-purists who insist that if you can’t get it right in-camera, you’re no photographer. Well, photography is an art and a skill. You get better at it through practice, practice, practice, and as part of the rounded, much wider skillset is the retouching in Photoshop. We’re in the digital age and, although it would be nice to get everything nailed in-camera, it just doesn’t happen that way every time. Fortunately, we’re in a position whereby we can afford for this to be the case! 

How familiar is this? You’re standing in front of a beautiful building with wonderful lines and you can’t quite get the perspective, but you can’t afford thousands of dollars for that tilt-shift lens that sits on your wish list with so many other cool, shiny things. 

Or, how about this? You’ve shot the Eiffel Tower from a brand-new perspective with beautiful blossoms in the foreground, but the sky is so blown out against the blossoms that the image is going in the trash folder! You have an amazing photo, but there’s just one thing that’s off, and it’s ruined the entire image. Well guess what? This is where we push the purists aside and use the power in Photoshop to save that shot. 

This article is all about making the most of what’s packed into Adobe Photoshop to help fix the images you got just right—apart from that one thing!

Cropping Past the Length of the Lens You Used 

A shot might need a little crop to bring it back. A mistake that’s often made, sometimes owing to kit and sometimes to the photographer, is not getting quite as tight as you could. If there’s just that extra bit of space around our main subject, for example, or if we couldn’t get tight enough in-camera because the subject is a tad too far away for our 200mm lens, we can fix it all with a crop—but the crop needs to be right! 

When using the Crop tool (C) on your image, be mindful of what size the end result will be. If you’re sending your image to the lab for print, bear in mind that in cropping, you’re chopping off pixels. When using this method, set the top left drop-down menu in the Options Bar to W x H x Resolution. You can now set the width and height of the crop to the new
proportions based on the intended print size, as well as the resolution. 

The advantage here is that in resizing and cropping your image, Photoshop is doing all it can to preserve the image’s sharpness through sampling and adding extra pixels, using one of its many clever algorithms. You win, the lab wins, everybody wins! 

Poles & Pylons

Poles and pylons pop up all over the place—literally! Sometimes when you’re standing in front of an amazing scene, your mind does an incredible job of mentally filtering these distractions out, along with all the other oddities and undesirability of the scene. The scene I’m working on here is packed full of little bits of clutter: rocks, mud, and trees dot the landscape all around. Fortunately, we can easily cut them out in Photoshop with the Spot Healing Brush tool (J). 

But what if you remove something undesirable and then actually decide it was desirable? We photographers have many traits in common and uncertainty is one of them. With this tip, our uncertainty and indecisiveness is addressed to help us easily achieve that optimum image. We can take the Spot Healing Brush tool to a nondestructive level whereby we can remove what we want, but bring things back if we change our minds. Here’s how: 

Step One: When we press J to use the Spot Healing Brush tool, there’s an option up in the Options Bar that allows us to Sample All layers. Check on this option and create a new layer with Command-Shift-N (PC: Ctrl-Shift-N). 

Step Two: With the new, blank layer active in the Layers panel, we simply brush away the distractions. When we do this, the corrections show up on the new layer. In this example, we’ve removed a whole bunch of little things, including the tree sticking up above the dog on the left (called Martin from Tromsø, Norway, if you were wondering). 

Step Three: Let’s assume that we actually liked the image better when the tree was still there, but we’ve already taken it out. Don’t worry; it’s simple to bring it back. Select the Eraser tool (E), and while still working on the new layer, just brush over where the tree was and it’s back. We didn’t have to go through the History panel or Undo a bunch of brushstrokes; we’ve hit the problem square on. 

Chromatic Aberration 

This is an unconscious image killer, and most of the time it can’t be helped. The key is knowing how to attack it to revitalize the shot, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do here. This photo is from a trip I took to New York, New York (as a Brit I’ve been assured that’s the correct way to say it), this past Christmas. I’m a big fan of American patriotism (’Merica!) and these flags just had to have their photo taken. 

The problem is up at the top of the building on the right where you can see a magenta tinge, which is why chromatic aberration is commonly referred to as “purple fringing.” It has a pretty complex cause, which originates in the lens: Essentially, it’s a type of distortion where the glass fails to focus all the colors to the same focal plane, because their independent wavelengths split their paths slightly from one another. All too often we rely on a checkbox to fix chromatic aberration, but we can target it
specifically to our liking. Let’s tackle this together. 

Step One: First, duplicate the Background layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). 

Step Two: With the new layer active, apply a Gaussian Blur by choosing it from the Filter>Blur menu. Set the blur Radius to 15 pixels, and click OK. This smoothes out and blends the fringing, which is the basis of this technique’s effectiveness. 

Step Three: Next up, change the layer blend mode to Color near the top left of the Layers panel. The chromatic aberration has gone, but we’ve lost a lot of the saturation in our image. 

Step Four: To fix this, we’ll add a layer mask so that we can target this blend to specific parts of the image. Click on the Add Layer Mask icon (circle in a square) at the bottom of the Layers panel. Press Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I) to invert the mask from white to black, which will hide the effect. 

Step Five: Select the Brush tool (B), and set it to white. The quick shortcut is to press the letter D to set the default colors, which is white for the Foreground and black for the Background when a mask is active. In the Options Bar, set both the Opacity and Flow to 50% to allow subtle changes that we can build up as we paint. 

Step Six: With the layer mask active in the Layers panel, use the Bracket keys ([ and ]) on your keyboard to decrease and increase the size of your brush as needed, then brush over the areas with chromatic aberration and watch it fade away, bringing your image back to its rightful glory! 

Targeted HDR

This tip is top secret! It’s brand-new information (first seen right here in Photoshop User magazine) that allows you to target a specific part of an image with an HDR tone to make it really pop. It’s a really cool, effective way to bring things out of the shadows and to make things that are already out of the shadows command center stage. (It really is top secret, so don’t tell anyone! Promise?) Right, here goes: 

Step One: First, open your image. From here, duplicate the Background layer with Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). 

Step Two: From the Image menu, select Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights, and using the part of the image you’re targeting as a reference
(in this case the Fire Department pickup truck), drag your Shadows slider up a bit to make it pop. Click OK. It’s having an affect on the entire image, but we’ll take the image back to how it was and just target the pickup in a second. 

Step Three: Next up, add a layer mask to this duplicate layer, and then press Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I) to invert the color of the mask (to black) to hide the effect. 

Step Four: Now we’re going to paint on the layer mask to reveal the Shadows/Highlights adjustment lying underneath and target which parts of the image has HDR qualities. With our Brush tool (B) set to white so that we’re revealing when we paint on the black mask, set the Opacity to 30% and the Flow to 50% in the Options Bar, so we can brush over the pickup gradually to reveal that hidden layer. The more we brush, the more we reveal; simply keep painting until you’ve reached the desired outcome. I may have added the effect to the building and removed some other distractions….

Postprocess Polarizer

Ever wish you’d taken a polarizer out for your shoot? Has the midday sun bleached the colors in your images? Are the clouds in the sky just not popping like they were when you were standing there taking the shot? Polarizing filters are widely considered the most useful filter in your kit bag, and they help with all those things and more. But this is Photoshop User magazine, so I won’t tell you what to put in your kit bag; I’ll show you how to make it look as if you had packed a polarizer, as we can fix that in post. It’s an awesome technique too. Let’s crack on, just like this:

Step One: We’ll start with this shot from Northern Italy. The mountains are begging to stand out against an awesome sky, and the greens want to be greener. 

Step Two: We begin, as usual, by duplicating the layer with Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) so we can stay nondestructive. 

Step Three: When we break down the color channels of an image, the one that most closely matches the effects of a polarizing filter in terms of its characteristics is the Red channel. It has reduced glare and reflections, darker and more contrasted skies, and greener organic elements. We’ll start pulling these characteristics from the Red channel and apply them to the entire image, so go ahead and click on the Channels tab (Window>Channels), and click on the Red channel. 

Step Four: With this Red channel active, press Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to Select All on the canvas, then Command-C (PC: Ctrl-C) to copy the image. Don’t get carried away and paste anything just yet, though; there’s some wizardry to complete first! 

Step Five: We’re going to change the color mode now, and I’ll explain why in a second. Head to the Image menu and select Mode>Lab Color, and when the dialog appears, select Don’t Flatten, so you keep your layers. 

Step Six: We’ve now entered a different color space, and in the Channels panel you’ll see there’s now a channel named Lightness—that’s the L in Lab. This channel is useful to us here because rather than being a color channel as in the RGB color space, it’s a channel that defines the relative brightness of the pixels without regard to their color. We’re going to take advantage of that, and use the brightness levels we’ve copied from the Red channel, and paste that information right into this channel. 

Step Seven: With the Lightness channel active, press Command-V (PC: Ctrl-V) to paste in the Red image we previously copied. 

Step Eight: Now we can translate our image back to the RGB color mode by selecting Image>Mode>RGB Color. Just as you did before, choose Don’t Flatten when prompted so that you keep your layers. 

Step Nine: There’s another issue to resolve, though, and that’s the fact that we took the Lightness information from the Red channel and applied it to the entire image. Although it’s what we want for our polarizer look, it’s not actually correct for the entire image. 

Step 10: To fix this discrepancy, we can mask out the work we just did on the areas that are actually red. Switch from the Channels panel back to the Layers panel and select the duplicate layer, which is where we’ve been doing all our work. Add a layer mask by clicking the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. 

Step 11: Next up, click on the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to ensure it’s active because we’re going to attack those reds. Use the Apply Image tool by selecting it from the Image menu. 

Step 12: The settings we want to apply are:

  • Layer: Background
  • Channel: Red
  • Invert: Checked
  • Blending: Multiply
  • Opacity: 100%

Click OK and now we’ve retroactively put a polarizing filter on the end of our lens! 

Step 13: We can lower the intensity of the effect by reducing the Opacity of the top layer in the Layers panel if it’s too strong, or we can make it stronger by duplicating the top layer with Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). 

Add Your Own Depth of Field

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re travelling light and you only have your cover-all-bases lens? I certainly have, and more often than not that cover-all-bases lens is something wide ranging with about a 3.5–6.3 aperture. And have you then taken a shot that you wish you’d captured with a prime, and smashed the depth out of it? Well, now I’ll show you how to get creative with focus in Adobe Photoshop to re-create a prime lens look on a non-prime image. Here’s the shot: 

I quite like the composition of this image taken in Kanab, Utah. What I don’t like is that the car doesn’t pop quite as much as I want it to. It’s not taking center stage because there’s too much going on around it to grab your eye. To bring more attention to the car, we’ll simulate a depth-of-field blur, leaving the front in focus. 

Step One: To start, let’s duplicate the layer using Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) to keep our nondestructive ways going. 

Step Two: We can specify just how much we blur different areas of the image if we first create a depth map. So at the bottom of the Channels panel (Window>Channels), click on the Create New Channel icon to create a new channel. 

Step Three: A new channel has appeared named “Alpha 1,” and the image has changed to black because our new channel is now visible and it’s filled with black. We’ll use this Alpha channel to designate exactly where we want our blur to have its fullest effect and where we don’t want any blur at all. To do this, we’ll paint on our black-filled layer with a white brush, so hit B to select the Brush tool and then D to set your Foreground color to white. Now in the Options Bar, change the Brush Opacity to 50% and the Flow to 100% to allow a smoother edging. 

Step Four: We need to be able to see what we’re doing! With the Alpha 1 channel still the active channel, click in the empty box to the left of the RGB channel to reveal its Eye icon, and therefore revealing that channel. It will automatically turn on the other three channels, so you don’t have to worry about turning them on individually. 

Step Five: The image now has that familiar red mask. It’s time to consider where to brush to create our depth map for a convincing, realistic depth-of-field effect. With a decent-sized, soft-edged brush, start brushing the areas of the image that you want to remain sharp. I’ve brushed over the features at the front of the car, as well as the bush that sits at the same distance in the image to keep it convincing. If you want any areas to be tack sharp, paint over them again, as the Brush tool is set at 50% Opacity. We can check the mask by switching the RGB channel’s visibility off with the same checkbox we used to turn it on. 

Step Six: Now that we’ve finished the work on the Alpha channel, we can use it as the depth map for the Lens Blur filter. Start by clicking on the RGB channel, turn off the Alpha 1 channel by clicking its Eye icon, and then switch back to the Layers panel.

Step Seven: We need to get that Lens Blur filter on there, so from the Filter menu, select Blur>Lens Blur. This brings up the Lens Blur dialog, and it’s time to start shifting some sliders. First, take a look in the section labeled Depth Map. From the Source drop-down menu, select Alpha 1. This takes the information we’ve just created in that channel, but it’s showing blacks in focus and whites as blur, so check the Invert box. 

Step Eight: In the section labeled Iris, we’ll make our blur adjustments. Adjust the Radius to a position that suits the look you want. I’ve settled on 25 after much back and forth. 

Step Nine: When you’re happy with your Lens Blur, click OK, and it applies it to your image. That’s it! 

At the beginning of this article, I asked the question: Have you ever taken an image that would be great if it weren’t for that one little, niggling discrepancy? Well, I hope you’ve learned some cool new tricks to pack into your Photoshop back pocket, and that you use these techniques to revive images that you thought were lost forever!

This article originally published in the March, 2018 issue of Photoshop User magazine.