Let’s face it: unless you’re still shooting nothing but film and making all of your prints in an old-school traditional darkroom, Photoshop is an integral part of your photography workflow. All of us either use Photoshop or use something that tries to act like Photoshop. Photoshop has defined image toning in the digital age like no other piece of software. Photoshop is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, a fantastic, complicated, wonderful tool that has transformed all of our lives as photographers.
But do you have a basic toning recipe?
You need an approach for all of your photos that will standardize your workflow and maximize the tonal quality of your images. What follows is my basic toning approach for all images. This recipe will give you a properly-toned image for either print or web that makes the most of the exposure you made. It’s the starting point for all of my photographs.
A Quick Aside about Raw Capture
I can hear some of you saying: “But what about shooting raw images?” I shoot a lot of Camera Raw images now and bring those images into the Adobe Camera Raw workspace first. Once I have adjusted them in Raw and brought them into Photoshop, I may make additional adjustments. But this article is really addressing non-Raw digital images, i.e. jpegs captured in your digital camera.
Open the image in Photoshop.
Go to Image>Adjustments>Levels(Cntrl>L on PC, Apple>L on Mac).This brings up the histogram for your photograph, a graphical representation of your photograph that resembles a mountain. The shadows are represented on the left side of the histogram, the highlight information of your photograph on the extreme right. The midtones, usually the bulk of your picture, are in the middle. Each of these areas-shadows, midtones and highlight-have their own triangle slider right below the histogram.
Set the shadow and highlight triangles right up the the “edge” or “beginning” of the histogram “mountain.” If the midtones look too dark, you can move the midtone slider slightly to the left to open up the midtone detail. Click Okay. (See my article on correcting color casts in Photoshop for more detailed information on using Levels).
Now open up Curves. (Image>Adjustments>Curves, or Cntrl>M on a PC, Apple>M on a Mac). I use the Curves interface to add a bit of snap and contrast to a lot of images without degrading anything else. If your photo could use a bit more snap, take the bottom left point of the graph, which represents your shadow information, and move it slightly to the right. Just one notch over is usually sufficient. Now grab the graph line in the middle and move it back up to the midpoint, or even a bit above the graph’s center. (You’ll have to watch the results to decide how much is needed.) Hit Okay.
Does your image need a bit of sharpening? That’s what I do next. Sharpening is very tricky since Photoshop gives you lots of ways to do this. The BEST way to do Photoshop sharpening is in the Lab Lightness Channel.
A bit of explanation is in order. Most of us work most of the time on our photographs in the RGB color space—that’s Red, Green and Blue. Think about it as just one of the ways you can take an image and slice and dice it
The Lab color space is simply another way to split up the different parts of your image. Lab stands for Lightness Channel, A Channel and B Channel. It’s significant that images that are being converted from RGB to CMYK, the standard Color Space for all printing presses, pass through the Lab space on their way to CMYK. What we care about here is getting at that Lightness channel of the Lab color space, since the Lightness channel represents the grayscale tone of an image without any of the color pixels included. This is important because we want to sharpen the image without sharpening the color pixels, which would create artifacting we don’t want.
Go to Image>Mode>Lab Color. If your palettes aren’t displaying Channels, go to Window>Channels to display the Lab color space. Click on the Lightness Channel to select it separately. Then click the “Eye” icon at the top of the Channels palette to turn the color back on. This way you can sharpen the grayscale pixels of the image and watch the effect on the overall look of your photograph.
I use the Unsharp Mask sharpening option for this recipe: Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask. Set it on 75%. Click Okay.
If your photograph needs dodging or burning, the Lab Lightness channel is also the best place to do this work, since in this channel you won’t be burning or dodging color pixels, only the tone of the photograph. So if you need to burn or dodge do it now.
Crop your image. My default crop is 10 inches wide at 300 dpi for things I think I might want to print, and 670 pixels at 72 dpi for images that are destined for the web. You can decide on your own defaults. Frequently I’ll save an image twice, once for web and once for print.
That’s it! You’re finished! You now have an image that’s properly toned and saved for future printing or web display. You’ll find that this toning recipe will serve you well as you shoot, process and save your photographs.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog