5 Image-Editing Tips to Improve Any Photo

By Helen Bradley | Posted July 20, 2010

photo cropping; small business computing
We heavily cropped the inset image to focus in on the subject, which results in a much more compelling image.
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Do you think the photos on your small business website come up lacking when compared to the images on other websites -- especially your competition's? If so, the solution might be simpler than you think. Chances are the only thing that separates images on other websites from your own is a few minutes in a photo-editing program such as Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

In this article, I’ll show you how to quickly transform your images so that they look brighter, crisper and more interesting on your website or printed in your small business brochures.

Start Small

Before you start fixing the big things in your photos, look at the little things. Use the Clone Stamp Tool to remove unsightly objects from your image such as telephone wires and trashcans. Use the Red eye Tool to fix red eye problems and the Spot Healing Brush tool is great for fixing blemishes so that the people in your photos look their best.

Once you’ve fixed the little things -- and they can make a big difference to the quality of your images -- it’s time to work on the "big ticket fixes." These aren’t difficult to do, and they do make a huge difference to your photos.

level adjustments; small business computing
A simple levels adjustment lightens and brightens this image.
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Crop It

Most images can use some cropping to isolate the subject and to remove the extraneous areas of the image. To do this, select the Crop Tool and drag over the area of the image that you want to keep. Try to crop more off the image than less -- so you can see just how much of an impact you can make with your image.

You might be surprised at how much of the image you can get rid of and still have a good sense of what the image is all about. If you don’t like the result, choose Edit > Undo and try again.

Levels and Curves Adjustments

Use a Levels adjustment to enhance the tonal range of the image -- this is a good way to add definition to a muddy image. Choose Image > Adjustments > Levels (in Photoshop -- in Photoshop Elements, choose Enhance) > Adjust Lighting > Levels.

Drag the left and right markers underneath the chart inwards so that they sit under the very beginning and end of the chart. Adjust the middle (midtones) slider to get better contrast in the image.

LAB color fix; small business computing
We adjusted the top image using the LAB color fix, which gives the image's colors more punch.
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The Curves adjustment looks more difficult than it actually is. Start by duplicating the background layer of the image so that you can get back to the original image if necessary. To do this, choose Layer > Duplicate Layer.

In Photoshop, choose Image > Adjustments > Curves. In Photoshop Elements choose Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Color Curves. In Photoshop Elements, you can select a Style such as Increase Contrast. In Photoshop, drag a shallow "S" shape into the curve pulling up at the top part of the line and down on the bottom. This lightens the lights in the image and darkens the dark areas of the image.

In Photoshop Elements you can fine-tune the shape of the curve using the Adjust sliders. Typically a shallow S shape is the best shape to use. In addition to boosting the image contrast, this fix often boosts dull colors in an image too.

Drag Color Out of an Image

If you’re using Photoshop (but not Photoshop Elements), there is a neat fix for enhancing color in an image that's very monochromatic. This involves using the LAB color space, which is a little daunting -- but if you stick to this step-by-step process, it’s really quite simple.

Start by flattening the image so that you have just a single layer. Do this by choosing Layer > Flatten Image. Now duplicate the background layer by selecting Layer > Duplicate Layer. Choose Image > Mode > LAB Color and when prompted, select Don’t Flatten.

Next choose Image > Adjustments > Curves, select the A channel from the channel list. Drag the top right and bottom left ends of the chart in horizontally an equal number of squares from the left and right edges of the grid so the line continues to pass through the mid-point on the grid.

Repeat this for the B channel. Ignore the horrible effect this has on your image -- it’s supposed to look overdone at this point. Now choose Image > Mode > RGB and again select Don’t Flatten.

Set the blend mode of the top layer to Overlay and reduce the Opacity of the top layer to blend the effect into the image below. This fix gives your image an instant color boost.

Sharpen the Image

photo sharpening; small business computing
Most images can use a bit of sharpening to prepare them for print or for display on the Web.
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Most images can do with some sharpening because digital images are often quite soft. To sharpen an image, first make sure you’re working on a flattened image (Layer > Flatten Image). Then choose Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask (Note: in Photoshop Elements, choose Enhance > Unsharp Mask). Adjust the Amount to about halfway and the Radius to around 0.5 to 1 pixel for a relatively sharp image or up to 4 or 5 for an image that’s slightly soft.

Set the Threshold to a low value of something like 5 to 10 and then readjust the Amount to suit. You want to see a general sharpening of the image but avoid creating obvious halos around the edges in the image.

Click OK to apply the sharpening effect. Sharpen images meant for screen display only as much as you need so the picture looks good on the screen. For images you'll print, adjust the Amount slider a little higher, as the printing process can soften the image.

Boosting Vibrance

Vibrance is another handy adjustment available in Photoshop CS4 and CS5. This boosts the saturation of colors that are not already highly saturated -- it protects bright colors from getting too bright, and it adjusts only the duller colors. To apply this fix, choose Image > Adjustments > Vibrance.

Between fixing blemishes, boosting the image colors, cropping the image and sharpening it, you should be able to improve any photo so that you see a distinct improvement between the before and after versions.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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