Shooting and Editing Photos Part 5: A Comprehensive Photoshop Guide


Photoshop is powerful, and there’s no limit to what you can do with a photo with the right know how. All that photo editing power means Photoshop can be pretty complex, but I’ll show you how to simplify things. Before we go further, I always try to keep these two concepts in mind:

  • Have an idea of what you want from your final image. Otherwise how will you know when your shot is done?
  • A little goes a long way. It’s all too easy to over-edit a shot.


Combining your Photomatix Images

Let’s talk about combining your HDR images from Part 4. You can skip this part entirely if you only have a single image to edit. Otherwise, open Photoshop and load your files into a stack by “File->Scripts->Load Files into Stack…

Load Files into Stack
Load Files into Stack

Here I have two Photomatix edits (crazypainterly.tif and easyneutral2.tif) along with the original “0” exposure from my HDR series. I’ve selected “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images” because my original “0” exposure wasn’t aligned with the Photomatix edits. If this paragraph is gibberish to you, go back to Part 4.

Here’s the next screen you’ll see:


Photoshop has loaded my three images into separate layers. Now we can work on combining the layers into a single, realistic looking picture. To do this, work from the bottom up:

Opacity Adjustment
Adjust each layer’s opacity for a realistic look

I have the original file on the bottom with the easyneutral2 file above it. In the screenshot above, the crazypainterly image is invisible. Adjust each layer’s opacity from the bottom up until you’re satisfied with the result. I went with 58% on easyneutral2 and 38% on crazypainterly.

When you like what you see, select “Layer->Merge Visible“. This merges your layers into a single image.

Merge Visible
After I’ve merged the layers

Start editing the big things

Start with this step if you didn’t bother to use HDR with your photo.

Take a step back and look at your image. Ask yourself if it looks real, and develop a sense of what you want the final version to look like. Right off the bat I know the buildings are too blue, and that I’d like emphasize the red and yellow reflections in the water. I also think that darkening the buildings and clouds would add a dramatic feel.

Ask Photoshop what it thinks

Use Image->Auto Color and Image->Auto Tone to see what Photoshop thinks you should do. Sometimes the results are pretty good. If you don’t like it, just select Edit->Undo.

To adjust colors manually, use the Image->Adjustments->Color Balance tool. You can adjust colors for each of the highlights, midtones, and shadows. This is a trial and error process so you’ll have to adjust the sliders to see what looks good. Here’s what my image looks like after Auto Color, Auto Tone, and Color Balance has been applied:

Color Balance
Auto Tone, Auto Color, and Color Balance applied


Get Specific

The Buildings

At this point I like the blue in the sky, but I think the buildings are still too blue and they lack contrast. Use the selection tool to select specific parts of your image you want to alter:

Selection Tool
Selection Tool

Notice the dot with the number 23 below it? That means my selection tool is 23 pixels across. You can change this to whatever you like, but I consistently find that smaller is better. I’ve selected the buildings as best I could using both the + and – tools, then I’ll click the Refine Edge… box in the upper right corner.

Refine Edge
Refine Edge

Use the Radius, Feather, and Shift Edge options to refine the edge selection. Feather is particularly important because this blurs the edge of your adjustments.

I’ll hit OK then hit CTRL+C to copy the selection. Now I’ll paste the selection on top of this layer by pressing CTRL+SHIFT+V. This screen will come up:

Paste in Place
Paste in place as a new layer

Now I can edit the buildings separately from the sky. I’ll go ahead and run another Color Balance adjustment to get rid of some of that blue:

Color Balance Adjustment
Color Balance Adjustment

There was a big difference with that edit, but the buildings still need more pop. An easy way to add pop is with Image->Adjustments->Curves.

Curves Adjustment on Buildings
Curves adjustment on buildings

I’ll then blend the layers back together with Layer->Merge Visible.

The Water

Now that the buildings look good, I’ll focus my attention on the water. I think smoothing the water and emphasizing the lights would look good. This can be done with a subtle motion blur.

First I’ll select and paste the water into a new layer. I’ll do this by employing the same technique I used with the buildings:

Water as a new layer
Water as a new layer

Then I’ll use Filter->Blur->Motion Blur. The angle is 90° which gives vertical emphasis to the lights.

Motion blur
Motion blur

Posterization is common problem that occurs when you blur a relatively featureless area like water. To avoid posterization, you should add a small amount of noise to those areas. In Photoshop, select Filter->Noise->Add Noise…

Add Noise
Add Noise

I’ve used 0.6%, Gaussian, and Monochromatic noise. This is a very small amount of noise but it’ll be enough to prevent posterization of the water. Adding noise is an important step when you’re blurring and smoothing parts of your images.

The water’s done. With Layer->Merge Visible I’ll now merge the visible parts of the image back into a single layer.


Add some pop with Topaz Labs

The photo looks pretty good now. I still want to add more pop, and I can do this easily with Topaz Adjust from Topaz Labs.

First I’ll duplicate the layer with Layer->Duplicate Layer:

Duplicate Layer
Duplicate Layer

I’ll then open Topaz Adjust 4 with Filter->Topaz Labs->Topaz Adjust…

Topaz Adjust
Portrait Drama settings with Topaz Adjust

Portrait Drama looks pretty good, so I’ll go ahead and choose that. It looks sort of fake and perhaps too dramatic, so I’ll reduce the effects by blending this back into the original image using the Opacity slider.

Blending it back in
Blending it back in

To finish the effect I’ll once again merge the visible layers.


Add even more pop with a vignette

Every picture is different, and because of that I prefer to selectively add vignettes. To do this I use Quick Mask Mode to select the areas I want to darken. To enter into quick mask mode, hit this button:

 Quick mask button

Then select the paintbrush tool, adjust the size of the paintbrush (I used about 1000 pixels), and use an opacity of around 55%. That way your selection will blend nicely with the image. Paint over the areas you want to darken. Since my opacity is only 55%, I can paint twice over areas I want to make even darker.

Quick Mask selection
Quick Mask selection

Exit Quick Mask Mode and select the rectangle tool. It’s important to select the rectangle because it allows the Refine Edge box to come up.

Rectangle tool

Refine edge

Now, refine your edge:

Refine edge
Refine edge

Use the Feather and Shift Edge sliders to make that edge ever so smooth. Subtlety is key with vignettes.

Select OK and use the curves slider to darken your selection:

Use curves to add the vignette
Using curves to add a vignette


Give it some color

Time to emphasize the colors. Open Image->Adjustments->Vibrance…

Vibrance adjustment
Vibrance adjustment in Photoshop

You’ll see two sliders, one for Vibrance and one for Saturation. In Photoshop, saturation adjustments tend to be more sensitive, and they lead to posterization more easily when pushed too far. Vibrance adjusts all colors, but it does so more subtly while placing emphasis on blues. Vibrance adjustments are especially useful in portraits where you want to increase colors while leaving skin tones alone.

In the example above, I’ve increased the vibrance a lot and decreased the saturation a little. The difference is small, but I like it.

For more on color saturation, check this out.


Take a step back

At this point I’ll take a step back and ask what else the photo might need. In this case, I still think the buildings can use a bit more emphasis against the blue sky. I can do that by adjusting the vibrance and curves on the buildings with a quick mask selection:

Quick mask on buildings
Quick mask on buildings
Edge refinement
Edge refinement


Curves adjustment
Curves adjustment on buildings


Vibrance adjustment
Vibrance adjustment on buildings

Notice how this time I decreased the vibrance and increased the saturation on the buildings. This kind of adjustment de-emphasizes the blues while increasing the yellows and reds.


The finishing touches

Nearly done now. All that’s left are Lens Correction, Cropping, and Resizing and Sharpening.

Lens Correction

Photoshop has lens correction built in. Go to Filter->Lens Correction. You can do this manually or in some cases automatically. I always correct manually so I can get the look I want:

Lens Correction
Lens correction in Photoshop



I crop images last because I’m never quite sure of the crop I’ll want until I’ve finished editing.


Resizing and Sharpening

The size you’ll want depends on the intended use. Whatever size you choose, you should sharpen the image after you resize. Photoshop has a great sharpening tool in Filters->Sharpen->Smart Sharpen. Here are the settings I use.

Sharpening with Photoshop
Sharpening with Photoshop

A particularly useful technique for sharpening is to duplicate the layer, apply Smart Sharpening a number of times to the new layer, then use the opacity tool to blend it back in for the look you want.

Alternatively, you can use Nik Software’s Sharpener Pro which essentially does the same thing:

Sharpening with Nik Software
Sharpening with Nik Software


That’s it! For comparison’s sake, here’s the original, unedited photo:



In the next update to Shooting and Editing Photos, I’ll talk about other useful ways you can edit photos in Photoshop, I’ll talk about some more advanced edits, and I’ll discuss how to avoid common pitfalls. If you want a friendly email when it’s released, just subscribe to my newsletter at the top right corner of this page!


If you liked this article, take a look at the others in this series:

Shooting and Editing Photos Part 1: Your Camera is Hungry
Part 2: Capturing High Dynamic Range (HDR) Images
Part 3: Editing Styles and Preparing Your Files
Part 4: Finding Realism with HDR Editing


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