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Focus on Photo Editing

By now you know that you can easily import photos to your computer using scanners and digital cameras. And relatively inexpensive but high-quality printers let you print your shots. You can even e-mail your pictures and post them online. But what if your photos don't look exactly the way you want? How can you edit and optimize your images?

Photo editing is no substitute for good photography, so if you can, reshoot bad images. Still, even the best photograph can be tweaked. The tool you use is an image editor like Macromedia Fireworks, MGI PhotoSuite, Microsoft Picture It!, Corel's PhotoPaint, Ulead's PhotoImpact, or Adobe Photoshop, the granddaddy of them all.

All image-editing programs are the same under the skin, offering very similar exposure controls, color adjustments, image clean-up features, and special effects. The programs also help prepare photos for output, making sure that the file format, resolution, and dimensions are right for your needs. Beyond the basics, the major packages differ in their feature sets. Professional-level programs, such as Photoshop and PhotoPaint, may include prepress graphics tools. Some packages, like Fireworks, Photoshop, and PhotoImpact, specialize in Web graphics. Others, like Picture It! and PhotoSuite, have friendly interfaces with step-by-step instructions and special projects. See our "Photo Software" roundup for more information (November 27, 2001).

Insurance Policies and Procedures

Adjusting Transparency The most important thing to be aware of is that almost all photo-editing programs destroy image data, so whatever editing changes you apply may be permanent. And because most editing is not linear, reversing an edit by using its opposite command will not restore your picture to its original state. That's why you should always save your unedited photo in an archive file that you leave untouched and work only on a copy.

That said, most image-editing programs have various schemes for reversing an edit that go well beyond the Undo button. For instance, layers (objects) separate various elements or edits in your composition. Some programs will maintain special effects and image adjustments (such as changes in hue or exposure) in reeditable layers. For instance, if you use an adjustment layer to increase the contrast in your photo, you can change the settings that control the contrast, or remove that particular edit completely, and the underlying image will not be damaged in any way.

Exposure Controls

As the name implies, exposure controls adjust the brightness and contrast of your photo. Unfortunately, these controls won't help much if your picture is very dark (underexposed) or washed out (overexposed), because the visual data hidden in the shadows or highlights won't be sufficient for making adjustments.

The simplest exposure tools are sliders that increase or decrease the amount of overall contrast and brightness. More sophisticated tools, such as gamma curves and histograms, give you more precise control. With these features, you can lighten or darken specific pixels based on their current lightness values. Gamma curves and histograms look and sound more complex than they are, but they do take some practice to master. More fun, as well as easier to use, are dodge and burn brushes. These let you lighten or darken very specific areas. Dodging lightens the area, and burning darkens it.

Color Me Perfect

Photo-editing programs can do almost anything with color, from creating subtle hue shifts to splattering paint. For instance, suppose your picture has a distinct green tone (which often happens when you take photos under office-type fluorescent light). You can use the color-balance controls to decrease the green, or increase its complementary color.

Suppose there's a spot or section in your green-shifted photo that you know should be pure white. Clicking there with a tool called a white-point eyedropper will make that point white by subtracting the right amount of green from the picture. But be careful. The eyedropper tool requires that the point you click is truly meant to be the brightest in your picture. If it isn't, you can lose data from the highlights of the entire image.

In imaging, paintbrush tools do more than lay down color in strokes. You can set brushes to varying levels of transparency, use them to paint special effects wherever you want, and even emulate different types of natural media, such as watercolors or pen and ink. Blend modes define how the colors or effects you are painting interact with the original pixels. For example, if you select Lighten, the program will compare the brush pixels with those of the picture and keep the lighter of the two along the entire path of your stroke.

Image Clean-Up

The Clone ToolThe clone, an important type of brush, picks up colors or bits of details from your picture and applies them where you stroke. The clone is an excellent tool for removing telephone wires from an otherwise perfect landscape, or wrinkles from your boss's face. You can also use it to add elements to a picture¡Xenlarging a bouquet, for example, by adding more buds. With blend modes or transparency levels you can use the clone tool very creatively¡Xto paint, for instance, the ghost of a face in a window, emulating a faint reflection.

Special Effects

Special-Effects Filter Every program ships with a library of special-effects filters. Some filters, such as the tools for sharpening a photo's focus, are utilitarian. Others can make your photo look more artistic or ethereal. Filters are extremely powerful, potentially destructive, and often visually overwhelming, so use them carefully. Be sure to keep archived images and to keep layers intact, so you can reverse your edits and prevent irreparable damage.

Note that because Photoshop was the first successful desktop-imaging program, it set the standard for many tools. For this reason, you'll see third-party special-effects filters and other plug-ins described as "Photoshop compatible," although they will work in all popular photo-editing programs.

When you want to limit an effect or edit to a specific area of a picture, you use masking or selection tools. These act as though you put a stencil over a page. For example, suppose the overall exposure of your photo is good, but a person's face is slightly shadowed. You can use the masking tools to select only the face. Any exposure correction you apply will affect only that face¡Xnot the background image. The selection can be turned on and off and saved for future use. Learning to create an accurate mask is one of the keys to effective photo editing. A sloppy mask ends up looking like you weren't careful with scissors. You'll see effects spills and edits where you don't want them.

Collage Capability One of the more exciting features of photo-editing software is the collage capability. This lets you cut up parts of different pictures and put them together. All the tools and commands mentioned above come into play, especially layers and masking.

As you can see in the example, after selecting areas of various photographs, you can copy and paste them into a composition. As long as every object is kept in a separate layer, each can be reedited, sized, moved, or removed from the collage without any destruction to the pixels of the image. Using the clone tool, we added greenery and flowers over the panda and the bear. The blend modes can alter the way each element combines with those under it. For instance, the text is blended using transparency and a color dodge mode, which makes the leaves and house show through the word Fantasy.

Output Controls

Having the photo you want on-screen and being able to use it are two different things. For instance, a photo large enough to output as an 8- by 10-inch print is much too large for a newsletter. Photo-editing programs address such issues, which include optimizing a photo for best display on a Web site, making sure the image is in an appropriate file format, and so on. Some programs also have templates for placing your pictures into greeting cards, business cards, presentations, Web buttons, banners, and other specialty layouts.

The best way to learn how to use imaging software is to experiment. Once you have saved a copy of your photo, enjoy yourself. Play with layers to see how they work, change the various blend modes, alter the order, turn off one or another of the layers, and try the different tools. Photo editing is like having a production house and darkroom in your computer, without all the fumes and mess.

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