3 Steps to Quick and Easy Borders in Photoshop

At the beginning of Sunday’s photo restoration tutorial, we began by cropping away the rough edges of the photograph.

However, on some images the border is what gives it that touch of polish. Especially on vintage photographs, where some kind of border is very common due to the machines used in the enlargement process. It’s possible to add genuine scanned paper borders for a lovely effect, but that’s an entirely different technique. For now we’ll start with something simple.

Let’s take the image we worked on last week.

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Photo Restoration – old photos looking like new

I miss writing Photoshop tutorials, so I thought I’d ease myself back into it with a quick overview of restoring old photos. The tutorial isn’t quite done yet, so here’s a sneak preview.

Tomorrow I’ll show you the super quick steps to make this:

(Photo from Flickr Commons)

Look like this:

This is more of a photo refresher than a restoration project, which means quick and easy gratification with little work.

How’s it done?

Tune in and find out!

Using Adjustment Layer Masks

Last week we looked at some of the reasons to use layers while working in Photoshop. Now let’s see some of the flexibility that Layer Masks can bring to the workflow. As mentioned last week, there’s more than one type of layer in Photoshop. To understand masks, we’ll begin with Adjustment Layers because they come with a mask automatically attached.

What are Layer Masks?

Quite simply, Layer Masks are your way to tell Photoshop which parts of a layer to use or hide, without having to actually delete a thing. On an Image Layer this means, for example, being able to erase part of a photo without losing the data and, with a sweep of the Paintbrush, being able to bring back what you erased.

On an Adjustment Layer, a mask lets you choose which areas of the photo to apply the adjustment to. Instead of having to use only blanket adjustments across the entire photo, this means that you can isolate certain areas. There are endless ways this can be used. Let’s look at a simple example, following on in the theme of contrast.

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The Joys of Layering

When I first began using Photoshop, layers confused me horribly. But after some time of reading tutorials, magazines, and picking the brains of every Photoshop-savvy person I came across, layers became my big Photoshop love.

I now use them for every tiny change I make to my images. With big edits, or high-resolution photos, this can mean my PSD (Photoshop format) files take up a lot of hard drive space, but it’s so very worth it.

Why Layer?

♦ Flexibility. This is the reason, above all other reasons, to use layers. You can use Layer Masks to apply an effect to any area of the photo you like, or more to one area than to another. You can lower the opacity of a layer to soften its effect on the layers below it. And of course you can take one image and combine it with another, as well as countless other possibilities.

♦ Gobackability. What do you mean that’s not a word? Sure it is. It means you always have the ability to go back to a previous version of your image, even right back to the start if it all goes calamitously wrong (it does happen), or if you have a new idea for how you want your image to look.

You can undo changes at any point later on if you’ve decided that’s not what you want for your image, or you can improve the changes made on an Adjustments Layer at some point long after you finished editing it the first time.

Photoshop has a History Brush tool, and I know people who swear by it, but I’ve never been a fan. I prefer to simply have my changes preserved in layers to go back to at any time.

“How did I do that again?” This is a big one for me. I edit photos quite quickly, usually without knowing beforehand what I intend to do with an image. Sometimes even just a few weeks later I don’t remember exactly how I created a certain effect (usually one that’s the result of about 20 layers of tiny changes).

If you save your PSDs it means that you can open the file a week, a month, a year later, and see exactly how you made it look like it does. This is great for fine-tuning a technique that you’re testing, or one you’ve stumbled across accidentally as you worked.

♦ Progress check. There are literally limitless things to learn about Photoshop. Sometimes it can get overwhelming and I feel like I’ll never learn it all. Then I realise that while, yes, I’ll never know everything there is to know about Photoshop; there’s a difference between knowing everything and knowing plenty.

To remind myself how far I’ve come, I like to go through my old PSDs. By looking at the layers I can see how I did things when I first started, and then see how my techniques have changed with each piece of newly acquired knowledge. My first PSDs, the ones I was so proud of at the time (and still am!), look so primitive by comparison, and even edits from only a year or two ago show how much my skills have improved. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love being able to track your progress this way.

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How much is too much?

Watching this video makes me giddy with excitement. Think of all that editing power at your fingertips! It’s magic I tell you, magic!

Although, while I’m in awe of its shining glory, this video has created confusion in my mind.

While the main part of me goes, “Woooow! So cooooool!!!” a little part of me says, “Yea, cool… but it’s cheating.” Why is this? The outcome is the same. Whether you spend hours doing it by hand or spend a few seconds with this tool, both ways result in edited images.

I’ve always prided myself on accepting digital enhancements as part of digital photography, yet that little part of me looks at this video and thinks, “But where has the art gone? What’s so impressive about clicking a button?

It’s like Facebook (okay, it’s nothing like Facebook, but bear with me); I used to be the one who remembered all my friends’ birthdays. I still do. If asked, I could rattle off a list of about 20 of them without thinking about it. It was impressive and meant something to my friends when they received my birthday wishes on their day. Then Facebook came along and started listing everyone’s birthdays. Now I still remember them all, but it means less because people assume I merely saw it on Facebook like everyone else.

Maybe, like with birthdays, this is just my ego throwing a temper-tantrum and not liking the idea that, after years of fine-tuning my skills, a tool is going to come out that will mean that anyone can do it in moments, and no one will know how amazing my powers of Photoshop are. Maybe I want it to stay difficult so that only an elite group of people have the know-how to manage.

Okay, fine. I’ll stop being a snob, and I’ll rejoice in the creation of an incredible new tool. A tool that will save professionals, and myself, many hours of work, and yes, will bring the art of photo-editing closer to anyone of any skill level.

What’s your take on this? Art or cheating?

P.S. The “rule of thirds” grid in the crop tool, how cool is that? A nice little touch there.

A Lesson Learned…

Last week my friend and I were eating lunch in the park when a pair of Air Force helicopters roared through, the wind from their blades blowing bags off our bench.

By the time I’d pulled the camera from my bike panniers, the choppers were directly overhead. I clicked away until they were gone, then looked at my photos.

(Photo taken at 1/4000, f/5.6, ISO 800)

I confess that sometimes I’m rather lazy with my camera settings, thinking, “Ah well, I’ll fix it in Photoshop.” But after a month spent thinking and writing about creative exposures, the first thing I thought when I saw these photos was, “Oops.”

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Histograms in Action

Recently we looked at how histograms show the tonal data of an image, now lets put them to some practical use.

Histograms are ideal to help us understand the contrast in our images. When a picture seems a bit “foggy”, we can look at the histogram and see exactly where the graph is unbalanced. Maybe the tonal information is mainly in the middle of the histogram, thereby showing a lack of both shadows and highlights; or perhaps the graph is mainly to the left of the centre showing that, while the dark tones are fine, the whites are underexposed.

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Straightening using the Ruler Tool

Today’s tip is one that has saved me at least a couple minutes on every photo I’ve used it on… if I multiply all these minutes by the amount of photos I’ve edited, it equals a rather large amount of time saved.

When you’re shooting without a tripod, or on a boat as I was when I took the example photo, there will almost always be a slight angle to some of your horizons. I find that often when I have a niggling feeling of something being wrong with one of my photos, if I check the horizon I discover that it’s slightly tilted. Sometimes only by a degree or so, not enough that it’s obvious, but enough for me to feel that something’s not right.

To fix this problem you can either carefully rotate the photo to the right and left a degree here and there, until it starts to look straight. Or. You can use this very useful little tool to fix it in seconds.

Step One: Take a photo that needs straightening. In this example the waterline is only off kilter by a tiny amount, but it’s enough to make a difference.

Image in photoshop, crooked waterline

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Clearing a Colour Cast

This is a tutorial for one of the Photoshop techniques I use the most. It’s a great help in quick photo clean-ups.

So, let’s say you have a photo and the colours just aren’t quite right. Maybe there’s a bit of a haze, or there’s a slight colourcast over the image. Try this 30 second adjustment and see what happens.

As an example I will use a photo I took while flying over the Alps this summer. In my experience photos from the air, or across long distances, never look quite as striking and clear as the view when we took them. The moisture in the atmosphere clouds things a little. Before learning this little trick, I used to spend ages with masks, levels and selective colouring, trying to get my airplane photos looking like they should.

Try this:

Step One: Open a photo that needs some work (feel free to save my “before” image from the bottom of this tutorial and practice on that). Hazy and brown, not so nice. This is my CS4 workspace.

Step Two: Create a curves adjustment layer by clicking on the adjustment layer button at the bottom of the layers palette.

(Note: If you’re using CS2 or earlier, your curves palette won’t have the histogram that it does in CS3 or CS4. To do this tutorial and get the same result, open a Levels Layer here instead.)
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