Using a couple of basic tools in Photoshop and other image editing programs, you can take a flat image and make it pop with just a little bit of effort and no experience in the finer arts of exposure and colour correction. With a little practice, you can get some quick and dirty work done in just seconds that will make your presentation, blog, or social network profile pictures look a lot better online. Even mobile phone snapshots can be made presentable while your instant noodles soften. Here's how:
This bulldog is quite cute, but the flat contrast, dead colours, blur and noise aren't doing it's already comically bemused mug any favours. Let's see if we can't create a profile picture that will get the pack on Dogster howling. While for the purposes of this demonstration I'll be using Photoshop, the same work can be done in GIMP, Paint.NET and other full-featured image editing software applications.
Love Your Curves
Select Image > Adjustments > Curves from the Photoshop drop-down menus. Welcome to the most awesome digital image editing tool known to human (and bulldog) kind.
See the three eye-dropper icons near the bottom? Our first chore is to select the first one to set the black point of the image. The goal is click on the darkest portion of the image in order to set the low threshhold for detail. The point you select and everything darker will become true black. I selected a corner of shadow in the top-left of the image.
Next, we use the middle eye-dropper to set the grey point. It doesn't matter how dark or light the point is — just that it's supposed to be a neutral grey tone. This can quickly remove a color-cast, which often occur when a camera set to indoor light is used outdoors or vice-versa. If a grey object has a reddish tinge, for instance, this feature will make it color-neutral and shift the colours in the rest of the image accordingly. I selected a bit of what's supposed to be white wall near the top of the image.Finally, we use the last eye-dropper to set the white point. This is pretty much the opposite of setting the black point. Click on the brightest portion of the image, in this case, the highlight on our furry friend's cheek.
Now our simple black diagonal line has been joined by red, green and blue friends. These represent how the eye-droppers adjusted the red, green and blue parts of the image. Behind them, the grey shape is called a "histogram," and shows the distribution of tones in the image. What we want to do is make sure the range of tones in the final photo equals the possible range of a digital image. So we grab those little sliders at the bottom and adjust the dark and light points to match where the coloured lines first meet the bottom and the top of the graph, respectively.
Now that the image is as colour-correct as you can expect after twenty seconds of fiddling, we'll want to bump up the contrast. Why should you hate Brightness and Contrast? Because it would preserve all the image data in the shadows and highlights that our histogram promises is there. So instead we'll create an "s-curve" to pump up the contrast. First, select a point midway along the black diagonal line. Just click to select — don't move it.
Now we'll select another point halfway between the midpoint and the highlight, or three-quarters of the way up the line. This we'll move very slightly up and to the left.
Add a point on the other side of the mid-point, and move it a little down and to the right. The more extreme your "s" the more contrast you'll perceive. (Inversely, if you have a u-shaped histogram with lots of colour information in the dark and light areas, you can reduce contrast by pointing the "s" in the other direction.)
Unsharp Mask is Your New BFF
There are two problems with this image, and we can fix one but not the other — namely, it's a little blurry thanks to the cheap plastic iPhone lens, and it's "noisy" (the spattering of grainy colour throughout) because of the cheap iPhone image capture chip and heavy doses of JPEG compression. Sharpening increases the contrast between a range of pixels, which can make the image clearer but also brings out the noise. Normally you might just try Filters > Sharpen > Sharpen or Filters > Sharpen > Sharpen More and eyeball it, but this calls for a little finesse. Since I'll be reducing the image size quite a bit, I'm going to go for sharp and a little noisy, and use Filters > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask to massage it. Amount sets how much additional contrast is desired, radius determines the are sampled around each pixel, and threshold sets how different two tones need to be before the filter kicks in. Futz with these for a few seconds until you like what you see — I'd say my adjustment is about medium-to-light sharpening.
Don't Be an Image Size Queen
While you want to start with the highest-resolution image with the least amount of compression you can, and do all your adjustments and filters at that size, you don't want to choke up someone's screen real estate and bandwidth with a huge image. And nothing smooths over the bumps in a photo's personality like a trip to the shrink. Select Image > Adjustments > Image Size and re-size it to something appropriate (in this case, I re-sized to 247 pixels wide by 300 pixels tall for the before-and-after images at the top).
Compress Your File Into Skinny Jeans
Don't be a bandwidth-hog with fatty files. Use File > Save For Web to let you set the compression level and preview both the image quality and the file size. By default, I usually set the JPEG compression level to 65 — which in this case means an image just a tad under 25 kilobytes, which shouldn't bother broadband users. Et voila, our sweet puppy will soon be getting invitations to all the best purebred parties.
(Original image by Artur Bergman)