Photoshop is an amazing tool that can take any photo and change it into anything you can imagine. While it can take years of practice to alter reality like a pro, there are a few simple tricks you can employ to reshape the world captured in your photos. Here are five of our favorite techniques and how to use them effectively.
Note: While this guide centres around Adobe Photoshop (CS5, specifically), many of these tricks are possible in other image editors. Even if you don’t have Photoshop you’re not necessarily left out of the party. Read through the tips as we’ve tried to use methods that can be replicated in other software as well.
Pop Pimples (and Remove Other Blemishes)
Sometimes faces aren’t as pretty as you might like, or dust got on your lens, or you missed a little bit of blood on the carpet when cleaning up after your last murder. Whatever the case may be, Photoshop is really great at removing unwanted visual information and offers three great tools to help. We’re going to take a look at them all.
Watch the video above for a visual walkthrough or read on for a description of how to use each tool. Also, thank you to Instructables user KentsOkay and his real-life pimple-popping tutorial for the photo used in the video.
The Clone Stamp is the old-fashioned way to repair blemishes and undesirable aspects of your images. It’s a tool you’ll actually find in many image editors, so if you’re not a Photoshop user you may still be able to touch up your photos all the same. To use it, you select it from the toolbar. (It looks like a stamp if you want to click it, but you can press S on your keyboard too.) First find an area of the photo that you want to clone. You’re going to use this clone area to paint over the thing you want to remove, so pick something that is similar in color, tone, and texture. When you’ve made your choice, hold down alt/option and click it. Now move your brush over to the thing you want to remove and paint over it. If you selected a good source area, the blemish will now be gone.
The Healing Brush is what you want to use when the Clone Stamp is looking too, well, clone-y. The Healing Brush actually works in exactly the same way as the Clone Stamp, but when you release the mouse a little Photoshop magic happens and it attempts to blend the brush’s source with the area it’s covering up. This makes the result look a little more unique and not like you just borrowed another part of the image. It’s generally ideal for removing pimples and other blemishes but terrible at, say, removing a tree from an empty field.
Content-Aware Fill is a cool new feature that was added in Photoshop CS5. Basically, you select any part of a photograph that you want to remove, press Shift+Delete, choose “Use: Content-Aware” (if it isn’t selected already), and click OK. Photoshop will think for a second and then try to cover up your selection. Sometimes it will do a phenomenal job and it will look like your selected object completely vanished. Other times it’ll completely botch the job or at least leave a trace. If it’s just a trace, you can use the previously mentioned tools to touch up Photoshop’s mistakes. If it’s a botched job you’ll just have to do the entire thing manually. Either way, when it works (or mostly works), this Content-Aware Fill is a huge time-saver.
Change Facial Expressions
One often-ignored feature in Photoshop is the Liquify tool, which is capable of warping your images in some compelling ways. We’ve previously demonstrated how it can be used to fix distortions, but it can also do something a little more fun: change facial expressions.
Watch the video above for a visual walkthrough or read on for the written version.
The important thing is to be careful and maintain subtlety when employing this technique because you can make your subject look completely ridiculous if you’re not careful. (See the “BAD” photo in the example below for a look at how altering an expression can go a little overboard.)
Taking care to maintain realism actually makes the process a lot easier because you don’t have to do very much to achieve the desired change. The real challenge is understanding how the muscles of the face work so you’re altering the relevant areas. For example, when someone smiles (genuinely, that is) their eyes squint a bit, their cheeks rise and, of course, the edges of their mouth curl upward. If you only altered the mouth, the smile would look a little off. Before you even try this you should go look in a mirror and make both the original and desired facial expression. Watch which muscles move and how as you switch between the two. Once you know, you’re ready to use the Liquify tool.
- Go to the Filter menu and choose Liquify.
- Select the Warp Tool if it isn’t already selected. (It’s the first tool in the toolbar in the top left corner of the Liquify window. You can select it by clicking on it or just pressing the W key on your keyboard.)
- On the right side of the Liquify window you’ll see options for the selected tool. In that section, set your brush size fairly small. Generally a brush size between three and 20 will work, but your goal is to make it a little larger than the height of the smile line.
- When your brush is the right size, use the Warp Tool to paint the edges of the smile upward. It works just like a brush, but all you do is click on the area you want to move and use your mouse or trackpad to pull it in the direction you want. Do not move the mouth too much or it will look ridiculous. You don’t want to try and move it into a full smile or it will look fake, but rather move it out of the frowning position. You’ll be able to sell the happier look by altering other parts of the face.
- Increase the size of your Warp Tool brush by about two times and use it to push the cheeks of your subject upward just slightly.
- Change the size of your Warp Tool brush to match the size of your subjects eyes, then use it to push the area directly below the eye upward just a tiny bit.
Now you should be done and your subject should look a little more pleasant. While some added patience and time could change your subject’s expression more dramatically, it’s generally better to keep it simple so the change looks natural and not cartoonish-ly false.
Few of us have perfectly white teeth, but we can brush the yellow away with the help of a couple of tools in Photoshop. All you really have to do is desaturate your not-so-pearly whites and then brighten them up. Just watch the video above or follow these steps:
- Take the Sponge Tool and paint away the yellow parts of the teeth. You can use the default settings (desaturate, 50 per cent flow) but you’ll want to pick a brush size that’ll fit nicely into the teeth you’re whitening.
- Desaturating with the sponge is going to leave you with some ugly gray shadows, unfortunately, since yellow is darker in tone than pure white, but we can fix that! In the same place you found the sponge tool, you can also select the Dodge Tool. This tool will brighten up areas of a photo, but the default flow setting (50 per cent) is way too high. Something between 10-15 per cent will work much better. You also want to make sure you Dodge Tool is set to brighten up the midtones, which you can select directly to the left of the flow settings.
- Once you have your settings in place, use the Dodge Tool to paint over the gray areas of the teeth. This will lighten them up so they match the whiter parts of the teeth. If you find you’re over-brightening these areas, just lower the Flow setting of the Dodge Tool and try again.
It can take a little practice to be perfectly precise and have a clean, even look, but once you get the hang of it you’ll have the perfectly white teeth — or at least your photos will.
Lighten Up Underexposed Faces
One of the most common problems with your photos is that some part of them is underexposed. This often happens with your subject’s face or even their entire body. Fortunately it is incredibly easy to fix this problem in Photoshop or any other image editor. Just follow these steps (or watch the video above):
- Open your image and use a rectangular marquee tool to select the portion you want to brighten up. Be sure to leave some room around the edges. Copy your selection and paste it into a new layer.
- Use Levels, Curves or a lighting adjustment tool of your choice to boost the midtones. Doing this may wash out the colour of the image a little bit, so if you can you should also boost the red channel’s midtones in the selection. In Curves, you can do this by selecting Red from the Channels drop-down menu and pulling upward on its curve.
- Select the eraser tool and use a soft brush to erase the edges around the part of the image you brightened up so only the part you want remains.
- Adjust the opacity of the brightened selection until the brightness is exactly where you want it.
Note: In Photoshop you can also make your selection very quickly with the Quick Mask tool and alter the brightness and colour of that selection using an Adjustment Layer. I like the above method because there is virtually no layer-based image editor that isn’t capable of performing this trick. That said, using Quick Mask and an Adjustment Layer is proper practice in Photoshop. If you’re not familiar with these tools, check out our overview of Photoshop’s tools and features.
When you’re done your photo should look like it was shot under better, more compelling lighting.
Extract Your Subject and Place Them on a New Background
Sometimes you’re sitting on the couch when you’d rather be relaxing on the beach. Don’t worry, Photoshop can help! It has plenty of tools you can use to extract your backgrounds. Be sure to watch the video above to see how this is all done, but here’s a look at a few tools you can use to help extract your backgrounds cleanly.
Personally, my favourite tools for extracting backgrounds are the Polygonal Lasso and the standard Eraser because they give you a lot of control over the exact edges. The Polygonal Lasso can be found by clicking on the standard Lasso tool in the toolbar and holding down to reveal your other options. It works by clicking points along the edge of the subject you want to extract to slowly create your selection. Basically, it’s like connecting the dots. Each click is a dot and the closer those dots are together the smoother the selection becomes. I like to zoom in and and make a lot of “dots” to get a pretty smooth line, then come in with the Eraser tool and smooth everything out. When you’re using the standard Eraser tool to touch up your selection, it helps to set its opacity to 50 per cent or less. This is so when you erase the edge of your subject you make it transparent rather than remove it entirely. Doing so requires more work but it allows you to create a more realistic edges that blends in better with the background.
While the Polygonal Lasso and standard Eraser tools make for a good team, they do take a bit of time to use. If you’re in a hurry and are extracting your subject from a simple background like a solid colour (or something close to it), Photoshop has two special tools to expedite this job: the Background Eraser and Magic Eraser. To locate them, just click and hold down on the regular Eraser tool in Photoshop’s toolbar and select the one that you want. The Magic Eraser functions by just clicking the area you want to remove and watching it disappear. This may sound magical, but in reality it tends to leave jagged edges and make poor guesses about what is your background and what is not. The Background Eraser works like the regular Eraser except it only erases the background—or at least it attempts to. You’ll see a + in the middle of your brush and that’s the area you’re targeting to erase. If anything within the brush’s circumference is similar enough to what’s directly inside the crosshairs it’ll get deleted. How does Photoshop know how tolerant to be? Well, there’s a Tolerance setting up in the settings bar at the top of the screen. In fact, there is a tolerance setting for both of these special erases so you can dial them back if they’re eating parts of the photo you do not want to erase.
Once you actually manage to remove the background using whatever tools suit you best, there are a couple of other things you want to keep in mind. You can’t just plop a subject on any photo and expect him/her/it to belong. Chances are the colour and light in the photo you extracted your subject from is not going to match the one where you’re placing them. You can use Photoshop’s Color Match adjustment (go to the Adjustments menu and choose Color Match) but, as you’ll see in the video above, it doesn’t always do that great of a job. Opening Curves and trying to match the color and light manually makes a bigger difference.
Even when you match the colour well, chances are your subject still won’t look quite at home on his/her/its new background. This is often because if your subject were really, truly there the light from that location would affect them. Now there is quite a bit you have to do to achieve an incredible amount of realism when the lighting on your subject doesn’t look quite right for their new location, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion. One thing you can do to help solve this problem, however, is allow the background to bleed onto the subject a little bit. Here’s how to achieve this effect:
- Control/command-click on your subject’s layer to select him/her/it.
- Go to the Select menu and choose Select Inverse.
- Click on the layer of your background in the Layers panel to choose it.
- Go to the Select menu and choose Refine Edge.
- In the Refine Edge panel, increase the Feather size and move the Shift Edge slider to the right. As you do this you’ll see your selection start to move inward and eat into your subject. When this happens a little bit you’ve done well and can stop. Press OK to accept your refined selection.
- Copy the newly selected area of your background layer and paste it into a new layer on top of your subject. It’ll look kind of weird, like the background has swallowed your subject’s edges. This is OK.
- Reduce the opacity of this new layer to about 20 per cent. This will make everything look pretty normal again, but you’ll have a bit of colour from the new background blending in with the edges of your subject much like it would in reality.
While there’s likely a lot more you can do to make your subject look more realistic in their new home, these basics tricks are a good starting point for when you want to transplant people, places and things to new and exciting locations.
If you’re brand new to Photoshop, be sure to learn the basics in our Photoshop Night School course. For plenty more great Photoshop tips and tricks, such as changing a specific colour in a photo or creating animated cinemagraphs, check out our Photoshop tag page.