Dear Lifehacker, I've learned a bunch of great Photoshop tricks but whenever I use that knowledge my images end up looking unrealistic. I don't want my family to look like an airbrushed perfume ad or my nature photos to look like a unicorn threw up a rainbow all over them. How can I touch up my photos without sacrificing their realism? Thanks, Unintentionally Fake
Figuring out how much to alter your original image is a tough line to draw. The effects you employ can be very appealing when you're employing them, but when you go back and look at the photo later you can sometimes realise everything you just did looks more like a clown birthday than the image you initially snapped. However, there are a few ways to ensure you don't go off the rails and can dial things back if you do. We'll go over them all here, but watch the video at the top for a demonstration.
Always Save An Editable Copy
If you're using Photoshop to edit your images, always save a copy of your photo as a Photoshop Document (PSD) with the layers intact. If you're using any other editor, do the same in that editor's layer-preserving format. Because it can be easy to get lost in the moment, you may not notice you went too far when making edits. If you save an editable copy with all your layers intact, you can go back and make changes later. Until you figure out how far is too far, you'll want an editable copy available to make layer adjustments when you need to.
Don't Rush The Editing Process
When you've got a lot of photos to edit it can be tempting to rush the editing process, but this is what often leads to mistakes and excess. This is especially true when you're making any brush-based edits, such as using the burn and dodge tools to perform basic touch ups. (If you're not familiar with these tools and would like to be, read/watch this.)
All brushes in Photoshop have intensity settings so you don't have to paint at full blast. It's called Exposure for the burn and dodge tools. On other brushes it's generally labelled Opacity or Flow. Regardless, you'll find this setting in the settings bar at the top of your screen. If it's set to 100%, lower it so you need multiple brush strokes to build the effect's intensity over time. This will make it harder to rush through an edit, and will also create more realistic effects.
Make Adjustable Edits
You can simply make edits to a photo, save them, and be done with it, but that makes it easy to save mistakes you can't easily revert. Here are two ways to make your potentially excessive adjustments and be able to scale them back when you've gone too far.
Option One: Edit A Duplicate Layer
This first option will work with virtually any standard layer-based image editing application, which is great if you're not a Photoshop user. This is because any layer-based editors allow you to set the opacity of layers, and that's all we really need to do. Simply open your unedited image, copy that image into a new layer, and make all your edits to that one layer. When you're done, you can dial back the opacity of the copied layer to reduce the intensity of any edits you made. This way, if you overdo it, you can avoid the lack of realism by simply making your edits less apparent.
Option Two: Use Adjustment Layers
For Photoshop, and any other image with Adjustment Layers, you have the ability to make your adjustments and then set their intensity afterwards. Adjustment Layers are non-destructive effects, meaning you can turn them on and off at will and set their opacity (much as I described in the first option). Nearly all of Photoshop's image adjustments, such as Curves, Color Balance, Levels and the like, are available as Adjustment Layers so you can add these effects and easily remove them later if things are looking a bit too unrealistic. Just hide the layer in Photoshop by clicking the eye icon next to it and the effect will disappear. Alternatively, reduce the opacity to lower that effect's intensity. It's very simple and all you have to do to scale back any adjustments you've made that feel like "too much." Alternatively, you can just double click on the Adjustment Layer to edit it again and change anything you may find too intense. While the first option works well enough, Adjustment Layers will give you significantly more control during and after your initial editing process.
That's really all there is to it. All you need to do is create an environment where you can make excessive edits without losing the ability to scale them back. That way you can practice, discover where "too far" falls for you, and learn how to employ all your great Photoshop tricks with beautiful realism.
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