PhotoShop Tweaks #1

Home Up The Short Of It Equipment Other Considerations The Digital Realm Camera Settings PhotoShop Tweaks #1 Photoshop Tweaks #2 Photoshop Tweaks #2A

Now it's time to break out my favorite tool of all time - Adobe's PhotoShop. This is a very expensive piece of software ($510 to $640, depending on where you purchase it from) that will quickly become one of your most valuable assets. PS (short for PhotoShop) has bailed me out of a few bad shots, and has transformed some good shots to great pictures. This is where digital photography beats our film brethren. Most cameras will come with some kind of viewing software, and some rudimentary PS-like software. (Some cameras or scanners may actually include PS 5.0 LE - short for limited edition - or PhotoShop Elements. Hang onto this, as Adobe has been known to offer upgrades for a relatively low price!) PS *is* complicated, but it's worth it. With some minor tweaks and a few tricks, we're ready to transform some of our fireworks pictures into works of art.

On this page, I will be demonstrating using PhotoShop 7.0 on a Windows platform. Because of Adobe's interface, the same menus and tweaks will work on a Macintosh, although the keyboard commands may be a bit different. (Windows has never seen fit to put an Apple key on their keyboard layouts! The 'alt' key works as a replacement.)

Before we start, I want you to to get used to something - NEVER SAVE OVER YOUR ORIGINAL PHOTO! Never, ever replace an original shot with one you've worked on. After you transfer your pictures to the computer, make them read-only. (Windows - right-click on the folder/directory, select Properties, click the 'read-only' box until a check mark appears. When prompted, apply the settings to 'this folder, sub-folders, and files.) Why keep the original? Because no matter what you do to the picture, you will ALWAYS have something to go back to if things go wrong. At first, I didn't do this. After all, if the picture needed work, then the final product is better than the original - so why waste disk space, right? Wrong. You're NOT 'wasting' disk space. You're maintaining a 'zero-point', some place that you can fall back on. When you alter a picture, you are changing something - color, luminosity, hue, size - that will be lost forever if you save back over your original. Just don't do it.

(To see a larger image below, click on the picture. I downsized the images as a courtesy to our dial-up friends. The 'full sized' images have been downsized to 640x480, except where noted.)

Let's take a look at a pretty good fireworks picture shot with a Minolta DiMAGE 7 and see what we can do about it:

Three things first hit me about this shot. 1) It is not centered, 2) There's some amount of smoke visible in the lower-left, and inside the lower area of the shell, and 3) some of the star's didn't light uniformly, causing them to 'squirt' around and disrupting the symmetry of the shell.

This shell had stars that were 'rolled' with three layers. The middle layer was 'dark' - it burns at a very low temperature, causing all the start to 'wink' off, then on - a very nice effect. This gives this picture a somewhat 'shell within a shell' look.

5 second exposure, f/stop - 5.6, ISO 100, no filters

The first step is to crop the image. I maintained the '4x3' aspect ratio of this image. I shot it this way so that I can use the photograph in a PowerPoint show, as some kind of video image, or to use as a desktop picture. While the image was cropped closer than I'd normally like, the original picture had the shell close to the top of the frame. I like a symmetrical image, so I cropped the bottom area about as close to the shell as the top.

If you crop the image first, you may remove some areas from the picture that would tempt you to deal with (smoke, lights, etc.) by cropping first, this can save you time.

I ignored the errant stars - those will be removed in a bit.

The next thing I treated was the smoke. In PS (PhotoShop), as you move your cursor around you will notice values changing in the info pane. Although the camera did a fine job with giving me a nice black background, there was still some errant light and reflections.

In the PS world, color is comprised of adding together R-G-B values (Red-Green-Blue). These three values range from 0-255, where 0 = black, and 255 = full color. If the R value is 255, and the G and B values are 0, then you would have full red. Colors are combinations of the R-G-B values. If they were all 255, then you would have white. As I moved the cursor around on the black background, I notice that these values would change from 0-0-0, but not bad. In the smoke area in the lower left, some of the values (especially the red) would go as high as 20.

If your camera can shoot in the RAW mode, then you can use the picture as 16 bit - increasing your values to 0-4096. While this is great, your filter choices will be reduced and file sizes will be much larger.

However, this shell burst just after another shell had already gone up, so a layer of smoke was illuminated inside of the shell itself. I thought that this was rather distracting, and decided to do something about it. Time to pull up the Levels adjustment.
Levels is under the Image menu -> Adjustments -> Layer. This is a 'histogram' of the image. 0 is on the left, 255 is on the right. This shows the relative values of the overall brightness of the image. Note that it is 'stacked up on the left, with a peak on the right. This makes sense - this is a night shot, and there are some parts of this image that went to white.

If you increase the lower input level, either by changing the value in the upper-left box, or by grabbing and moving the pointer on the bottom-left of the histogram, you will adjust the 'black' levels. I found that if you move your cursor around, and find the single highest value in the 'black' area, type that into the lower field and all the values of that number and lower will be set to zero - effectively 'crushing' the dark areas to black. This has a negative effect on overall image if this number is too large, and will cause strange colors to appear.

In this image, I found light levels over 110 in the smoke zone, so I moved the lower value slider around until I found a fair compromise between the smoke and the overall image. In this case, the value is 45. (This is actually quite large - I typically don't go over 30, but this image was able to support a larger value.) While the smoke was not completely gone, it was less of a distraction.

Now to take care of those errant stars. Most of the stars could just be erased (or better - cloned) out. However, I've circled an area that requires some special attention. There is no other area in this shell where this 'Z' pattern appears. I personally have a problem with it, and want it to disappear.
Here is the problem area blown up. You will notice that the camera has shifted some of the red slightly off-center from the light of the star. This is due to over-exposure. (F-stop should have been f6.8.) Also note that I have increased this area by 300%, causing some gross 'dithering' (square colors combined to create different colors). Some of this can also be the result of the burning of the star. Yeah - I'll blame the star!  ;-)
One way to handle it is to erase the errant star. You could be finished and call this 'good enough', but I want you to try something that in the long run, will give you better images all around. There is a red halo that is eliminated when you use the erase tool. Would this be noticable when you look at the whole picture? Maybe not. But there's a better way to handle it.
Here, I used the 'Clone' tool, and cloned the upper areas of the star OVER the errant star. I cloned from both sides, trying to make the color as even as I could. I then cloned the rest of the star out of the way. In the end, I hope you'll agree that unless you knew there was a problem here to begin with, the fix is not noticable.

This is what I'm after. Yeah, it takes some extra time, and using the clone tool is more of an art than a science. However, once you've mastered this tool, you'll have a blast (pun intended) fixing other fireworks pictures.

Here, I used the clone tool to remove all of the other errant stars, and any others that distracted from the symmetry of the shell. There was one on the bottom that went through the smoke field. By using the clone tool, this fix was quite simple. I suppose I could fill in the blank area on the left-lower side of the shell with the clone tool - a mission for another day.

Because much of the black area was crushed to a zero value using the levels adjustment, the erase tool would have worked for the rest of the stars. However, I have had some problems in the past of an area that may not have been *quite* black, and the erase tool caused a black trough. I much prefer to use the clone tool. I realize that this is a personal preference of mine - do with what you're comfortable with.

I created different sizes of this particular shell to use as a desktop picture. Find the appropriate size below, then click on the image at the left. For Windows users, right-click on the image and select 'Save picture as...' (rename it) to your desktop. For Mac users, click-hold on the image and save it. You can use this image for your own personal use. If you use it in any other purpose or publication, I need to be notified.
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1600x1200 1280x1024

Here we first cropped the image, corrected for smoke, and fixed some stars that distracted from the overall beauty of the picture. What about some other problems? How about TOO much smoke? How far can go to 'fix' a picture? What about pictures taken with a 'snap-shot' type camera? (coming soon)

All information presented on these pages can be used for your personal use. If you want to publish or reproduce any or all if the info here, you must have permission from Tom Calderwood. If you find any information that is incorrect, please notify me and I will take care of it as soon as possible.

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