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Digital Adjustments & Development

Back in the old days with 35mm film the photographer had his darkroom where he developed the film, in our day and age the computer has taken over the role. This article will deal with some of the adjustments you can use to develop your photographs in the digital darkroom.

The software I have used in this article is Photoshop CS3 (on a Mac) but most of these features are available in any decent photo-editing software.


Levels are one of the most important tools to use when you are working with post-production. This adjustment layer is used to correct or enhance the histogram. To learn more about what the Histogram shows and how it works, please read my article about it.

A word of advice is to work with levels in a separate layer instead of working on the actual photo layer.

There are two methods to use this adjustment layer:


This method will give you an eyedropper and you will have to set one point for the darkest (black point) and one point for the lightest (white point) area. There is also the option to set the grey point (18% grey, in the middle of the tones).

This can be a bit tricky to the beginner, but it’s a very powerful tool. It’s often easy to spot the white point in the photo, often from a light source or something white and/or reflective. The black point may be a bit harder to locate, the best way is to think about where the light is the least likely to be reflected.

In the photograph below you can see that the white point is where you can spot a cloud in the sky behind the trees and the black point is inside the poor sheep’s nostril — there isn’t much light reaching in there.

What this will do is that it will stretch the histogram so that the lightest point will be to the very right edge and the darkest point will be to the left edge.


Manually adjusting Levels in Adobe Photoshop

An example of a levels slider from Adobe Photoshop CS2. Similar Level Adjustments can be found in other software, including GIMP.

Instead of stretching out the histogram you narrow down the field by moving the dark and the light levels in this method. You can achieve the same effect as the method listed above, but you will be able to see the gradual change in the photograph better this way. What you want to do is dragging the black triangle to the right until it’s under the left edge of the graph, and drag the white triangle until it’s under he right edge of the graph. If you have a histogram like the one above you might want to move the white triangle a little more to the left than the very edge since the levels of white are very small at the edge.

Which of the two methods you like the best is up to you, try the both out and see what you like the most. (I only go through how to use the RGB level here, there will be some more info on the other levels later in this article.)


Using Curves from Adobe Photoshop

This adjustment layer is quite like the levels, but with a bit more control. You can choose to either set the black/white or you can create your own curves. Unlike the Levels layer, Curves will often times have easy to use Presets, either the standard ones that come with the software or your own custom ones.


This is something that has to be done on a photo layer, so you might want to duplicate your photo layer (usually the background layer).

Go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask

The settings here are very different depending on whether you’re photographing portraits, landscapes, urban etc. But somewhere around Amount: 85, Radius: 1, Threshold: 0 or Amount: 100, Radius: 0.5, Threshold: 0. Try and see where you find a good spot between sharp and overly sharpened — white halos will appear around some object if you sharpen the image too much, this will not look good.

There is nothing that can beat a sharp image straight out of the camera, but Unsharp Mask can at least help you get a little closer.

Color correction

Color correction is an important but difficult part of post-production. There are several different ways to deal with untrue colors. It depends on what the problem is; is it just one colors that is off, is the entire photo lacking color, is the photo tinted in a weird color? Each of these problems need a different tool, I will go through the very basics of some of the color correction tools that Photoshop have.

Selective Color — Controls several different colors and can do just about anything to a specific color. This is a great adjustment layer to use when a specific color is untrue in the photograph, such as a green shirt looking blue.

Channel Mixer — The RGB channels, can add and subtract RGB from each channel. A good tool when an entire image is experiencing a colored overcast.
Hue/Saturation — This layer have three main settings; Hue, Saturation and Lightness. Stay away from Hue and Lightness unless you know what you’re doing. Saturation is a great tool to boost or drain the colors.

Color Balance — Here you have RGB again, with different settings for Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. Can be used to correct the color in just one of those areas.

Levels & Curves — Use it like described above, but change the channel to one of the RGB ones. You will be able to control the colors with good accuracy. Works good both with highlights/shadows as well as photos with a color overtone.

Dodge & Burn

These two tools are designed to mimic the effect of the Dodge and Burn tools used in darkrooms before the digital age. These tools are used to change the exposure on selective parts of the photograph, such as giving more exposure to shadowed areas.
The Dodge tool will lighten up parts, the Burn tool will darken parts.

Use them with care, but when you’ve mastered them they can be a great asset to change your exposure on just some parts in post-production.


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    Photoshop tutorials, from beginner to advanced. photo manipulation, icon design, text effects, interface, layout, painting, photo effects, psd tuts, maxon cinema 4d, designing.

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    ShirleyTinkham (1 Point) December 28, 2010 at 7:01 am

    OMG, this is great! Such simple things to do with such great results. I scan all of my families old photos going all the way back to the 20′s. Some of them are just discolored and others have been kept in a musty, damp basement and have parts that have to be rebuilt. I love these tips! Thank you so much.

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    تقنية (1 Point) September 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    very important tips for all of us thanks

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    Web Design (1 Point) April 26, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    interesting tips. thanks for sharing

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    George Holmes (1 Point) February 27, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Hey Fredrik,
    Thanks for “splainin” this in such an easy to understand way.
    I have been using P.S. Mac version since v 3.0, but never to old a user to study refresher items. there is also almost always another way of doing the same or similar thing with Adobe. Of course Adobes excellent manuals (not) are hard to beat.

    Now then since you have the gift of making difficult things easy how can i use the current world economy to make my fortune? Hey, just thought I’d ask.<<>>

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    Despedidas de Soltero (1 Point) February 17, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Thanks for the tips. i´m use Wp every time.


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    เพลงสากลใหม่ (1 Point) February 3, 2010 at 4:04 am

    wow Cool tip thank for sharing.146

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    ดาวน์โหลดเพลง (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    wow Cool tip thank for sharing.132

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) February 1, 2010 at 12:08 am

    wow Cool tip thank for sharing.126

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    เพลงใหม่ล่าสุด (1 Point) January 30, 2010 at 7:57 am

    wow Cool tip thank for sharing.

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    Diseño Web (1 Point) December 10, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Nice effect!!! thanks for the magic tip!!

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    Excellent article Fredrik! Thanks for the tips.

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    Thanx Fredrik :) I was referring more to Layers :)

    Also…I kind of understand the whole thing, but a little hitch…I know where the eyedropper tool is, but how do you actually set the white and black point? What steps do I need to take? Also “work with levels in a separate layer” – do I just duplicate the layer of the existing photo?

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    Dominik Hahn (1 Point) June 11, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    I like your tutorials a lot and I visit your site almost daily. :)

    You have a small paragraph about sharpening. One method I like a lot is:

    Dublicate the image, choose ‘Filter -> Other -> High Pass’ – the maximum value I use is ’1′ (Pixel). Using a higher value often results in an image that is unnaturally sharp but everything between 0 and 1 should work.

    Now set the ‘Blending Mode’ of that layer to ‘Hard Light’ or ‘Overlay’.

    Done. :)

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    esmanhotto (1 Point) June 11, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    When it is hard to identify white and black points, try to find them on different threshold layers. It helps me a lot.

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    The Hue setting will change all the colors in the image, such as replace reds with blues (moving the colors around so to speak) and this is not a good way to change color. If you want a different color for the photo it’s better to achieve it with settings like Levels or the others described above. Changing the Hue will make your photograph look weird, manipulated and is often unflattering – there might be some instances where it can be a benefit, but more that’s not often.

    Lightness does what it should, it lightens up the photo. But again, there’s better ways to do this that will give you more control, such as Curves or Levels. Lightness is just not the best tool for the job.

    I’m assuming you’re talking about using the RGB option on let’s say Levels? If so, that means it will effect ALL the colors. Sometimes you can select to just use the RED, GREEN or BLUE channel, and the changes will only affect those channels.
    If you’re referring to RGB in a different way, like comparing it to CMYK that’s a different thing so please let me know what you were referring to. And there’s different RGB color spaces, like sRGB and Adobe RGB – and that’s, again, a very different thing.

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    “Stay away from Hue and Lightness unless you know what you’re doing.”

    Can you please explain it more closely? Like what do they do etc.?

    Also about RGB, what difference it makes in the post-production, what is it exactly and what’s the use of it?

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