Aiming High

Every image can be improved in Photoshop, even well lit portraits. You may find that a simple Levels or Curves adjustment is enough to brighten up flesh tones to you the result you want and while this Photoshop technique is more involved, it can have a major benefit to portraits – especially high-key images. This tutorial was done in Photoshop CS5 and took about ten minutes.

1. Start by copying
Open the image and start by selecting it all by going to Select>All, and Edit>Copy or Crtl+C (Windows) or Cmd+C (Mac) to copy the image to the clipboard. In the Layers Palette go to Create a new fill or new adjustment layer icon and choose Levels.

2. Adjust the gamma
In the Levels dialogue panel, move the middle gamma slider to the left. The aim is to make the highlights even brighter and any shadows will look very thin. Don’t worry about how the tones look for now. For this image, we got to a gamma value of 3.10.

3. Masking matters
Hold down the Alt key (Windows) or the Option key (Mac) and click on the Layer mark thumbnail in the Layers Palette. This will make the image preview window completely white.

4. Greyscale mask
Now go to Edit>Paste or Ctrl+V (Windows) or Cmd+V (Mac). This will add a greyscale version of the image to the layer mask. The darker areas of the mask will stop the Levels adjustment being affected more than the lighter areas. Go to Select to Deselect or Ctrl+D or Cmd+D.

5. Another levels adjustment
Go to Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast. In the dialogue box move the Brightness slider to the right until the flesh tones are very bright. You don’t want to lose any dark tones, but in our picture going to a setting of +115 still retained shadow details. Click OK to apply the brightness change to the layer mask.

6. Another levels adjustment
Next, we’re going to make a Levels adjustment to the adjustment layer mask. Go to Image>Adjustments>Levels and move the Black slider to 30 to clip the dark tones in the mask to black. Also move the White input slider to 235 to clean up the highlights. Every image is different so you need to experiment here. Click OK.

7. Fine-tuning the mask
Hold down the Ctrl ley (Windows) or Cmd key (Mac) and click on the layer mask thumbnail to load the mask as a selection. In the Layers palette click on the Create a new fill or adjustment layer icon and select Brightness/Contrast. Move the Brightness slider to the right to get the effect you want.

8. Final step: Revisit contrast
You can now fine-tune your image by going back to the Levels adjustment layer and adjusting the middle gamma slider to the right to decrease contrast. Go to Layer>Flatten image once you are entirely happy with the image, or save with the layers if you feel you may come back to the image at a later date.

Taken from the April 2011 issue of Advanced Photographer magazine