Photoshop Color Correction: How to make your pictures more vibrant

This tutorial was written using Adobe Photoshop CS2 in order to reach a wider audience; however, the same techniques may be applied in Photoshop CS3.

There are many factors that can affect the quality of a photo on your website. The clouds, the sun, even the light-bouncing qualities of the objects in focus. Often times, it may be better to take a dark photo that can be corrected by computer, rather than risking over-exposure to achieve a vibrant image. Here is a “before and after” example of what you’ll be learning in this tutorial.

Step 1 – Adjusting Levels

Changing the levels of a layer is really just a quick way to adjust the brightness/contrast of an image. First, let’s apply a new adjustment layer. To do this, click the ‘create new adjustment layer‘ icon from the layers window, then select ‘Levels…

You’ll see what looks like a black bar-graph. The graph gives an overview of the light and dark levels of the image.

The left end shows the blackest blacks while the right shows the whitest whites. As you can see in the image, there is a decent sized gap on both sides of our graph. This means that the black in our image is really more of a gray, and our white isn’t very bright.

There are three markers below the graph; one for black, white, and mid-tones. By moving the black marker to the beginning of the graph’s “wave,” we make our shadows appear more black. The same can be done with the white arrow on the right to brighten the highlights of our image. It’s usually best to adjust the mid-tone marker last. I suggest keeping it in its original position (1.0) in most cases as it tends to make the photo look faded. Use your judgment.

Step 2 – Masking Mistakes

When we changed our highlights we made the sky appear to be over-exposed. This is easily correctable by applying a layer mask to the levels layer we just created.

Ensure that the “levels” layer is selected in the Layers window, then click the ‘add layer mask‘ icon, located directly next to the ‘create adjustment layer‘ icon.

Using a black paintbrush, paint over the sky area. You’ll notice that the original color reappears. If you make a mistake, simply change the brush color to white to reapply the mask where necessary. You can also use gray if you want to partially apply the filter in certain areas.

Step 3 – Color Overlay

The first two steps are usually enough to make most old pictures look 100% better. But why stop there when being creative is so much fun?! What our canyon picture now lacks is “natural” breath-taking colors. So, we’re left with no choice but to digitally thwart Mother Nature’s perfect creation.

Start by adding a new layer and use the paint bucket to fill the layer with red. From the Layers window, select your new layer and change the blend mode to “Overlay” and adjust the Opacity to around 15%.

The stone (and everything else) now appears more red. It’s time for some cosmetic touch ups. Notice the slight color variation in the rock wall? Let’s emphasize that a bit. Get out your paintbrush and select a yellow color. With the red layer selected, paint over the highlights to make them more apparent.

Step 4 – More Masks!

Once again, we fixed one thing only to break another. Let’s resurrect the plant life from the early grave we sent it to. With the red layer selected, add a new layer mask.

Trying to paint precisely over each leaf is not only unbearably tedious, but nearly impossible with this over-compressed cloud of pixels. To ease the processes, use the gradient tool with black as the primary color, and white as the secondary color. Now, with the mask selected, click and drag upward as illustrated in the images below.

This gives us a gradual transition with the plants in our foreground, making the next edits less apparent to the viewer. Now back to familiar ground, pull out that black paint brush and have a blast with those plants. To help you on your adventure, a quick keyboard shortcut… the ‘[‘ and ‘]’ keys can be used to quickly resize your paintbrush for those hard to reach places. As long as you use a soft brush (hardness set to 0%), you’ll find that being exact isn’t necessary.

One final touch; while our gradient worked wonders on the plants, it made the ground look out of place. If we apply the full overlay then we’ll lose that separation. The solution is to paint gray over that section in order to partially apply the mask, giving the ground a slightly reddish tint while maintaining that pop-out effect.

There you have it! A nigh-perfect billboard representation of a vacation hot-spot, set and ready to catch the eye of tourists from all four corners of the globe!

Download the PSD (Photoshop Document) from this tutorial.