Photo toning for beginners
May 29, 2007 8:53 AM   Subscribe

A (very) amateur photographer needs help with toning photos in Photoshop.

I'm a very amateur photographer. I have a Canon 10D SLR, and I understand how to shoot photos. I understand the ideas behind shutter speed, aperture, white balancing, ISO speeds, etc.

I also have a beginner's understanding of photo toning. I've worked at a few different newspapers and during that time have picked up some tricks for quickly turning a mediocre photo into something much better.

I'd like to learn more, though. I don't want to read an entire book--as most of what would be in any digital photography book is probably more than I'll need. What I'd like to know how to do is take a photo through the a toning process that is consistent and reliable. I want to be able to turn my (admittedly) neophyte photos into sharp, contrasty gems that will make me proud to post to Flickr, and that I can replicate relatively easily.

I'm looking for online, step-by-step tutorials for this process. Currently I use a mix of curves, levels and unsharp mask to get my photos looking decent, but I feel like there's a lot more I could be doing. I'd like to find a five to fifteen minute process I can use for making my photos look as good as they can.

posted by dead_ to Technology (14 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
This tutorial from Photocritic is a good introduction to the proper use of the Levels tool, although I do take issue with a few things he says. (In particular, I don't think you should blow your highlights up to 'paper white' without very good reason -- optimally, you want to have detail throughout your photo, even in the highlights, and that means they shouldn't be blown out.)

Don't know of any overall 'toning' tutorials that cover all the tools, although I suspect you can easily find tutorials on each (Curves, Saturation, etc.) separately, fairly easily.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:04 AM on May 29, 2007

Radiant Vista's tutorial on Essential Adjustment Layers is extremely helpful in establishing that kind of workflow.

All of the others are worth a try, too, and will cover more advanced photo-specific techniques like reclaiming detail in highlights, converting to B&W, and manual masking for HDR from multiple exposures.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:16 AM on May 29, 2007

Toning generally means the adding of a colour cast to monochrome images, like a sepia tone.

It sounds to me you mean what used to be called printing in the darkroom days -- taking a flat image and giving it contrast and oomph -- dodging, burning, all that.

This is an art rather than a science. You're trying to balance pools of light and shade, to accentuate contrast in areas of interest and soften out irrelevant areas. It's really hard to describe in this comment box.

I used to work with a team that did just that, and basically curves, levels, the info palette, and a selection with a nice high feather is all you need. They are the equivalent of the darkroom's hands, and applied correctly you'll get something that looks printed, rather than Photoshopped.

One thing that I would recommend, especially for all-over control of the image (as so beloved by American ethicists who think that anything more is heathen manipulation) is Lab mode. Go forth and get Photoshop Lab colour for a really deep introduction.
posted by bonaldi at 9:31 AM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Toning is the proper term in the American photographer's lexicon for what dead_ is describing. In the digital darkroom, that's just what it's called.

My best friend in photoshop is the history brush. Learn it, live it, love it.

Here's a basic tutorial. Don't think about using it so much for cheesy desaturation effects like in the tutorial, but for painting light. Never use the dodge or burn tools. Use the history brush.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 9:51 AM on May 29, 2007

The Radiant Vista is a really useful source of this kind of info. This tutorial sounds like it describes a process similar to what you're looking for.
posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 9:52 AM on May 29, 2007 has a lot of great, extended Photoshop tutorials in video form, and a great deal if you’ve got fast internet: $25 for a month of total online access to all titles. In particular, I found Chris Orwig’s offering life-altering on basic photo-fixing, after years of mucking about in PS based on haphazard reading.
This one on Channels and Masks is excellent, too, and don’t overlook the trainings from earlier versions; I particularly enjoyed the one on Shortcuts.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:40 AM on May 29, 2007

Toning is the proper term in the American photographer's lexicon for what dead_ is describing. In the digital darkroom, that's just what it's called.

Well, you learn all the time. Sorry for traducing you, dead_ !

What do US photogs calling the thing UKers calling "toning"?
posted by bonaldi at 4:17 PM on May 29, 2007

Here is tip #1: Unsharp mask, radius 255, amount 10%.
posted by kindall at 6:32 PM on May 29, 2007

What do US photogs calling the thing UKers calling "toning"?

I've always heard it referred to as "post-processing."
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:05 PM on May 29, 2007

OP: "five to fifteen minutes in photoshop" and "making your images look as good as they can" qualifies as an oxymoron :D.

That said, here are some ideas I found useful when it comes to the whole sharp, contrasty look:

This flickr thread discusses a technique called "high pass sharpening". The results are usually very noticeable and as a bonus, is quite simple to convert into an action (which is always a good thing).. Down-side: halo-ing on low-key images.

For improving contrast in colour images, the "reverse USM" technique discussed in this article can be quite useful. Be careful though - too much and you will wind up with a "watercolour image" effect.

Finally, the initial posts on this forum thread has a fairly extensive discussion on using LAB colour for contrast.

Of course, one of the coolest options for sharp, contrasty images is converting to B&W.

Once you are in B&W, the possibilities for contrast are really quite enormous.. and the oft-disparaged dodge/burn tools finally become useful (Non destructive dodge/burn covered here)

One of the best technqiues I have discovered so far is the Gorman-Holbert technique - detailed steps for creating an action are discussed in this PDF. The best part of this technique is that it rolls sharpening, levels, and toning the B&W all into one package.

Some other useful techniques for B&W conversion can be found in this flickr thread.

One last thing - The photoshop support group on Flickr is a very useful place for picking up new techniques - I recommend it highly.
posted by your mildly obsessive average geek at 12:06 AM on May 30, 2007


I feel like I've been waiting years for this question to be asked. I thought, like you probably do, that getting photos to look "better" was kind of a crap shoot. Nope, no way, nuh uh. It's just as much a science. When I discovered that there was a method to doing this, I was shocked. I'd been using Photoshop for years and my jaw dropped when I found this.

Everybody else here has good ideas and tutorials but they are mostly just simplified (or extra complicated) versions of Dan Margulis' techniques. Bonaldi mentioned his Lab Color book and it's great, but Professional Photoshop is an even better place to start. If you are serious about color correction, get Professional Photoshop now! This instant! You said you don't have time to read a book, well the first few chapters will be good enough. But you'll come back to the rest when you flip through and see his improvements on his shots.

Here: these PDF versions of chapters will convince you. I am positive of it.
Color by the Numbers goes over how, by using the info palette, we can judge the highlights, shadows and neutral. This might be all you need. Sharpening with a Stiletto is all about how to sharpen, which will go a long way.

Here's a shot I did Before and after. It's a bit too contrasty, but this was done a year or so ago and I've gotten a lot better. The problem is, I usually just replace the shots now on my flickr. Here's another before and after

This is a topic I am very passionate about. I'm gonna stop now before I get into posting how to do custom CMYK conversions to increase shadow detail, how to do straight line AB curves to boost color saturation, using Apply Image to do channel blends, etc.

Doing contrast with levels does help, but levels is really just a 3 point straight line Curve. And curves are much more powerful and less likely to go awry. High pass sharpening is a variation of what Dan and his list call "Hiraloam Sharpening". It is sharpening that uses a high radius, but a low amount.
posted by Brainy at 1:52 PM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

On a closer rereading, here is are processes you could set up for a Photoshop Action. I use a very similar process in handing product photography shots.

Before you do this, open up curves and Alt-click or shift-click or whatever the shortcut is on the gridlines in the curve box to change to a 10x10 grid

3. Convert to LAB
2. Bring up the Curves dialog box.
3. in the L channel set the curve so that the lightest points are light (95L in the info palette) and the darkest points are dark (5L in info).
4. Add points elsewhere in the curve to add midtone contrast if you want
5. Apply Curves

1. Convert to LAB
2. Bring up Curves
3. Drag the top and bottom corners of the A channel one gridline (1/10th) towards the center of the box so that the curve becomes steeper. Make sure the center of the curve still passes over the center of the grid.
4. Do the same thing with the B
5. Apply Curves

Setting a Neutral
this one won't work EVERY time, particularly in digital photos where the cameras hammer a neutral black point in. You might notice your shadows going blue. If so, either don't use this, or use it on a separate layer and mask out the darker areas
1. Convert to LAB
2. Bring up Curves
3. Switch to A channel
3. Cmd/Ctrl click on a point in your photo that should be neutral
4. in the Output box, set it to 0
5. Do the same thing in the B channel

Better Shape
1. Bring up Unsharp Mask on the L Channel.
2. Set the amount to 500, radius to 0, threshold to 0 (ugly, right?)
3. Increase the Radius until it starts to obliterate details you want to keep (look past the ugly). When you've reached the point of detail oblitteration, back off a tiny bit.
4. Set the amount down to like 20 and increase until it looks really really great.

Better Detail
One way
1. Bring up Unsharp Mask on the L Channel.
2. Set the amount to 500, radius to 5, threshold to 0 (ugly, right?)
3. Increase the threshold until you stop sharpening the noise/grain/etc.
4. Bring the radius down until it looks good
5. Finally, bring the amount down (if you need to)

Another way
1. Image > Duplicate
On duplicate image:
2. Find Convert to Profile (it switches in PS versions) Pick Custom CMYK. Select Medium (or Heavier) GCR (gray component removal). Apply
3. Ctrl/Cmd 4 to view the Black channel.
4. Ctrl/Cmd A to select all
5. Ctrl/Cmd C to copy
On original image
6. Convert to LAB
7. Ctrl/Cmd V to paste your black channel from the other document
8. Set this new layer's blend mode to multiply.
9. Duplicate the new layer to make a more drastic change.

Yet another way
1. Convert to CMYK
2. Sharpen black (use Detail unsharp techniques above. You should be able to get a much higher usable radius though)
3. Convert to RGB

1. Ctrl/Cmd 2 to select the Green channel
2. Ctrl/Cmd C to copy it
3. Ctrl/Cmd ` to select the composite channel
4. Ctrl/Cmd V to paste the green (it will go into a new layer)
5. Set bending mode of new layer to luminosity

I'll add more if I think of them.
posted by Brainy at 2:39 PM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's Dan's 5 minute recipie for wedding shots. My notes are in parenthesis.
We make sure that the images don't all have a cast

enhance the highlights and shadows,
(I believe he means with the highlights/shadows command)

then apply the green channel to the RGB as a luminosity layer
(Copy Green, paste on new layer, luminosity blending mode)

apply a further contrast enhancement to the green channel on this luminosity layer (slightly better than doing it to the L later)
(Apply an S curve)

convert to LAB

use overlays to create color variation in the skintone
(Select the A channel, Image > Apply Image, Apply the A channel to itself in Overlay mode, do the same to the B)

load inverted luminosity as a selection
Ctrl+Alt+Shift + `or control+shift click on the composite channel

conventional sharpen
(High amount, low radius)


hiraloam sharpen
(low amount, high radius)

back to RGB and save.
posted by Brainy at 9:46 AM on June 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

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