Have you ever processed your photos and just came up short when trying to add some “pop” and “oomph” to them?
Have you fiddled around in Photoshop and come up short when trying to zest up that special shot?
I’m not talking about psychedelic HDR vibes…just that “Wow” factor that brings the photo to life and makes the viewer stare a few seconds longer (regardless of content – I’m just talking about clarity and quality).
Well, today I am going to reveal one way to do that. It’s not the only way, and it is certainly not the “best” way (who knows what is the best way to do anything in Photoshop, right?). I will ask you to make sure you’ve studied Mark Dumbleton‘s previous tutorial in depth, because it will make things a bit easier in this one.
I will refer to masking and selective sharpening here too.
The Unsharp Mask tool is a favourite of many photographers for final sharpening of their images. It’s the traditional tool in Photoshop for sharpening. In recent editions of Photoshop (starting with CS3, I think) there has been another sharpening tool called “Smart Sharpen”, which is the one I prefer to use for final sharpening.
I do still use “Unsharp Mask”…but I use it for a different function.
It’s called LOCAL CONTRAST ENHANCEMENT.
Fancy name, yes, but the name and the action I owe to a good online friend and mentor called Robert Amoruso.
I’m not going to go into fancy Photoshop jargon, but suffice it to say that if used in a certain way (with certain parameters), the “Unsharp Mask” tool can add amazing impact to an image by enhancing midtone contrast and local contrast on important edges and features of the image on a pixel-level. From here on out I will refer to the “Unsharp Mask” tool as USM.
Deal with it! 😉
Local Contrast Enhancement
Take note upfront that this technique won’t work equally well on every single photo, and oftentimes it may be necessary to adjust the parameters to make it work for that particular photo, or even to refrain from using it altogether.
Here’s my first example photo. Before LCE on top, and after LCE at the bottom.
You’ll have to look twice and long, as the key to good application of LCE is subtle differences, which don’t show up well when looking at first glance and at face value.
I’ve found it works well for wildlife photos that had low natural contrast – as LCE tends to overdo contrast on scenes where there was direct sunlight on your subject.
The LCE action also works very well for landscapes that need a little punch – as in the following example.
The How To
Let’s assume you’re working on a full resolution file.
You can find the Unsharp Mask tool in the following path in Photoshop:
FILTER >> SHARPEN >> UNSHARP MASK
Normally, assuming you are working on the full resolution file, your sharpening settings for the USM tool would look something like this:
You’ll notice the above workflow is based on a high percentage and a low pixel radius. For LCE, we flip it around…thus aim for a low percentage effect application, but a high pixel radius of application, like this:
Remember, I was working on the full resolution image. I generally like to apply LCE before any final sharpening is applied (see Mark’s tutorial for that) – because LCE can augment any previous sharpening applied and I’ve found it works best if applied earlier in the workflow.
Depending on the intended use for the file, I might choose to downsample for posting on the web, and then apply LCE on the downsized file.
If you apply the same settings as above, you’ll see it beginning to look funky (think about it, you’re using the same pixel radius but on a much smaller image). Here’s my recommended setup for a typical 1024px wide or 800px high photo:
You’ll notice that I only reduced the pixel radius.
The “Amount” is also yours to play with – I merely settle on 20-25% most of the time. LCE is a fickle mistress and you need to apply it with discretion. One of my favourite ways to control the outcome is through masking.
Sometimes you really want it to be even more subtle than this setting. You can either play with the radius and amount, or simply duplicate your base layer, apply LCE, add a mask and then paint through the mask with a black brush to hide areas/parts of the image where you don’t want the LCE to be applied to.
Mark did a fine job of showing a quick way to get to a duplicate masked layer, so again, I refer you to his post. In the photo of the lioness above, I’d typically want to minimise or remove the effect of the LCE on the surrounding plains, and focus it on the lioness alone. Again I want to emphasise – subtlety is key. I’d rather do two passes of a light application of this tweak, than do one heavy application.
You may think that this sounds like a helluva lotta work to add simple contrast. I cannot convince you with mere eloquence of speech.
Take an image.
Apply these steps.
Save the result.
Take the same image.
Apply normal “brightness/contrast” in Photoshop.
Save the result. Compare.
Draw your own conclusions.
I’ve found LCE to do a much better job in adding effective contrast subtly (if applied correctly).
I hope I’ve been clear and succinct. Please do drop me a comment underneath this post with any questions you might have.
Keep your eyes on the Wild Eye website as we’re soon to announce some dates for my specialised workshop focusing on many techniques like this: “Advanced Processing for Wildlife Photography“.