Photoshop tutorial: Use Curves to enhance a photo

How to make a group shot subtly more dynamic by applying some of Photoshop's adjustment layers and blending modes.

Intro


Colour is an emotional medium. It works on both primeval and cultural levels to identify feelings, causes, movements and styles. Apps like Instagram recolour images to give them associations that they didn’t previously have – warmer images, for example, seem happier. 

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Photoshop’s Curves adjustments works in a similar way, by mediating between the light that comes through the lens and the final image. In this tutorial, leading urban sports photographer Chris Hill-Scott will show you how careful use of this adjustment can make an image look closer to the original scene, and how you can creatively modify its colour to give it a different feeling. 

This tutorial will use a promo shot of London-based band Kids Love Lies. You’ll learn to bring depth and richness to the shadows, and warmth to the skin tones of the band members for a look reminiscent of old slide film.

In the project files, you’ll find both the original photo and Chris’ final layered PSD for reference.

Time to complete

20 minutes

Tools

Photoshop

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

Step 1

STEP 1

Start with a flat image – you want the tones spread across the histogram, without too much bunching up at either end. Either set this up in Camera Raw when you open your raw file – or if your image is already in Photoshop, modify the black and white points with a Levels adjustment. In the project files, this has been done for you. 

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Step 2

STEP 2

Click the Add Adjustment Layer button in the Layers panel (it looks like a half moon) and select Curves. In the Properties panel that opens up, add a point about one quarter of the way along the line by clicking on it. 

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Drag this point downwards as shown. This will make the image darker because at each step along the now-curved line, the input value corresponds with a lower output value.

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Step 3

STEP 3

Now add another point three quarters of the way along the line. Drag this point upwards until the middle of the line crosses through the middle of the grid. 

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This will create a classic S-curve, which increases the contrast of the image without making it darker or lighter overall – in other words, dark tones become darker, while the light tones are made lighter.


Step 4

STEP 4

Add two more points to refine the contrast of the image and modify their position as shown. Targeting the extreme highlights and shadows to stop them getting brighter or darker is closer to how traditional film responds to light. It’s better to overdo the effect, so it’s easier to see and then change it afterwards.

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Step 5

STEP 5

One of the great things about adjustment layers is that you can tweak them non-destructively. Moderate the effect of your adjustment layer by changing its opacity – 60% looks about right. Hit 6 when you have the Move tool selected. 

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Step 6

STEP 6

You can also change the layer’s blending mode – try ‘luminosity’. The image will now keep its increased black/white contrast without any increase in colour contrast – in other words, without increased saturation. As a rule, the less work each layer does, the more control you have.

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Step 7

STEP 7

Now you have some understanding of the way curves work, we’re going to see how they can alter colour by adjusting the curves of each of the primary colours as their own curve. Add a new Curves adjustment layer and set its blending mode to Color.

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Step 8

STEP 8

In the Properties panel, select the grey point Eyedropper tool (the middle one). Next, click on an area of the image without any colour; for example, the grey wall in the background. You’ll see each of the three curves move. This is a quick and easy way of correcting any colour casts that the camera or lighting might have introduced.

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Step 9

STEP 9

Now we’re going to enhance the colours. From the top drop-down menu that currently says RGB, select just the Blue channel. As with the previous curves layer, add a point one quarter of the way along the curve, but this time drag it upwards. This will make every part of the image – from the shadows to the highlights – more blue than it was before.

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Step 10

STEP 10

We don’t really want a blue image, but cooling down the shadows is a good step, so make another point on the line, about three quarters of the way up. Drag this point down so the highlights are back to neutral. 

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Now drag it down further, making the light areas less blue than the original image. Because the complementary colour of blue is yellow this will give our highlights a nice warm glow.


Step 11

STEP 11

Blue and yellow isn’t exactly right – the skin tones especially make the band look a bit unwell, so we’re going to adjust the green channel. Take the middle of the curve and drag it down. This pushes the blue shadows towards purple and the yellow highlights towards orange.

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Step 12

STEP 12

Often an image can benefit from local adjustments. In this case, the lead singer’s arms are very bright and draw the eye out of the frame, so we need to target the bottom third of the image. A Curves adjustment layer can do this too, so create a new one now.

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Before making any adjustment, we want to add a layer mask. Take your gradient tool (Shift + G), and ensure your foreground and background colours are white and black (D). Now draw a vertical line (holding Shift while dragging the cursor) from the bottom of the image up to the singer’s chin. This curves adjustment layer will now only apply to the white part of the layer mask.


Step 13

STEP 13

In the Properties panel, drag the black line down just like in Step 2. It might also look good to push the whole bottom of the image’s shadows into the purple, so select the green channel and drag that curve down by about the same amount.

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Step 14

STEP 14

Go back through each of your layers, tweaking the opacity until you get a good balance, and you’re done. 

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