Tweaking digital pictures for the best quality

Week of December 21, 2003

Q: In a recent column, you mentioned that with “adjusting the [digital] pictures on your computer, the Digital Rebel can produce professional image quality that exceed 35-millimeter film”.   What are some of these adjustments that should be made? I have Adobe Photoshop Elements…and I’m in the process of learning it. I would like to make my digital pictures look a bit better…especially skin tones, which sometimes look a little flat!

-Lynn Jenn, Lakeville, MN

A: Adobe Photoshop Elements is a great tool to improve your photographs. It is probably the best consumer-level imaging software available.

In past columns I have spoken highly of Epson’s PRINT Image matching (P.I.M.) system. If your camera supports P.I.M., there is a supplement to the software called a plug-in that will allow you to use the P.I.M. system with Photoshop Elements. This alone may clear up the flat look of your skin tones. You can download the plug-in at

There are two adjustments all Photoshop Elements users should be familiar with if they want to bring out the best in their images. These are called “Levels” and “Unsharp Mask”.   If you do not own Photoshop Elements, you are not necessarily left out. Programs such as Paint Shop Pro allow you to adjust levels and sharpness, though the controls are not as elegant as the Adobe products.

In Photoshop Elements 2.0 layers can be added so you can easily see the affects individually. Owners of older versions such as Photoshop L.E. may want to upgrade to take advantage of the layers, but if they do not levels can still be adjusted.

Before you make any adjustments to your photographs, save your jpg pictures as tiff or Photoshop files before you proceed. Continually re-saving jpgs will cause the images to degrade over time.

First create a new adjustment layer for levels. You do this by selecting Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels. You will see a graph called a histogram and three triangles below it, black on the left, gray in the middle, and white on the right.   The histogram displays the color information in the image. If the graph runs off the right of the chart, you have overexposed and highlights are lost. If it runs off to the left, the image is shadow detail is lost.

To adjust levels, drag the black triangle towards the right until it is beneath where the histogram curve starts. You will see changes in your image as you do this. Do the same to the white triangle, but drag it to the left. Then, adjust the midpoint triangle until you like the way it looks. Be careful not to over-adjust any of the controls or your image will look harsh.

After you are done, select Window>Layers so you can see the adjustment layer. You will see an eyeball to the left of the layer you just created. Click it on and off to see the difference. If you have adjusted correctly, without the adjustment layer it will look flat and gray.  

To use Unsharp Mask, select View>actual pixels. Go to the layers window and select the background. Find the eyes of your subject- if the eyes are sharp, the portrait is sharp. Next, go to Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask. Start at around 50%-60%. When you click preview you will clearly see the difference. Be careful not to over-sharpen or your images get noisy (looks grainy).

Almost all digital images benefit from some sharpening, so try it with whatever software you own.. Though your images may look very good, it is surprising how a little bit of Unsharp Mask brings out highlights and detail.

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