3 simple photo enhancements

Focus, Vignette and Sepia – three simple effects to enhance your photos.

This tutorial will delve a little deeper into working with layers while giving you three really simple but cool effects for getting creative and artistic with your photos. A very popular portrait technique has been to use a filter that creates a blurred edge effect with a focused center. I know some photographers who created this by smearing ring of petroleum jelly around a UV filter on the front of their lens. Well, Photoshop can give us a much less messy way to achieve this look. In addition to the blurred edges (sometimes called a focus vignette) we’re going to darken them as well and then finally give the image an overall sepia-tone treatment.

My cat, Copper, was more than happy to curl up and strike a pose for this project. Now, personally I love this image pretty much as it is, but I also like to create different looks depending on the project I’m working on. So let’s get a little creative with this one.

  1. Load up the original image from the end of this post (or one of your own if you have something you want to play with). Start off by duplicating the background layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J). Go up to the top of your toolbox and select the elliptical selection tool. In the tool settings along the top enter in a value of about 40-60 in the “Feather” box (the bigger the number, the more gradual your effect will fade out of focus). Then draw a nice big circular selection around Copper’s fuzzy face. If you’re not familiar with the “Feather” effect this is simply making your selection have soft faded edges rather than a sharp line. To actually see what this looks like, go over to your toolbox and just under the foreground/background selection boxes there are two buttons. The one on the right is a dark rectangle with a hole in it that lets you “Edit in Quick Mask mode”.
    Quick Mask

    Click this and you will see that your selection turns into a “mask” like the image to the right. The selected area shows normal while the area that is not selected has been highlighted in red – the same as when we use layer masks to hide part of a layer. This functions the same way as the layer mask in that you can edit it with a black or white brush, gradient, etc. Once your selection looks right it will need to be inverted since we want to blur the edges, not Copper’s face! Go to Select > Inverse and you’ll see the selection flip.

  2. Now go up to filters and select Filter > Blur > Gausian Blur. Pick a good amount of blur – it’s ok if you think it might be too much because you can use the opacity settings on the layer to reduce this effect later if you want. I chose 8.5 pixels. Apply the filter and adjust the layer transparency to get the amount of blur you want.
  3. Viola! Can’t get much easier than that…nice blurry edges! Don’t turn off your selection just yet though (if you did, undo it!!) Let’s darken those edges just a bit to enhance the vignette. Create a new layer (click on the folded page button at the bottom of the layers window). Now grab the paint bucket and fill the selected area with black. You should get a solid black edge fading to a transparent center.
  4. To make this effect really work we need it to be more subtle. One of the most powerful features of layers is Blending Modes. These can be accessed at the top of the layers palette where you see the word “Normal” with a drop arrow next to it. Click there and you’ll have a big menu of options. Play with this as much as you want…with simple black layer we have right now many of them won’t look any different, but there are few options that will give a good look here depending on the image you’re working with. Overlay and Soft Light are two really good ones and if you want to reduce the color in the edges Hue, Saturation and Color at the bottom of the list will all have that effect (with a simple black layer like what we have here). For this image I picked Soft Light and then reduced the transparency of the layer to 78% (the shadows were just a bit too dark for my taste J). One little trick here – to quickly scroll through the different layer blending modes without clicking on each of them,  go up and pick the Move tool from the toolbox and then double-click in the blending modes box so that it’s highlighted but not expanded. You can then use the up and down arrow keys to browse the different effects and see how they impact your image. Oh, and if you would rather have the vignette make the edges lighter – you want it to be white instead of black. Go up to Image > Adjustments > Invert. You may need to readjust the blending mode and transparency to get the look you want.
  5. Now to create a nice sepia-tone look we’re going to dive into using special layers known as Adjustment Layers. These nifty little things allow you to enhance the image you’re working on without actually altering anything permanently. If you were to boost the brightness and contrast of a picture by just applying it the image, you’ve changed the pixels in the image and if you decide to change this later you may run into some problems with degrading the image – if you boost brightness to the point where you lose some highlight detail, you won’t be able to get that back!!! With an adjustment layer you can change this at any time without these worries because the main image layer stays just the way it is. So without further ado, look down at the bottom edge of your layers palette and pick the split dark and light circle to create a new adjustment layer. In the menu that pops up select Hue/Saturation. To tone the entire image you want to select the “Colorize” check box and then slide the Hue slider until you get a nice brown color (36). Bring down the Saturation a bit to 31, and the Lightness to -4. These are just the numbers that I liked…feel free to experiment and make your image as crazy as you want it to be. Copper probably won’t mind if you really want to make him a purple kitty.
  6. The image looks pretty neat just like this but I wanted to make it a little more bright and airy looking. Let’s create another adjustment layer, but this time select Levels from the menu. You might wonder why I didn’t go with Brightness/Contrast…well, without getting into too much technical stuff, Levels gives you better control. Just boosting brightness will cause a loss of depth in the shadows and blown-out highlights because it increases the brightness of ever pixel by the same amount. With Levels, you can keep the black and white points the same while boosting or reducing the mid-tones. In the Levels window, pick the grey slider in the middle just below the histogram and slide it to the left. You can also just type in a number in the center “input Levels” window. My choice was 1.94 but feel free to play with this to get the look you want. It might seem a little counter-intuitive to slide the pointer to the left in order to brighten the image. What this is doing is telling Photoshop to change the point where mid-grey is relative to pure black and white. If you move middle grey to a point closer to black, more of the remaining tones in the image will be toward the white side and vice-versa. I’m sure there’s a more technically correct way of saying that, but Copper didn’t know what it was so I’ll have to get back to you on that…
  7. Remember I said that you could go back and change these adjustment layers anytime???  Just double-click on either of the adjustment layers and you’ll see the corresponding dialog window open up again with the settings you selected right there. You can also see the original image anytime just by clicking the little eye icon in the layer to turn it off. Pretty cool stuff!!

Here’s the original image for you to play with:

Original Image

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