Image editors are packed with plenty of adjustment tools. Most of us learn a few of them, and then do the best we can with our photos. And that’s not such a bad thing, since you can improve just about any picture using only a handful of adjustments. The trick is knowing which ones.
I’m going to walk you through seven basic adjustments in Aperture 3.4 that will clean up 90 percent of your images: Crop, White Balance, Exposure, Enhance, Highlights & Shadows, Color, and Edge Sharpen.
Many of these tools should already reside in your Adjustments Inspector. You can add any tool that isn’t already present by clicking the Add Adjustment pop-up menu at the top of the inspector and then selecting the tool from the list. If you want to keep the adjustment in your default set for future work, click the gear icon inside the adjustment brick and choose Add to default set. It will then remain in the Adjustments Inspector.
There’s so much you can do with each of these adjustment bricks—more, in fact, than what I’m going to explain in this article. But for those times when you need to get a lot of pictures in shape quickly, it’s hard to beat the basics. So let’s take a look at them.
Step 1: Crop
You can improve most images by tightening up the composition. In this sunflower image, for example, I want to eliminate the fuzzy sunflower on the right side, since it feels distracting. Cropping it away fixes that.
Step 2: White Balance
The overall color of a scene strongly influences the mood of a photo. My example image was captured at twilight, and has warm tones. I may stick with that feel, but I like to explore my options.
Start by clicking Auto in the White Balance brick. Aperture presents an alternative view with either Temperature & Tint, Natural Gray, or Skin Tone. You can cycle through the alternatives via the pop-up menu. Find the look that comes closest to your tastes. You can then fine-tune the color using the sliders.
If you don’t like any of the options and want to return to the original white balance setting, click the Reset arrow next to the gear icon.
For my image, I decide to cool things off a bit by moving the Temperature slider to the left.
Step 3: Exposure
As I look at the image and its corresponding histogram (at the top of the Adjustments Inspector), it strikes me as just a little flat; the low sun reduced the overall contrast of the scene. The histogram presents a graphical view of this effect—the tones are gathered in the middle of the graph and don’t reach either side.
In the Exposure brick, we have three sliders to improve the luminance of an image: Exposure (highlights, right side of the histogram), Black Point (dark tones, left side of the histogram), and Brightness (middle tones).
I decide to increase both Black Point and Exposure by moving those sliders to the right. As I do that, the histogram shows the data moving closer to the edges of the graph. Once I set the Exposure and Black Point, I use the Brightness slider to adjust for taste. In this case, I move it to the left to darken the middle tones. (You should always adjust Brightness after Exposure and Black Point.)
The result? I add a little punch to the image. As a by-product, however, the highlights on the yellow petals seem to lose some detail. The Recovery slider will help me regain some of that highlight detail, but I'll work on those petals in the next section.
If you don’t know exactly what your image needs, but you think it could use a little exposure improvement, try the Auto button in the Exposure brick. It will give you a good starting point, and then you can fine-tune using the sliders.
Step 4: Highlights & Shadows
We're going to skip the Enhance brick for a moment. First, we can recover detail with the top two sliders in the next brick: Highlights and Shadows. The shadows in my example image are fine—I don’t need to do any work in that respect—but I still want more information in the yellow petals. By moving the Highlights slider to the right, I regain detail.
I’m not going to play with the Mid Contrast slider here, but you might want to experiment with it, since it does bump up the contrast in the middle tones.
Step 5: Color
Overall, the hue is just a bit off in my image. In the Color brick, however, I can easily play with that. First I click the green swatch, and then I click the eyedropper icon to select it. Next, I use the eyedropper to click one of the green leaves. Why am I working on the green leaves? Well, as I look at the photo, that’s the color that seems a bit off.
Now I can move the Hue slider to the left to adjust the color a bit. I can also nudge the Saturation and Luminance sliders to fine-tune this aspect of the image. If I want more spillover into related tones, I can move the Range slider to the right. Or, to constrict the changes to my sampled area, I can move the Range slider to the left.
Step 6: Enhance
Now it's time for the finishing touches. In Enhance, I move the Definition slider to the right about halfway to increase detail and contrast in the midtones. The Saturation and Vibrancy sliders are available for boosting or desaturating color; for this image, however, I don’t need them.
Step 7: Edge Sharpen
Lastly, I add a little Edge Sharpen for a more crisp look overall.
Once I go through the seven steps, I often return to Exposure or Highlights & Shadows for a few minor tweaks. If you want to see your original image, just press the M key to see how far you’ve come. My guess is that you’ll be happy with the improvement.