Image Editing Beyond iPhoto

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Apple’s iPhoto is great for organizing and sharing photos. But as a digital darkroom, it’s seriously lacking. It can’t bring out details hidden in shadows, for example, or remove the pole that seems to sprout from a friend’s head. When you’re ready to upgrade your photo-editing skills, consider supplementing iPhoto with an external image editor.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 ($90) (see Best Current Price ) packs much of the power of a professional digital darkroom behind an easy-to-use interface. Its Quick Fix mode simplifies many common imaging chores—such as optimizing color and brightness—to a single click of the mouse. But Elements also gives you room to grow: it includes tools for more-advanced tasks, such as removing unsightly utility wires.

The best part is that you don’t have to abandon iPhoto. The two programs work well together. You can use iPhoto to import, organize, and share photos, and Elements to enhance them.

I’ll show you how to incorporate Photoshop Elements 3 into your iPhoto 4 workflow, and then I’ll step you through a basic image-editing routine that will add immediate sparkle to your favorite photos. (And for a hands-on tutorial of some specific Elements features—the Spot Healing brush and Clone Stamp tool— click here.)

Accessing Elements from iPhoto

You have a couple of options for adding Elements to your iPhoto workflow.

As a Replacement If you plan to use Elements for all your editing chores, you can set iPhoto to hand off images to Elements whenever you double-click on a photo.

To set this up, open iPhoto’s General preference pane and set the Double-Click Photo option to Opens Photo In. In the resulting dialog box, navigate to Applications: Adobe Photoshop Elements 3, and double-click on the program’s icon.

As a Supplement Perhaps you want to use Elements to beautify only your most precious photos, and would prefer to use iPhoto’s built-in tools for the rest of your editing chores. In that case, follow the previous steps to set Elements as your external image editor. When you’re done, return to the General preference pane. Change the Double-Click Photo setting to Changes To Edit View. This restores iPhoto’s default settings while retaining Elements as your external editor. Now when you double-click on a photo in your library, it will open in Edit mode. When you want to open a photo in Elements for some advanced touch-ups, simply control-click on the photo and choose Edit In External Editor from the contextual menu.

Editing with a Safety Net

Mistakes happen. When you edit an image in iPhoto or Elements, iPhoto first makes a backup of the original image. So even if you perform major surgery on an image, the original version is always just a mouse-click away. To undo your changes, simply click on the photo and choose Photos: Revert To Original.

For this safety net to work, however, you must not change the file name or file type during editing (most of the digital images you’ll work with will be JPEGs). If you’d like to experiment with different editing styles, duplicate the file in iPhoto before opening it in Elements (choose Photos: Duplicate).

The Fast Fix

iPhoto’s Enhance button optimizes brightness, color balance, and contrast with a single click. Photoshop Elements 3 provides a similar—but much more effective—one-click solution called Auto Smart Fix. This feature analyzes your images for problems and then makes all of its corrections in one pass.

To use Auto Smart Fix, choose Enhance: Auto Smart Fix, or switch to Quick Fix mode by clicking on the Quick Fix button in the upper right corner of the screen. Quick Fix mode combines the most-common image-correction tools with large before-and-after images, so you can easily gauge the success of your edits.

In Quick Fix mode, expand the General Fixes palette and click on the Auto button next to the Smart Fix heading. If you don’t like the results, then choose Undo and try adjusting the Amount slider by hand.

Develop a Routine

The Auto Smart Fix command may be all a particular image needs. If not, there’s much more you can do to address specific problems.

Fix Backlighting When you photograph someone against a bright background, he or she often appears in silhouette. To bring your loved one out of the shadows and restore some of that lost detail, go to Enhance: Adjust Lighting: Shadows/Highlights. (Or use the Lighting Levels in Quick Fix mode.) To reveal shadow detail, drag the Lighten Shadows slider to the right. And if the sun or your camera’s flash washed out the bright areas of your photo, drag the Darken Highlights slider to the right to recover some of the lost detail.

Improve Overall Brightness If your entire photo is too dark, or if it just looks dull and flat, you can give the image a boost by adjusting its levels. In Standard Edit mode, go to Enhance: Adjust Lighting: Levels and drag the black- and white-point sliders (the little triangles beneath the histogram graph) so they just touch the left and right edges of the graph. To reduce or increase the brightness of the image’s midtones, drag the middle triangle to the left or right.

Eliminate Color Casts Generally, digital cameras do a good job of adjusting to different color conditions, such as incandescent or fluorescent light. But if your photo’s color seems off, you can adjust it in several ways. Here are two of the best:

If the image has an area that should be gray, white, or black, choose Enhance: Adjust Color: Remove Color Cast. Then use the eyedropper tool to click on a spot that should be gray, white, or black. Elements remaps the image’s colors accordingly.

If the Remove Color Cast feature doesn’t do the job, choose Undo (Command-Z) and switch to Quick Fix mode. Expand the Color palette, and drag the Temperature and Tint sliders to the left or right until you’ve corrected the color balance.

Sharpen Up

Almost all digital images benefit from a little sharpening before printing. Elements 3 provides several sharpening options. The most precise is the Unsharp Mask command (Filter: Sharpen: Unsharp Mask).

The perfect sharpening settings are largely a matter of personal preference. However, if you plan to print your photo on an ink-jet printer, you’ll get the best results by oversharpening a bit.

Here’s a good starting point for sharpening a digital photo: In the Unsharp Mask dialog box, set the Amount setting to between 250 and 300 and Radius to 0.7. If the image contains areas of consistent color, such as even skin tones or blue sky, set the Threshold setting to 2 or 3 to avoid sharpening these areas.

Adjust these settings as needed to improve definition. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you see sharpening halos —distorted colors that appear along edges and other details. To preview how your image will look when printed, zoom out to 50 percent.

Save and Return to iPhoto

When you’ve finished refining your photo, choose the Save command (Command-S). In the JPEG Options dialog box, set Quality to 12. This minimizes compression while maximizing image quality. Now when you return to iPhoto, it will update its thumbnail image to reflect the enhancements you made.

[ Contributing Editor Jim Heid is the author of The Macintosh iLife ’04 (Peachpit Press/Avondale Media, 2004) and the companion Macintosh Digital Hub Site. ]

Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 makes it easy to brighten shadow detail—such as this baby’s expression—without washing out the rest of the image.
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