3 easy ways to fix a subpar photo

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Lesa Snider

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When you think about all the variables involved in producing a well exposed photo, it’s a wonder any photo turns out halfway decent. If you’ve got a great subject but terrible color, the following shot-saving solutions can come to the rescue in a variety of apps.

Black and white

Take the color out of the equation by converting the photo to black and white. You don’t even need image editing software—Automator, installed on every Mac, can convert whole batches of photos to black and white.

To convert to black and white in iPhoto, select an image and click the Edit button in the toolbar. Click the Effects tab at upper right and then single-click Black & White or repeatedly click Fade. You can use iPhoto’s Adjust panel to tweak contrast.

In Photos for iOS 8, select a photo and tap Edit, and then tap the Smart Adjustments icon (it looks like an odometer). Tap B&W and then drag the resulting red bar up or down over the previews until you’re happy with the contrast.

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The revamped Photos app in iOS 8 lets you easily create a high contrast black and white photo.

In Lightroom, select an image and press D to enter the Develop module. In the panels that appear at the right, scroll to find the HSL/Color/B&W panel, and then click B&W in the panel’s header. Tweak the panel’s sliders until the contrast looks good to you.

In Pixelmator, choose Layer > Duplicate Layer and in the Effects Browser, double-click the Black & White thumbnail. And to convert to black and white in Photoshop Elements or Photoshop, see the next section.

Partial color

For a more creative black and white approach, try leaving one area in color. This technique is beyond iPhoto’s capabilities, but in Photoshop Elements 13. However, you can do it manually in earlier versions of Elements, as well as virtually any version of Photoshop.

First open an image (with Elements, you should use Expert or Full Edit mode) and then press D to set the color chips at the bottom of the Tools panel to the default of black and white, and press X until black is on top. Click the half black/half white circle at the bottom of the Layers panel in Photoshop—it’s at the top of the panel in Elements—and choose Gradient Map. Your image is instantly transformed into a beautiful black and white, which makes the Gradient Map my conversion method of choice in both programs!

With the mask active in your Layers panel (it’ll have a light-colored outline), press B to grab the Brush tool, and then paint across the area of your image that you want to keep in color. If you reveal too much color, press X to flip-flop your color chips so white is on top and brush back across that area. For more on masking, and to see this technique in action, see my previous column on mastering masks.

In Lightroom, press D to enter the Develop module and in the HSL/Color/B&W panel, click Saturation and then drag each resulting slider all the way left to desaturate the image. Activate the Adjustments Brush (circled) and next to the word Mask, click New. Drag the Saturation slider all the way right, increase the Flow slider to 100%, and then brush across the areas you want to remain in color. If you reveal too much color, Option-drag across those areas to desaturate them again.

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A partial color effect accentuates your focal point in an impressive way.

In Pixelmator, choose Layer > Duplicate Layer and in the Effects Browser, double-click the Black & White thumbnail. Add a layer mask to the black and white layer by clicking the gear icon in the Layers panel and choosing Add Layer Mask. Next, press B to activate the Brush tool, click the color swatch in the Tool Options at the top of your screen and choose black.

Paint atop the area that you want to remain in color, while using your left/right bracket keys to control brush size. If you reveal too much color, set the Tool Options’ color swatch to white and paint back across that area. You can also perform this effect in Pixelmator for iPad.

Color tint

Color tints are classy, plus they’re useful for introducing consistency across multiple shots that you combine into a photo project. Automator has myriad options for tinting and special effects via its “Apply Quartz Composition Filter” action (explained in the video linked above), but iPhoto’s options are limited: once you’re in Edit mode, you can add a brown or vintage tint by clicking the Effects tab at the upper right and then clicking Sepia (a brown tint) or Antique (which adds a subtle vintage feel to your photo, a nice choice). Your clicks are cumulative—just keep clicking to strengthen the effect.

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You can create slick effects using Automator’s Apply Quartz Composition Filter action.

In Pixelmator, choose Image > Color Adjustments and from the resulting panel, drag the Colorize effect onto the image. In the Colorize panel that appears, drag the small circular button that appears outside the color wheel to pick a color, and then use the Saturation and Lightness sliders to fine-tune the tint.

In Photoshop Elements’ Expert mode, click the Effects “fx” button at lower right or choose Window > Effects. Choose Show All from the resulting menu and near the bottom of the resulting preview thumbnails, you’ll spot blue, green, purple, magenta, or brown tints; just double-click one to apply it to a duplicate of your image layer, giving you the ability to lessen the effect by lowering that layer’s opacity setting.

In Photoshop, click the half black/half white circle at the bottom of the Layers panel and choose Black & White. In the resulting Properties panel, turn on Tint and click the square (circled) next to it. In the resulting Color Picker, use the vertical bar to pick a range of colors and click inside the large square to tell Photoshop how light or how dark you want the color to be. Back in the Layers panel, you can tweak the Black & White layer’s opacity to fine-tune the effect.

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Using a Black & White adjustment layer is one of many ways to apply a color tint in Photoshop.

As you can see, it’s not impossible to save a subpar photo—it just requires a little know-how. Until next time, may the creative force be with you all!

PhotoLesa.com founder Lesa Snider teaches the world to create better graphics. She’s the author of the best-selling Photoshop: The Missing Manual books, coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, author of The Skinny Book ebook series, a founding creativeLIVE instructor, and regular columnist for Photoshop User and Photo Elements Techniques magazines.

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