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|| News Item: Posted 2003-12-31

Pushing Pixels: Photoshop, Friend or Foe?
By Reed Hoffmann, Blue Pixel

Okay, you've got your photos downloaded to your laptop and you've picked out that killer image - bodies in the air, great face with a grimace, ball off the fingertips. Just a quick touch-up in Photoshop and you can transmit it. When it runs in the paper, though, it doesn't live up to your expectations. Who knew that last step, where you "fix" things, could be what kills an otherwise nice image?

Photographers have been using Photoshop since they stopped making prints. How many people, though, really understand what's going on when they lighten, darken, or change colors in Photoshop? For the last four years one part of my business has been helping photographers and photo departments get the most out of digital cameras. A big part of that is teaching proper use of Photoshop. Here are a few of the key points I try to make:

1 - What you CAN'T see can hurt you - This is a biggie. You're looking at a low-resolution RGB display device (your monitor). If you've ever prepped a photo for the web, you know how small a file that can be. A photo that looks good large on a monitor may easily be under 100K in size. That's because the monitor doesn't need much information to display it well. That same image, though, would only make a wallet-sized print. It takes about three times as much information to print an image well as it does to show it on a monitor. Part of this has to do with the fact that you've got to convert an RGB image into the CMYK color space to print it. And don't get carried away with compression. Figure you can go down about three steps in Photoshop (from 10 to 7 in early versions, 12 to 9 in current versions) without having a problem.

2 - What you CAN see can hurt you - I've watched hundreds of photographers make color changes to their images while working on their laptops. Know what most of them are basing those decisions on? Their eyes. Big mistake. Who knows how well your monitor - whether a laptop display or a CRT - displays color? If you're one of those (very) rare photographers working on a calibrated, profiled display, go ahead and work based on look. If not, though, you may be making things worse. Learn to use the Info palette in Photoshop to read density (Grayscale) and color (RGB) values.

3 - Less is always more - There's nothing you can do in Photoshop that adds information to the image in a helpful way. You can certainly make some photos look better using Photoshop, but every adjustment you make takes information away. That's why you're always better off getting the color (can you say "white balance preset") and exposure right in the camera than trying to "fix" it later. Then when using Photoshop, try to do as little as possible to the image.

4 - There are "Good" tools in Photoshop, and "Bad" tools -
Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation seem to be favorites of photographers, but are two of the worst tools to use. Brightness/Contrast throws away a ton of information. Don't use it if you care about having an image print well. Hue/Saturation can totally screw up the color of an image, and easily creates colors that can't be printed (though they may look nice on screen. See #1 above). Curves is a great tool, and Levels is pretty good too. Those along with Selective Color can do most of what a photographer needs to do without causing big problems.

5 - Unsharp Mask won't fix your focus problems - Face the music, you shot the photo out of focus. Maybe it's time for glasses. Unsharp Mask (or any of the Sharpening tools) can't save your image. What they can do, though, is make it harder to print your photo well. Unsharp Mask creates the illusion of sharpness by increasing the contrast along edges. It can also create some color problems that won't show up until you try to print the image. The only time a photographer should do any sharpening to an image is in a very specific and advanced workflow that involves turning off in-camera sharpening, then running noise reduction, then applying a low-radius Unsharp Mask followed by a Fade Unsharp Mask with Luminance. If this sounds confusing and involved, it is, and is why only a few knowledgeable people are doing it.

6 - Don't resample - If you want to guarantee your images will appear softer than you shot them, then go ahead and resample. That means that you'll take a perfectly good five or six-megabyte image and add pixels to force the size up to eight or ten-megabytes. Some news organizations make this a part of their workflow, and it's plain wrong. What you're doing is making Photoshop add pixels that don't belong there. It can do a pretty good job of matching color and tone, but it can't add detail. End result? You've just softened your image. The only time a photo should be resampled is when it's known what size it will run (in a paper or magazine, or on your inkjet printer). And in that process it will also be sharpened to make up for the fact that ink spreads out when it hits paper, so the appearance of sharpness will be retained. Who does that? The prepress or engraving department. That's the ONLY time it should be resampled, whether up or down.

7 - Go ahead, make my day - Says the prepress department, who's getting closer and closer to convincing management to take Photoshop out of your hands. Almost every newspaper I visit I have to fight this battle. I feel strongly that the photographer needs to have the ability to touch their photos, to fix color and/or tone, dodge or burn. It's part of having the photographer create compelling images. However, photographers who have gotten heavy-handed with Photoshop create images that can't be reproduced well, and that's a problem for the Production Department. They're often able to make a strong case to keep the photographer away from the pictures, as they often ruin them. If you want to lose more control over your photos, keep going crazy with Photoshop.

8 - Prove your editors wrong, show them you can learn - Take a class, get a book on Photoshop and learn how to do it right. Look for classes/books that are aimed at photographers. And keep reading Sports Shooter. We'll have a column in each issue.

(Reed Hoffmann is a former newspaper photographer and now a partner in Blue Pixel, a digital photography consulting and training company. Do you have a question about digital workflow? Ask Reed and the other experts at Blue Pixel. Address your questions for possibly inclusion in this column to: For more information about Reed and services offered by Blue Pixel, check out their web site at:

Related Links:
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