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Photo 101: Tips for Fine-Tuning Your Images

by Maxwell Tielman


Now that you’ve taken your photosit’s time to go into post-processing. And, no matter how professional you are, there are times when, due to haste or changes in the environment, you might not end up with the perfect photo right out of the gate. Whatever is making your photo less than desirable—a yellow color cast, a skewed angle, underexposure—fear not! It’s likely that there is a post-processing tool for whatever your problem is. The world of photo-editing software is a large and confusing one, but I’ve rounded up my top 4 go-to Photoshop basics for fine-tuning images. The great thing about these tips is that, most photo editing software (not just Photoshop) features similar functions and tools. From straightening to sharpening your images for the web, these tips will have your photos going from fug to fabulous. Continue after the jump to find out how! —Max

I decided to take a really, really horrible photograph of my apartment kitchen to help illustrate this tutorial. It’s kind of a Bad-Photo-Perfect-Storm: it’s taken at an angle, it’s underexposed, and the incandescent interior lighting has given the image a sickly, yellow glow. As it stands, it’s pretty much unusable. BUT—it’s not unsalvageable! Let’s get to work!



One of the most glaring issues with this photograph is the fact that it looks like it was taken by a drunk person— it’s slanted, rather unattractively, to the left. Although there are a number of ways to correct this problem, one of the simplest (and my favorite) is Photoshop’s Ruler Tool. You can find this handy-dandy tool in Photoshop’s left-hand toolbar, as an appendage to the eyedropper tool. Click and hold the eyedropper tool and select the Ruler Tool from the drop-down menu that emerges.


To straighten your photo using the ruler tool, simply find a strong horizontal or vertical line within your photograph (I chose the vertical of the kitchen’s window frame) and drag the ruler tool along it. From there, select the arbitrary rotation function (Image>>Image Rotation>>Arbitrary…) from the main menu bar. Hit “OK” in the Rotate Canvas window to fix the slant. Crop your image to eliminate any empty canvas space. BOOM! STRAIGHTENED!


Note: Another excellent and more advanced option for image straightening and correction is Photoshop’s Lens Correction tool (Filter>>Lens Correction).


The second glaring issue in this photo is it’s sad, sad underexposure. The whole image is rather murky and dark—not at all bright and pretty. To correct this, most photo editing software features brightness/contrast functions, but my go-to tool is Photoshops Levels Adjustment Tool (Image>>Adjustments>>Levels). Here, you can adjust your lights, darks, and mid-tones separately to more precisely manage your image’s contrast. With this particular image, I slid the lights slider (right) far to the left, the mid-tones slider (middle) slightly to the left and the darks slider (left) a tad to the right. TA-DA! Lightened and brightened!



Note: If you want to get EXTRA FANCY, Photoshop’s Curves Tool (Image>>Adjustments>>Curves) allows for even more precision.


The last major, major issue that is keeping this image from BEING GREAT is its rather unfortunate color cast. Because unnatural, incandescent lighting was used while this photo was taken (a big no-no for interior photography), all of the colors are slightly yellow, as if the entire room has a bad case of jaundice. As with all of the aforementioned editing tips, there are a number of ways to fix a white balance issue, but the simplest and most straight-forward is Photoshop’s Color Balance Tool (Image>>Adjustments>>Color Balance). With this tool, you can use sliders to reduce whatever color issue your photo might have. If your photo is too yellow, for instance, you’ll want to increase the blue. If it’s to green, you’ll want to bump up the magenta. For this particular image, I needed to adjust the yellow/blue slider towards the blue end of the spectrum and bump up the red slightly.




So—once you’ve straightened, brightened, and color-corrected your image, you can go ahead and save your image file! If you plan on printing or duplicating your photo at any time in the future, it’s a good idea to save it as a PSD or TIFF (both are uncompressed, high-quality file formats). If, however, you’d like to upload your image to the web and use it on a blog or portfolio site, you’re going to want to resize and sharpen your image. Whatever size you scale down to is entirely up to you and the dimensions dictated by your website, but more often than not, your image is going to need to be sharpened. Any time you alter your image’s size, one side-effect is that  you will notice that the edges within that image are a little bit blurred. To correct this issue, it’s a good idea to use Photoshop’s Sharpen Filter (Filter>>Sharpen>>Sharpen) to increase the overall clarity. This will make all of your edges look a bit crisper and clearer, a good thing if you’re working with small image sizes.

Note: Sometimes Photoshop’s automatic sharpening tool will give you a bit too much sharpening, making lines look jagged and unnatural. If this is the case, you can get more refined, manageable sharpening with the Unsharp Mask Filter (Filter>>Sharpen>>Unsharp Mask).



That’s it! The image is still far from perfect (the window is blown out, it’s a little bit grainy, the lighting is still a tad  unnatural), but considering the less-than-ideal conditions that the photo was taken under, it is a significant improvement!

Happy shooting!

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  • Oh, Max… You’re quickly becoming my Photoshop-hero. Can you offer any insights, on maximizing beautiful images solely through an iPhone?

    I just purchased the 5s…And while I’m (ahem) on week numero sinco, awaiting my device to come in, I’m trying to equip myself with all of the knowledge I can compile on using its camera-capabilities. (My old camera was stolen, a while back. And, I needed a new cellphone. Instead of buying a new phone and then replacing my camera on top of that, I figured that it makes more sense to just kill two birds with one stone and go for the 5s.)

    Any info you can provide is much appreciated!


  • Awesome, thank you! I have been working on improving my photography skills. I haven’t had any sort of formal training with Photoshop, and it all seems overwhelming. You gave some great brief but concise tips. Thank you again!

  • This is so incredibly helpful! I’m not the best photographer (I found that having a decent camera is useless unless you know how to use it!) nor am I all that versed in Photoshop, but these fixes seem easy and will help improve my pictures. Thank you!

  • Another great tutorial, Max! I can’t wait to retake the photos for my etsy shop with these tips and tricks. Thanks for breaking this task down into four easy steps!

  • Great tips! Another great tool if the image is too yellow is to use the photo filter (located under Image-Adjustments-Photo Filter) I use the Cooling Filter (80) and use the slider to adjust the density.

  • This is great, Max. I only have the Elements version, so all of these techniques apply to my software. One issue I’d love to see: How to make multiple photos of the same space end up with the same color. Maybe one photo turns out great and needs little correction, but then I have to make the 2nd photo match the first. I have problems with this! Maybe I just need a better camera! But would love to see how you would deal with these issues. Thanks!

  • This post came just in time for the holidays, when all my awful, off-center food photos have deigned to grace Instagram streams everywhere.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!
    – Candice

  • Quick tip for something that will adjust your levels and color balance in one step! When adjusting your levels, click the white “eyedropper” tool to the left of the levels histogram. Then, in your photo, click the eyedropper on something you know to be bright white (this is why starting a photo shoot with a white balance card is helpful!). This tells Photoshop “This color here? This color is WHITE. Adjust all other colors accordingly!” And the other colors do adjust, usually brightening up the image and color balancing it as well. Of course, this only works with images with white in them already… But it’s worth a try!

  • Just in time for a blog post on my kitchen/dining and patio tomorrow. My photos look SO much better! Thanks, Max!

  • Thanks for this great tutorial! I only have photoshop elements 8, so I am curious how this might work on it.

  • Just want to let everyone know who can’t afford Photoshop that all these features are available *FREE* in Picasa! I use them all the time — I’m kind of OCD about my pictures being straight. And they can take iPhone photos to the next level.

  • I’m just starting out with food photography, shooting healthy recipes. This is the perfect beginners guide – thank you :)

  • another great tip that my photographer friend told me is to make a copy of the image before you do anything to it. you can refer back to the original image to see if you like the changes you have made. simple but very helpful.

  • Great tips, Max! I always forget to sharpen my pictures, what a difference that simple step makes! I’ve discovered that if I move the mid-range tones to lighten them, and adjust the dark to make up the difference, (leaving the light range completely alone), I rarely end up with a blown-out photo unless it was blown out to begin with.

  • You’ve blown out the image a bit, though. A slighter tug to the left on the midtones and highlights when adjusting your levels and you’d still have detail on the other side of the window and the pendant wouldn’t be reduced to an outline.

  • Fabulous. I use photoshop everyday (for drawing, not photo-editing) but didn’t even know about the sharpen tool and even better, the unsharp mask!! I’ve noticed that problem with downsizing but didn’t understand how to fix until now! Thanks.

  • This was a perfect little tutorial! I am no professional photographer so having these simple steps to help with my images look their best is great. Thanks for sharing!

  • I second Lynn’s recommendation to use Google’s totally free Picasa software for photo editing. It does all of these things, and more, and you can either hit a magic button to fix levels or do it manually if you’d like. So easy!

  • This post was very helpful and easy to read. A very useful tutorial that will make a lot more photographs “cute”!

  • This is awesome, my images totally look different after applying these tips!! Thanks a lot!!

  • These are quite useful tips for editing images using photoshop .I have just started using Photoshop so these are very helpful photoshop tricks for me. I am looking for advanced tutorials like this one LearnPhotoEditing.net. Can you list some of the sites like this website?

  • I am just using my itouch for taking photos and it takes so much time for me to edit it in photoshop. I just downloaded an app called Snapseed. It is more automatic than photoshop. Thanks for sharing your tips here. I feel like that I can also apply the theory in Snapseed.

  • Along with all kinds of adjustments it is also may needed to add or remove some part from the image. In that case patch tool may help.

  • Absolutely love the ruler tool you used to straighten the image — I know I’m going to be using that one quite a bit! Thanks for the great tip.