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3 ways to improve your photos

I thought I’d share a few of my photo-processing tricks. You don’t necessarily need Photoshop to achieve these effects, although that is what I used for these examples. I also often use the editing tools within Picasa, or the Snapseed app on my tablet.

I’ll give you the steps I take in general terms, so you can translate them to whatever photo editing program you have at your disposal.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Here’s my image, straight out of the camera. It’s kind of blah, I think. Luckily, I’ve created three actions that usually help me elevate a blah photo to something more interesting. An “action” is a Photoshop term, and it refers to a series of steps that are performed on an image. Actions are saved so they can be used repeatedly. Paint Shop Pro calls them “scripts,” and the other software programs out there might have other names for them, too.

When I write an action, I always form a “layer group” out of the layers that make up the action. That way, I can change the opacity of the group as a whole. That’s really handy when you want to add an effect to a photo, but you don’t want it to be too strong.

My current favorite three actions are ones I call “Better,” “Cross Process,” and “Violet-Yellow Split Tone.”

Better

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

I use Better on virtually all of my images. It consists of these steps:

  1. Brighten
  2. Add contrast
  3. Add warmth (optional)
  4. Add coolness (optional)
  5. Increase saturation
  6. Add crispness

Let’s take those steps one at a time.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Brighten

My favorite way to brighten things up is to create a duplicate layer, and set it to “screen” mode. That adds quite a bit of brightness – too much, usually – so I set the opacity to 25% as a default. For this particular image, I actually wanted to bump up the brightness quite a bit, so I changed the opacity to 60%.

Add Contrast

For this, I created a Curves adjustment layer and let it automatically decide how much of an adjustment was necessary.

Add Warmth

This is another Curves layer, and I leave it turned off by default. I probably turn it on about half of the time, and it is on for this particular example. To make this layer, I drag the curve up a little bit in the Red channel, and down a little bit in the Blue channel.

Add Coolness

This layer is the opposite of the one above: Curves with decreased Red and increased Blue. I leave this one off by default as well, but I rarely use it. I prefer my photos to have plenty of warmth in them, and it’s rare that I want to bump up the cooler colors. The most common use of this layer is on images I took indoors at night.

Increase Saturation

To make the colors pop more, I use a Hue/Saturation/Lightness adjustment layer, and I increase the saturation in the master channel a small amount (about 15%).

Add crispness

This step, I’ll admit, is a bit more advanced, and I adapted it from an online tutorial without really knowing what I was doing. All I know is that it works, and that’s enough for me at the moment. Someday my curiosity will get the better of me, and I’ll really dig in and learn what it does. For now, though, here are the steps:

  • Create a new layer
  • Merge visible, with duplicate
  • High Pass, radius 6.9
  • Set to 50% opacity, mode “soft light”
  • Desaturate

If that stuff doesn’t make perfect sense to you, feel free to skip this step. Or, if you’re using Photoshop, try a free sharpening action from MCP Actions. I’ve used them, and they’re nice.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage 3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Doesn’t that make such a big improvement? And since all of the steps are saved as an action, I really only have to press a single button to get to this. I did a little additional tweaking on this one, as I mentioned – turning on the Warmth layer, and increasing the opacity of the Brighten layer – but that was pretty simple.

Increasing brightness, warmth, and saturation are three little steps that can pack a dramatic punch.

Cross Process

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

I use this action when I want something a little more interesting. It’s got a retro feel to it, that I really love. I apply this action after I have already applied the Better action. I have to say,

I am super excited to have finally made my own cross-process action that does precisely what I want it to do. I’ve been chasing this look for so many years, it’s not even funny. The idea of “cross-processing” comes from film photography, and it refers to processing film in chemicals meant for a different type of film. The result is that certain colors are “off” in the final photo.

The thing is, there is a wide range of cross-processed looks, and they all depend on the film/chemical combination. That is why, when you search the internet for cross-processed Photoshop tutorials, you may never actually find something that gives you the exact look you are after.

I saw this particular cross-process look on Picnik (back when that was a thing), and started looking for tutorials online that would allow me to duplicate that in Paint Shop Pro (which I was using at the time). Unfortunately, I never really got it. Well, time passed, and I switched to Photoshop, and learned a thing or two about different effects. In that time, the Picnik cross process has since been rolled into Picasa, and I use it often in my Instaflick photos. And I tried again to figure out how to duplicate that look in Photoshop. Guess what happened. (Hint: I got it!)

  1. Add a vintagey effect
  2. Add more cyan and yellow
  3. Desaturate, darken, make the reds yellower
  4. Turn the blacks navy blue and the whites cream
  5. Add some contrast

Here are those steps in more detail: 3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Add a vintagey effect

This step is tricky to describe in general terms. It’s made from a Curves adjustment layer where the Red curve has been finessed into a gentle S, the Green is an even gentler S, and the Blue remains a straight line, but the left edge has been dragged about 1/8th of the way up, and the right edge has been dragged about 1/8th of the way down. If you are using Photoshop, check out this tutorial from Sorny on Deviantart. I got the curve I used from step #2 on effect #1.

Add more cyan and yellow

A Color Balance adjustment layer is used here. Slide the Cyan/Red slider 40% of the way toward cyan, and the Yellow/Blue slider 30% of the way toward yellow.

Desaturate, darken, and make the reds yellower

This step can be achieved with a single Hue/Saturation/Lightness adjustment layer. In the Master channel, decrease Saturation by 10% and Lightness by 10%. In the Red channel, increase Hue by 3%, and decrease Saturation by 10%.

Turn the blacks navy blue and the whites cream

Here I just make a navy blue (#000040) colored layer, and set the mode to Exclusion. Easy peasy.

Add some contrast

This layer is essentially a copy of all of the previous layers merged together, and set to Soft Light mode. Select All, then Copy Merged, and then Paste it into a new layer. Set the mode to Soft Light.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage 3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Here’s a side-by-side of the “Better”-ized photo, and the Betterized photo with Cross-Process applied. As I mentioned before, this look is a favorite for my square-format, old-fashioned Instaflick photos. I also use it when I think an image needs an extra, hard-to-define “something.” Often in those cases, I am not going for the full-blown cross-process effect, and I set the opacity of the cross-process group to 50% or less.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

My current blog header (shown above) was cross-processed a bit. 50% I think.

Violet-Yellow Split Tone

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

This is one of my favorites. I love it for the surreal old-fashioned look it lends to beach scenes, in particular. I got the idea for this while flipping through the very excellent Shutter Sisters book, Expressive Photography. The book was intentionally vague when it came to technical specifics, but they really liked the idea of adding split tones: highlights in one color, and shadows in another. The images that really grabbed me involved yellow highlights and purple shadows. So, I experimented until I figured out just how to do it.

This is an extremely simple effect to create. (I always run the Better action first.) Here are the steps:

  1. Add yellow highlights
  2. Add purple shadows

Here’s how to do that: 3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Add yellow highlights

This is just a Color Fill level in yellow (#ffff80) and set to Multiply mode.

Add purple shadows

Another Color Fill level, this time in purple (#400040) and set to Screen mode.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage 3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

Better on the left, Better + Violet-Yellow Split Tone on the right. This is an effect I often use at half strength. We went to the shore recently, and I treated all of the beach shots with Better + 50% Violet-Yellow Split Tone, and I love the way they came out.

3 ways to improve your photos through post-processing, on Polka Dot Cottage

So, there you go. I hope some of these tricks will be useful in your own photo-editing! I particularly think the Better action is super valuable.

Do you have any favorite editing tools or actions of your own? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

4 thoughts on “3 ways to improve your photos

  1. This is very helpful information. I’ve never used the actions at all (are they also in PS Elements?) but I want to now! Thanks.

    1. Yes, I am fairly sure they are in Elements, too, although I’ve never used it.

  2. […] I gave it a Violet-Yellow Split-Tone treatment at half strength to make it look a little […]

  3. […] me to optionally bump up the warmth or coolness. In this case (as in most), I adjusted the warmth. I go into much more detail about the Better action here, if you would like to dig […]

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