I had previously written a quick post about basic photography tips for your watches (see here). Thought I would place a supplement that provides some post-processing tips with Photoshop. Some caveats…
- This is not in depth and presumes at least a passing knowledge of Photoshop, or a willingness to self-educate;
- Nitty gritty for how things are done is sparse, there is much content online that can provide the really fine detail and where appropriate I’ll make note of those knowledge gaps;
- I only use Photoshop, no idea about other image editors;
- The best $10 a month you can ever spend is on Adobe’s Photographer Program which gets you a running subscription to the full version of Photoshop along with Lightroom - it is an absolute no-brainer. Full details here.
So here we go…
You need a good base image to start with. All the processing in the world won’t change that. See the previously linked tutorial. For this example I’m using a photo of the Alpina Alpiner 4 Race For Water LE Chronograph on a Hadley-Roma canvas strap. It is shot on an iPhone 6 against a simple leather notebook. It has been backlit with a neutral light source through a large silk diffuser to soften the light, with tented sheets of paper in front to provide reflected fill. This is the photo out-of-camera…
Looks pretty good but here is what I’ll typically do or at least check if needed:
1) Image needs to be cropped a bit;
2) There is a slight color cast that needs to be corrected (it’s a bit green);
3) There are some errant dust spots to clean;
4) The dial and bezel are too dark - you can only reflect/fill so much light (case could use some punch as well);
5) Improve overall contrast and separation
In Photoshop there’s generally many ways to accomplish the same thing. For cropping I tend to use the Marquee (shortcut "M") selection tool to outline what I want to keep, then EDIT > CROP to ditch the rest. Get your composition as right as possible in camera, though.
There is a greenish cast that I want to correct. Note before you start making any radical color changes you need to have a properly calibrated monitor. There are inexpensive tools for this that I would highly recommend if you do any sort of photography or graphic work. My preferred method is to use Adobe Camera Raw which can now be accessed from within Photoshop as a filter. With the white balance (WB) tool active click on a spot that should be a neutral gray. You may need to try a few to get it right. This is why it’s important to use as clean a light source as possible; there is relatively little latitude in a JPEG to make any gross corrections (if you are going to shoot with a capable digital camera work in RAW format for much more data that can be pushed and pulled).
While in ACR I’m also going to recover a bit of that blown out highlight at the top of the case. Try to avoid this as much as possible, as again JPEG’s have little flexibility in this regard. Here I can smooth it out with a nudge of the Highlights slider.
TIP: Activate the highlight/shadow warning triangles at the top corners of the histogram to show areas of shadow or highlight clipping. Here the blown highlights were shown in red.
Clean your watch and background as much as possible, but dust spots are generally unavoidable. How much you choose to clean up depends on your personal tolerance, but given these are going to be sized for web the small stuff will never really show. Nevertheless there are a few bits that I’ll look after with the Healing Brush tool. Make sure the Content Aware option at the top of the screen is checked so it can make an educated guess at what to fill in based on surrounding areas.
TIP: Make the brush size just a bit bigger than the spot to be cleaned. If necessary zoom in really close to be more accurate near edges.
This shooting technique uses backlight with reflected front fill. As such the front will be even and smooth but not bright. A quick selective curves adjustment will fix this. Again, there are different ways to accomplish this but my preferred method is simply using a selection and an adjustment layer. I’m going to affect just the dial, which is round, so I need a round selection tool to accommodate. Head up to the Marquee Selection tools and choose the ellipse. Here I have created a rough selection of the dial (note the “marching ants” around it).
TIP: Holding the ALT/OPT key while dragging the tool makes the selection from the centre out. Holding SHIFT constrains to a circle. Holding both would give you a circle that grows from the centre. For a dial I’ll hold ALT/OPT, place my cursor at the axis of the hands, and drag out. Pressing and holding the space bar at any time freezes the size of the marquee and lets you move it around.
Depending on the angle of the dial you may or may not get a true selection out of the gate. Here you can see it’s slightly off. We’ll fix that shortly. With the selection active choose Curves from the adjustment layer menu…
By making your selection first, the curves adjustment layer will automatically build a mask around it which you can see as the white circle in the black frame on the curves layer.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search to find information on "Photoshop adjustment layers" and "Photoshop masks." Fundamental. Quick version is that a mask hides or exposes the contents of a layer. White reveals. Black conceals. Shades of grey in between are different opacities. In this case the white circle is the selected dial which will expose 100% of any adjustment. The black surrounding area will be completely unaffected.
Here I have made a massive curves adjustment just for visual reference (I'll change that back afterwards), and you can see how the selection wasn’t perfect. Depending on the angle of the dial the marquee may or may not conform. I’m going to tweak it using Free Transform. First, click the little link icon to the left of the mask on the adjustment layer; this untethers the mask from the layer itself. Then, with the mask selected hit CTRL/COMMAND + T to invoke Free Transform, right click and select Distort so the transformation can move freely and unconstrained. Now use the handles to drag the selection so it fits then hit enter.
So, to recap, we now have a curves adjustment layer to correct brightness and contrast that will be restricted to just the dial. You could also use a levels adjustment layer but curves tend to be more flexible. Here you can see the curve and resulting correction.
Here is what’s going on…
1) The end-point on the far right of the curve adjusts the white value; you want to get the brightest section(s) of the dial nearly white (but not blown out).
2) The end-point on the far left of the curve adjusts the black value; you want the darkest section(s) to be nearly black (but not clipped).
3) The curve in between adjusts contrast; the steeper the curve the greater the mid-tone contrast, and this standard S-Curve is brightening the 3/4 tones and darkening the 1/4 tones.
4) You could also simply pull up the middle of the curve which would simply brighten without adding contrast. Similarly you can pull down from the middle to darken.
TIP: While adjusting the black and white points of the curve press and hold the ALT/OPT buttons; the screen will go black and show white patches where the white point starts blowing out, or white and show black patches where shadows are getting crushed. This is much more objective than just eyeballing.
Voila. Brighter dial. You can taper the effect by reducing the opacity of the adjustment layer. However, one other thing is happening that I want to control, and that is the boost in color which is a natural byproduct of any contrast adjustment. I just want to correct brightness, and so to that end I am going to change the layer’s blending mode to Luminosity. Color is no longer affected, and I can control that independently.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search out “Photoshop blending modes,” a very powerful tool for changing how one layer interacts with another.
There is one other thing that needs to be tweaked and that is the edge of the selection mask. Currently it is razor sharp, binary - on and off. There is a white area to expose the layer, and black to conceal. No in-between, just a hard edge that we don’t want. Instead we need to apply a feather to the edge, which is done in the Masks section of the Properties panel.
You don’t need much. Here you are defining over how many pixels the mask will transition from full black to full white (in this case 2.4px, purely arbitrary and will be different depending on your objective, subject and resolution). This region becomes a gradient from dark to light gray which in practical terms is a linear change in opacity that fades in the effect. If you go too far you’ll start to see an artifact around the edge where it will ghost. The great thing about applying a feather this way on an adjustment layer is it’s completely non-destructive and can be changed at any time.
TIP: To see the actual mask and the effect of the feather ALT/OPT click on the mask icon.
This whole process may sound daunting to the uninitiated, but let me assure you it took infinitely longer to write this section (and likewise to read it) than the process itself. This same set of steps can be applied to any localized adjustment: 1) create a preliminary selection with your tool of choice, 2) choose an adjustment layer, 3) modify selection mask if necessary, 4) make adjustment, 5) feather selection to taste.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search out “Photoshop selection tools” to learn about the many options available to isolate a portion of an image. Some work better than others for different applications. Aside from the Marquee you’ll want to understand the Lasso, Quick Selection Tool, and the grandaddy of all… the Pen tool (Paths are discussed more below). Note that you can also paint selections directly on a mask with the same white reveals/black conceals rule.
Like the dial, the bezel can also use some pop. Here I’m going to do much the same process with a couple extra moves. First I created an overall selection of the bezel perimeter with the Elliptical Marquee tool. But this of course would include not only the bezel but dial as well, and I want to adjust it independently. No worries - we already have a selection of the dial from earlier that we can exclude. With the bezel selection still active (ie. marching ants are visible) CTRL-ALT (COMMAND-OPT) click the dial mask selection. This will subtract it from the original bezel selection and you’re left with a ring. Choose the curves adjustment layer and the mask is created thusly…
Alternatively you could create the solid mask and adjustment layer, activate the dial selection by CTRL/COMMAND clicking the dial mask, then (with the bezel mask active) fill with black (EDIT > FILL).
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search for “adding subtracting Photoshop masks” or such.
TIP: You can add to an existing selection by holding SHIFT while drawing out with a selection tool, or remove from a selection by holding ALT/OPT.
I’ll make the same moves as above to adjust white point, black point, contrast, and feather which will be revealed on only the bezel. However, this still leaves the lower half too dark. Here I’ll introduce a nifty but relatively more advanced move that can be applied in infinite ways. First off, duplicate the bezel’s curves adjustment layer by hitting COMMAND/CTRL + J. This now brightens the lower half further, but also makes the upper half too bright and blown out as the layer effect has been doubled. We want this effect just on the lower half of the bezel. Here’s where the Gradient tool comes into play. The following is a means to make this non-destructive so you can easily refine.
First, we want to create a new mask to mask the other mask (chew on that for a second). Trick to do this is group the layer with itself by hitting CTRL/COMMAND + G. This will do nothing in practical terms other than give you an opportunity to introduce a second mask to the same layer. Which we’ll do by clicking the mask icon at the bottom of the layers palette (the rectangle with circle in the middle).
This will create a mask for the group, all white/revealed, that you can use to selectively conceal. In this instance my preference is to do the opposite. I want to hide the entire layer, and reveal just the bottom of the bezel. So instead I hit ALT/OPT + the layer mask icon which creates an all black (fully concealed mask). And with this group mask now selected I grab the Gradient tool (shortcut G), and with white as my foreground color I drag from the bottom of the bezel to the middle (and while doing so holding the SHIFT button to constrain as a perfect horizontal). The resulting graduated group mask is shown here (I have labelled the layer group “Bezel Lower”):
Although it’s small you can see that the lower part of the group mask is white, and it gradates to black with a smooth transition. In practical terms it is revealing the grouped curves layer to the bottom of the bezel and fading it out to zero so it doesn’t affect the upper bezel. I use this technique ALL THE TIME in photography post-processing. Incredibly flexible. Very easy. This is another example of taking much longer to write and read than to actually do.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search out “Photoshop foreground background color” and “Photoshop gradients.”
One last thing is I want to desaturate any errant color. For this I just CTRL/COMMAND click on the bezel mask to activate the selection, then choose Hue/Saturation from the adjustment layer set and drop the saturation down. To limit the adjustment to only color I change the blend mode accordingly.
Here’s where we’re at so far…
Next up I want to brighten the case slightly, as well as increase contrast for better separation of the lines and facets. It should be abundantly clear that the simple Marquee tool is not up to this task. For complex selections that have a crisp, clean edge there is no better, more precise tool than the Pen. What the Pen does is create Paths, which are basically mathematical constructs. They aren’t pixels. Paths are perfect. They’re also tricky so how to use them is not covered here.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search for “Photoshop Pen” and “Photoshop paths” for all you can handle on the subject. This is best to learn by following video tutorials as explanation alone will make little sense.
You can invoke the Pen tool with the shortcut “P” or choose it from the tools palette:
This is the final path outlining the case. I have added a semi-transparent white layer to make it easier to see.
As you can see the outline is pristine. To convert the path to a pixel-based selection CTRL/COMMAND click the path icon in the Paths palette. This will activate the marching ants selection (I swear that is the official terminology). Of course at this point we have selected everything whereas the target is just the case. To exclude the bezel and dial simply ALT/OPTION + CTRL/COMMAND click on their masks in the respective adjustment layers. With just the case selection now remaining the addition of a curves adjustment layer creates a mask as follows:
You may notice the inner part of the mask is soft and the outer perimeter is hard. This is because the bezel and dial masks excluded per above have been feathered, whereas the case selection has not. It is softened with it’s own feather from the properties panel as done earlier.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Another selection option here is the Quick Selection tool. It works very well with areas of high contrast (ie. case vs surrounding background). Used like a brush the Quick Select tool grabs pixels of similar tone, color, texture and/or sharpness/focus. This along with the Refine Edge function can make short work of this type of subject. I tend to use that first as it’s faster than the Pen, but if it’s not working right or I want absolute precision paths are the way to go. Search “Photoshop Quick Select” and "Photoshop Refine Edge.”
Curves are adjusted with the layer converted to a luminosity blend mode in the same manner as above. In addition to more brilliance you can also see better definition of the case shape. This is what contrast does - makes bright areas brighter and dark areas darker.
TIP: To target specific tones to adjust with curves use the Targeted Adjustment Tool which is a little finger icon with up and down arrows. With this active (it can be set to be on by default) you can click directly on any point in the image to set a point on the curve and adjust that tone up or down. In this case drag up on a bright part of the case, and drag down on a dark part.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Curves are incredibly powerful for tonal and color adjustments. Search out “Photoshop Curves” and strap in.
I double-dipped with the case mask by CTRL/COMMAND clicking on it from the curves layer, than activating a Hue/Saturation adjustment and pulling the color out. The case looks much cleaner now. These two adjustment layers have been grouped together.
TIP: Group common layers together to clean up your Layers palette. Select adjacent layers by SHIFT clicking, or non-adjacent layers by ALT/OPTION clicking, then CTRL/COMMAND + G to group. If you have lots of layers it’s also a good idea to name them for reference. Just double click on the layer name to change.
In addition the case I also used the Pen to outline the strap and adjusted its brightness and contrast in the same manner as the case. By selecting the entire image (CTRL/COMMAND + A) and excluding the case, strap, bezel and dial selections using their respective layer masks I also created a mask just for the background that I darkened slightly. Finally, an edge vignette (darkening) was created again with a curves layer masked to only the outside to keep attention to the centre of the frame). The same techniques are applied over and over to different areas.
This is the final layer stack, labelled and organized:
Because only adjustment layers are used you could go back and change anything, any time. Completely non-destructive. For these purposes I will just flatten the image, which merges all of the layers into one. There is no turning back at this point.
TIP: If you want to flatten to keep file sizes down, but think you might want to tweak in the future with your hard fought selections, you can activate each from their masks and save them as Alpha Channels. These will then save with the file.
KNOWLEDGE GAP: Search “Photoshop non-destructive editing” and “Photoshop channels”
All told here is the before and after…
Let me be clear that this is stone tools and rubbing sticks together stuff. If you want to see the state-of-the-art in commercial image retouching this is a remarkable video with the Rolex Daytona Platinum capturing everything in real-time and condensed down to 9 minutes (note how the retoucher creates a path for everything)…
You will notice, however, that there are lots of - wait for it - adjustment layers and paths and curves.
Good luck and have fun. If anyone is really interested in upping their Photoshop game I can’t think of a better resource/one-stop-shop than Lynda.com. Subscription service but the volume of education on countless topics is staggering. Kelby One is another source. But you’ll be able to track down all you can handle otherwise with online searches.