Improve photo quality

Improve photo quality: expert skills for Photoshop newbies

This tutorial is the ultimate guide on how to improve photo quality with Photoshop. It uses professional-level techniques but it’s suitable for novices. It’s step-by-step and explains in detail which Photoshop tools to use – and why.

The tutorial covers a lot of ground. But it’s not difficult to learn. When you’re familiar with these techniques you’ll be able to improve any photo in a couple of minutes.

Photoshop can seem complicated and intimidating. There are lots of features and options. But there’s no reason to feel overwhelmed.

This is a detailed walk-through of the Photoshop tools used to improve photo quality.


Introduction

First, here are two things that we won’t be covering:

  • retouching – warping or changing elements of a photo, such as airbrushing out wrinkles or altering hair colour
  • compositing – combining elements from different photos to create something new

Here’s what we will cover:

  • improving sharpness
  • adjusting levels of shadows, midtones and highlights
  • optimising brightness and contrast
  • shifting colour balance
  • boosting saturation

This tutorial is about getting any image looking its best and to improve photo quality overall. It doesn’t change the underlying image.

The tutorial demonstrates what to look out for as you work. It helps you to understand why you use the tools, not just how.


Overview: using adjustment layers to improve photo quality

Each of the improvements (sharpness, levels, brightness/contrast, colour balance and saturation) gets its own layer. The layers are stacked, combining to optimise the image.

Before you learn how to create and control the layers, here’s an overview.

1: Original image

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This base layer at the bottom of the stack is the original, unaltered photo.

2: Sharpen

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The second layer adjusts sharpness. In the example above, heavy sharpening has been applied on the right. Normally you won’t apply this much sharpening; here it’s exaggerated for clarity.

You’ll notice that this layer has a sub-layer called Smart Filters, with Smart Sharpen below that. You’ll learn more about smart filters later in the tutorial.

3: Levels

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The next layer fine-tunes levels. Levels control the balance of shadows, midtones and highlights.

4: Brightness and contrast

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Brightness refers to the overall lightness or darkness of the image. Here the top half of the image has low brightness, the bottom half has high brightness.

Contrast refers to the difference between light and dark areas. The left side of the image is low contrast, the right is high contrast.

Brightness and contrast interact with each other, so they share an adjustment layer. Usually you’ll make subtle changes to them, but the example above is exaggerated for clarity.

5: Colour balance

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Colour balance controls colour shifts. Because you can apply different adjustments to highlights, midtones and shadows, it’s an extremely useful feature to improve photo quality. Again, this example is over-emphasised – normally you’ll apply much subtler changes.

6: Saturation

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Saturation indicates the overall amount of colour. A vivid pink has high saturation; a more subdued shade has low saturation.

Saturation shares its adjustment layer with another control, called Hue. Hue indicates the overall colour of your image. I rarely use it, because colour balance offers more finely tuned adjustments.

7: Colour fill

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The colour fill layer covers the whole image with an almost transparent tint. This prevents a technical problem which sometimes effects printed photos. If your image is only going to be displayed on screen, this layer isn’t vital. But I apply it to every photo I work on, just in case it’s printed at some point in the future. I’ll explain the printing problem (and how colour fill fixes it) later in the tutorial.

8: Combined enhancements

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All of the adjustment layers work together to improve photo quality. When I’ve finished, I group them together in a layer group called Enhancements.


Why use adjustment layers to improve photo quality?

These adjustments could be applied directly to the base image without creating layers. You’d do this from the menu bar by selecting Image > Adjustments. But using adjustment layers is a better approach for three reasons:

  • If you apply an adjustment directly, it’s permanent and locked into the base image. You can’t make changes without undoing it and starting over. But adjustment layers can be modified at any time.
  • Adjustments interact with each other. For example, your changes to levels will look different when you adjust brightness and contrast as well. You can go back and tweak the levels to better suit the new brightness and contrast. You can’t do this with direct adjustments.
  • Non-destructive editing is widely considered to be best practice in Photoshop. This means that the original image remains untouched and can be reverted to at any time. With the adjustment layer method, the image remains in its original state at the bottom of the stack.

Isn’t it time consuming to add all these layers?

In this tutorial, you’ll add each layer in turn and make appropriate adjustments along the way. The first time you do this, take your time and make sure you understand what you’re doing. With practice you will be able to do it in a few minutes.


Layer masks

This tutorial doesn’t go into detail about layer masks. They are an extremely powerful Photoshop feature and deserve a complete tutorial of their own. But as this tutorial deals with layers, a quick overview of layer masks is helpful.

If you look at all the sample screens above, you’ll see each adjustment layer has a small white rectangle next to its name. This is a thumbnail representation of that layer’s mask.

  • When a mask is white its layer is fully visible. The adjustment is applied at full strength.
  • When a mask is black its layer is completely invisible. The adjustment has no effect at all on the underlying image.
  • When a mask is grey its layer is partially visible. The strength of the adjustment relates directly to the darkness or lightness of the grey.

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The power of layer masks lies in the ability to put black, grey or white anywhere in the mask. Here half the layer mask is black and half of it is white, so the adjustments are applied only to one half of the image.

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Here the adjustments are applied only to the foreground of the photo. Layer masks let you fine-tune your adjustment layers in different parts of the image.


Let’s get started!

1: Open the photo

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Start by opening your photo – most of the time this will be a JPEG file. If you look in the Layers panel (Window > Layers from the menu bar) you’ll see that there’s a locked Background layer and no others.

2: Convert it to a smart object

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Smart objects are an incredibly versatile Photoshop feature. By creating a smart object you’re giving yourself more options for editing and retouching your image in the future.

To convert the Background layer to a smart object, right click on it in the Layers panel. Select Convert to Smart Object from the drop-down menu.

3: Rename the layer

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The default name for your new smart object is Layer 0, but something more descriptive can be helpful. Double click the name in the Layers panel to edit it.

4: Confirm the name

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Type Original Image and press Return to confirm the new name.

5: Save the file

Now is a good time to save your work. JPEG is a file format that doesn’t support layers. So the first time you save your new document it will default to Photoshop format and the file extension will change to PSD. Your original JPEG remains untouched, and from now on you’ll work on the Photoshop file.


Sharpen the image

1: Duplicate the original image layer

In the Layers panel, click and hold the mouse button down on the Original Image layer. With the mouse button held down, drag the layer towards the bottom of the panel. Move the cursor over the new layer icon (a square with a folded corner) and release the mouse button.

2: Rename the duplicate layer

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This creates a duplicate layer, called Original Image copy. To change the name of this layer, double click the name to highlight it.

3: Confirm the renamed layer

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Change the layer name to Sharpen and press Return to confirm. It’s a good idea to use descriptive names for layers to avoid confusion when there are lots of them.

4: Apply smart sharpen

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Go to the menu bar at the top of the screen and select Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen…

5: Change the smart sharpen values

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Smart sharpen has effective default values, but you can tweak them. First we’re going to increase the Amount value slightly above the default of 200%. If the 200% isn’t already highlighted, click on it to highlight it.

6: Increase the amount of sharpening

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230% works to improve photo quality on our sample image. You can either type the number or adjust it by moving the triangle on the slider bar.

7: Adjust the radius

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Radius (measured in pixels or px) defines the amount of space that Photoshop uses to apply the sharpening. Normally only small adjustments are needed, so increase this one to 1.5px.

8: Reduce noise and preview the changes

I’m happy with Reduce Noise setting for this photo, but alter yours if your image calls for it. There’s a preview area on the left of the controls where you can see your changes as you apply them. But there’s also a Preview option near the top of the box. Switch this on to see your changes on the image in the main window.

9: Confirm the changes

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Use the previews to monitor the effect of different smart sharpen values on your photo. When you’re happy click OK.

10: The smart sharpen smart filter

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Take a look at the Layers panel. You’ll see that a Smart Filters sub-layer has appeared, with Smart Sharpen under that.

11: Revising the smart sharpen values

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This is one advantage of smart objects in Photoshop. If you’d been working on a normal layer, your adjustments in the previous steps would have been final and irrevocable. But with a smart filter, just double click on the Smart Sharpen label and the settings reappear. You can change them at any time. Cancel it for now, and move on to the next stage.


Adjusting levels

Levels control how an image’s shadows, midtones and highlights relate to each other to help improve photo quality.

1: Create a levels adjustment layer

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Photoshop always creates a new layer above the one currently selected in the Layers panel. So make sure the Sharpen layer you were just working on is selected. To create a new adjustment layer, click on the create new fill or adjustment layer icon. This is the one that looks like a circle in two halves at the bottom of the panel. Select Levels… from the drop-down menu.

2: Levels properties

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The Properties panel appears, with options for the adjustment layer you just created. There are three sliders here:

  • the dark one represents shadows;
  • the grey one represents midtones;
  • the light one represents highlights.

Each slider also has a box underneath showing a number. You can adjust the values either by moving the sliders or by typing directly in the boxes.

There’s also a chart above the three sliders. This illustrates the distribution of shadows, midtones and highlights in the image. In this example, you can see there are a lot of shadows and few highlights – showing that the image is quite dark overall.

At the bottom of the of the panel there’s a gradient bar with two further sliders and numbered boxes labeled Output Levels. You can ignore this part of the panel because any changes you make here will effect overall contrast; and you’ll be fine tuning contrast on another adjustment layer later in the tutorial.

3: Setting automatic levels

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You can let Photoshop analyse the image and make its own suggestions for levels. To do this, click on the Auto button.

4: Automatic levels results

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The distribution of the shadows, midtones and highlights changes when you click Auto. In the example, the midtone and highlight slider both move to the left to lighten the image.

5: Bring out the detail

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The reason you adjust levels is to bring out hidden detail. So you need to look at your image carefully and move the sliders appropriately.

When I pressed the Auto button the image was lightened. Detail in the shadows became more visible (the model’s beard and hair). So now it’s worth moving the midtone and highlight sliders more to the left, to improve that detail.

Usually you’ll find detail is hidden in the shadows, but occasionally there will be hidden detail in lighter areas. It depends on the image, so move the sliders and make considerate adjustments that genuinely improve photo quality.

6: Before and after

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You can compare your changes to the original image at any time. Just click on the view previous state icon at the bottom of the panel. It’s an eye symbol with a curved arrow next to it. This doesn’t undo your adjustments, it’s just a review.

7: Don’t go to far

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Remember, the goal is to bring out hidden detail. Don’t go too far. In this example, the highlight and midtone sliders are too far left and the lighter areas have actually lost detail. The highlights on the model’s nose and cheek are now too light – the distinctions between them are now less visible.

8: Balance

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So make your adjustments to bring out hidden detail without removing it from other areas. It’s a balancing act, and you should use your eyes and exercise judgement. A highlight value of 201 works well to improve photo quality for this image.

9: Revising the levels

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In the Layers panel you’ll see the levels adjustment layer at the top of the stack. You can revise the levels at any time; just double click on the adjustment layer icon and the Properties panel will appear.


Adjusting brightness and contrast

1: Create a brightness and contrast adjustment layer

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In the previous steps you adjusted levels to change how the highlights, midtones and shadows interacted. Adjusting brightness and contrast effects the image as a whole, so these adjustments will need to be more subtle.

Create a new adjustment layer above the previous one. Click on the new fill or adjustment layer icon, and select Brightness/Contrast…

2: Setting automatic brightness and contrast

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The Properties panel for your new adjustment layer appears. To start with, click Auto to see what Photoshop recommends.

3: Fine-tuning brightness and contrast

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In our image Auto increased brightness and decreased contrast. You can fine tune these settings by adjusting the sliders or typing values in the boxes.

4: Avoid too much brightness

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As before, the goal is to refine the image so that more detail is visible. So don’t go to far; by increasing brightness this much I’ve lost detail in the highlights.

5: Avoid too much contrast

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For the same reason, don’t overdo your changes to contrast. By going too high here, I’ve lost all the shadow detail I brought out earlier.

6: Before and after brightness and contrast

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Use the view previous state option to compare your changes as you make them. When you’re happy, it’s time to move on to colour balance.


Adjusting colour balance

Unless there’s a heavy colour cast to your image, colour balance adjustments should be very subtle. Your changes will depend on many factors. One is lighting in the original photo: electric light gives a different colour cast to natural light. And natural light looks different at morning or dusk; bright sunlight and clouds have different effects.

Remember that a good photographer will be aware of lighting conditions. For example, they might deliberately emphasise warmer colours in a photo of a beach. You could undo this with colour adjustments, so make sure you really do improve photo quality!

On the other hand, colour balance can make dramatic improvements to a bad photo (or an old and faded one).

Also, be aware of colours around you. If you’re working in a room decorated in a strong colour your eyes will adjust to it and might alter the way you see colour on screen. It’s better to use Photoshop in natural daylight if you can.

If you are inexperienced, it can be difficult to look at a photo and judge how best to improve its colour balance. It comes with experience, so keep practicing.

1: Create a colour balance adjustment layer

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Create a new adjustment layer above the previous one. Click on the new fill or adjustment layer icon, and select Color Balance…

2: The colour balance sliders

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In the Properties panel you’ll see three sliders, each of which changes the balance between contrasting colours. There’s also a drop-down menu labeled Tone – its default is Midtones.

3: Start with the highlights

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Select Highlights from the tone drop-down menu.

4: Get used to the effects

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Try some extremes so you can see the effect they have. Move the first slider away from cyan and all the way up to red, so the value is +100.

5: Try another extreme

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Now go the other way, all the way over to cyan. Notice that the value of the slider is -100. 0 is the neutral value between the two extremes of -100 and +100.

6: Cumulative effects

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Notice that the different sliders combine with each other. Keep the cyan/red value at -100 and move the bottom slider all the way over to yellow (-100). You’ve made the image green – just as if you mixed cyan and yellow ink you’d get green. Ramp up the magenta/green slider to +100 as well. You’ve now made the highlights as green as they can possibly be. Each slider is the maximum distance away from the neutral value of 0.

7: Undo the effects

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That’s an extreme example to show how the colour balance sliders work. We’ll undo the changes and apply some that actually improve the photo. Click the reset icon – it’s the anticlockwise arrow at the bottom of the panel.

8: Adjust highlights

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Very generally speaking, you can usually improve photo quality by warming the highlights slightly. But this isn’t an unbreakable rule. So use your judgement and remember: subtlety. I’ve moved the cyan/red slider to +7 and the yellow/blue slider to -8. This is a slight nudge towards the warmer colours.

9: Select midtones

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Now select Midtones from the tone drop-down menu.

10: Adjust midtones

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You’ll often get good results by moving the sliders in the same direction for midtones as you did for highlights. Again, it’s not a golden rule – so use your eyes and best judgement.

Here I’ve warmed the colours slightly, as I did with the highlights. Remember to keep it subtle unless there’s an overwhelming colour cast already on your photo.

11: Counter effects

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The adjustments in the previous step had the side-effect of removing some green midtones, making the whole photo slightly too red. So I compensate by increasing the green a small amount.

12: Select shadows

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Now select Shadows from the tone drop-down menu.

13: Adjust shadows

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You’ll often find that if you move the highlights and midtones in one direction, you improve photo quality by moving the shadows in the other. Again – not a golden rule! But it works well for the this photo. Having warmed the highlights and midtones, cooling the shadows balances the image.


Adjusting saturation

The adjustments you made to levels, brightness and contrast earlier mean that to improve photo quality you will probably need to boost saturation. It’s rare to reduce saturation at this stage, unless you’re deliberately aiming for a desaturated look.

Increasing saturation is a great way to get your photo to “pop”.

1: Create a hue/saturation adjustment layer

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Create a new adjustment layer above the previous one. Click on the new fill or adjustment layer icon, and select Hue/Saturation…

2: Increase saturation

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You shouldn’t need to touch two of the sliders in this panel:

  • the Hue slider effects overall colour, and you’ve already applied colour adjustments in the last step;
  • the Lightness slider effects overall tone, and you’ve already improved these on the brightness and contrast and levels adjustment layers.

So in this stage, only adjust the saturation slider. Increasing saturation benefits most photos.

But this is too much of an increase and it doesn’t improve photo quality. A +60 saturation has obscured some of the shadow detail. And there’s now too much contrast in some areas. Look at the shadow under the model’s right eye: it’s a very bright red.

3: Refine saturation

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A Saturation setting of +23 is enough to give the photo a bit of pop without overloading it.


Applying a tint

This last step could be considered optional when you want to improve photo quality. It helps to prevent a problem that sometimes occurs in printed photos. This won’t apply if your image is going to be seen on a screen. But I always add a tint, as the image might be printed in the future.

First I’ll show you how to apply the tint, then I’ll explain why I do it.

1: Create a solid colour fill layer

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Make sure your top layer is selected in the Layers panel. Click on the create new fill or adjustment layer icon and select Solid Color… from the drop-down menu.

2: Choose a tint colour

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Create a solid cyan by typing the RGB values of R:0 G:174 B:255.

3: Confirm the tint colour

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Click OK to confirm.

4: Change the blending mode

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You’ll see that there’s a new layer filled with the solid cyan. This completely obscures your photo so you need to change the blending mode. Near the top of the Layers panel there’s a drop-down menu that currently shows Normal. Click on the menu and change it to Multiply.

5: Changing the opacity

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The cyan is now transparent and you can see your photo underneath it. But this isn’t the effect you want – the tint should be barely visible. So go to the Opacity option that’s currently set at 100%.

6: Reduce the opacity

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Change the opacity to 3%. That’s very low, but not completely invisible.

7: Why add a 3% tint?

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When a photo is printed on a printing press, the image is converted into a pattern of small coloured dots. These dots are called a halftone.

Any pure white areas in your photo will lead to no dots at all in that part of the halftone. This is very noticeable on a printed photo. An area of pure white paper shows through, making it look like shoddy printing.

8: Continuous halftone

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But with a 3% tint applied, halftone dots fill the area. The halftone is continuous over the whole photo and the problem is solved.

9: Changing the tint colour

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3% is enough to fill the white areas without being noticeable on the darker areas. But even at just 3% cyan might cool your photo more than you’d like. If this happens to your photo, just double click the colour fill layer icon to change the colour to something warmer.


Finishing up

You’ve just learned a series of pro-level techniques to improve photo quality with Photoshop. Just as importantly, you know why you should use them and understand how the individual adjustments combine into the finished photo.

Now for a little bit of tidying up.

1: Select your top layer

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Click on the top layer in the Layers panel – Color Fill 1.

2: Select all the adjustment layers

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Hold down the Shift key on your keyboard and click on the second bottom layer, Sharpen. This selects all your adjustment layers.

3: Group the layers

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Click on the options menu icon. It’s the four parallel lines at the top right of the Layers panel. This gives you a drop-down menu – chose New Group from Layers…

4: Group options

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You’ll see an options box for your new layer group. Don’t alter the mode and opacity settings, but you can change the name.

5: Change the layer group name

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Type Enhancements or another suitable description. Click OK to approve.

6: The new layer group

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All your adjustment layers are grouped together. You can get to them at any time just by clicking on the arrow to the left of the folder icon.

7: Add a layer mask

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One final thing which might be useful in the future – add a layer mask to the whole layer group. Click on the add layer mask icon at the bottom of the panel (the icon is the one with a circle inside a rectangle).

8: All done

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And there it is, a layer mask ready for future editing. But for now: save your work, you’re done. Great job!


Congratulations! Here are 10 things you just learned about how to improve photo quality in Photoshop…

How to:

  1. work non-destructively
  2. use adjustment layers
  3. combine adjustment layers so they interact
  4. create a smart object
  5. apply smart sharpening
  6. adjust levels and understand shadows, midtones and highlights
  7. fine tune brightness and contrast
  8. balance colours
  9. increase saturation
  10. avoid whiteout on printed halftones

Keep practicing this process until it becomes a habit. As well as learning how to improve photo quality in Photoshop, you’ll become more familiar with adjustment layers and their settings. These are high-level skills – you’re on your way to becoming a Photoshop pro!