How to Add Functionality to Photoshop CC with Free Extensions

The post How to Add Functionality to Photoshop CC with Free Extensions appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

Using extensions in Photoshop is like putting scaffolding on Mount Everest. The program already has more features than you probably need. But you can add more functionality by using free extensions. Photoshop CC even invites you to “Find Extensions on Exchange…” on the Windows menu.

Finding Photoshop extensions

When browsing the Adobe Exchange site for extensions, take note of what products they’re compatible with. Otherwise, you’ll end up downloading stuff that won’t install. Naturally, free extensions are less likely to be up to date. Some of the paid add-ons are worth a look, with the caveat that you can’t always try them out first.

Extension installers

You can install Adobe extensions easily by using either Anastasiy’s Extension Manager or the ZXP Installer. (I use the latter.) Drag the .zxp file onto the app, and the extension will be waiting next time you open Photoshop. (Or at least it should be.) You can also use Adobe’s Creative Cloud desktop app to install and uninstall extensions.

Installing Photoshop CC extensions

If your extension doesn’t load automatically through the Creative Cloud app, try Anastasiy’s Extension Manager or the ZXP Installer.

Three great free extensions

Some great up-to-date extensions are available for free. They might be a segue from an unpaid product to a paid one or have some other sales angle, but they’re still handy additions to Photoshop.

Here are three free extensions that work with Photoshop CC in 2019 (version 20.0.4 as I write).

Adobe Paper Textures Pro (Russell Brown)

This extension lets you easily add paper textures to photos. The downside is the supplied textures are web-size only, so you can’t add them to big files without losing definition. Of course, it’s designed to hook you into buying full-res textures from Fly Paper. But if you’re into this type of editing, it’s probably worth it, as they appear to be high quality.

Photoshop texture overlay

A textured digital photo using one of the supplied Fly Paper overlays in Adobe Paper Textures Pro.

To make Adobe Paper Textures Pro fully functional without costing you anything, you can download free full-res texture images from other web sources and load those up instead. The textures automatically blend with your open image, so it’s quicker than creating layers manually. In the past, the extension has drawn a few negative reviews. But it has behaved well for me, and despite the odd glitch, it’s a lot of fun to use.

Adobe Paper Textures Pro and a separately sourced texture overlay.

Interactive Luminosity Masks (Sven Stork)

Being able to select different areas of luminosity within an image can be useful when making local edits. You might want to adjust the contrast or tone in one area and not another. Or perhaps you want to avoid sharpening noisy, darker areas of the image or apply noise reduction to the shadows.

The Interactive Luminosity Mask lets you select highlights, mid-tones or shadows, and also allows a customized choice with a zone mask and picker.

Using a luminosity mask in Photoshop - free extension

A luminosity mask exposing shadow areas only for adjustment. You can invert the selection if you want to protect an area rather than edit it.

The extension also includes saturation masks. These were once useful for selectively increasing saturation, but the vibrance slider made that a little redundant. Even so, there’s still a lot of value in being able to use color to make selections. For instance, you may want to avoid sharpening large single-tone areas such as skies. This add-on lets you select areas of low, mid or high saturation, or manually pick a color using the zone mask. You can even launch channels and commonly used adjustment layers from within the extension.

Facebook Grid Cover (Bojan Živkovic)

Photography on Facebook - free extensions

Facebook grids force you to curate your own photos if you want to create a good one. That’s always a useful exercise. This add-on set of actions works flawlessly.

Facebook covers may seem like a frivolous way to spend your time. But creating a grid of photos that look good together isn’t always easy. Even with a simple three-image grid, you may find composing a good online triptych challenging. This extension doesn’t end up in your extensions menu. Instead, it’s an action (or series of actions) that loads initially onto your desktop.

You can pick up to 13 images to go into your Facebook grid cover, and the actions let you switch any one of them as long as the layers remain intact. Whether you run a photographic Facebook page, or just want one for your own cover, this extension will create an eye-catching result.

Further delights

Here are some more free extensions for you to try:

  1. Thomas Zagler’s Free Stock Search is ideal for finding free stock images you can use for things such as digital composites. You could compile a folder of free texture photos and use them with the Adobe Paper Textures Pro extension I talked about earlier.
    Free stock search - free extension

    Free stock photos are useful for overlays in Photoshop. Add texture to your photos or drop in a better sky.

  2. Sven Stork’s Interactive Blender Panel lets you blend pictures together according to tone (highlights, mid-tones, or shadows) and leave the rest of the photo unblended. This is ideal for dropping in more appealing skies, among other things.

    Digitally adding skies in Photoshop

    This is another first-rate offering from Sven Stork. Adding better skies is one use for blending pictures by tone. You can use a layer mask to brush out any unwanted blending.

  3. Anil Tejwani’s Action Launcher provides useful ways to organize your actions, including alphabetically or by favorites. Note: The favorites feature expires after 30 days unless you upgrade to the pro version.

    Photoshop free extensions

    Action Launcher lets you easily filter and organize your actions.

  4. Davide Barranca’s PS Tools lets you lay out all the Photoshop tools you actually use in a pop-out panel and conceal the rest.

    Photoshop tools

    This extension lets you lay out all the tools you usually use and hide the rest. (Note: The panel doesn’t float. The illustration shows screenshots of editing pane and selected tools.)

  5. Denis Yanov’s RealLookLongShadow panel gives you lots of control over drop shadows and their length to make photos or cut-outs stand out.

    Photoshop drop shadows - free extensions

    This extension lets you create longer shadows than is usually possible within Photoshop.

Your recommendations

I hope you find some of these extensions useful or fun. Please feel free to add your own recommendations for free or paid extensions in the comments.


The post How to Add Functionality to Photoshop CC with Free Extensions appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

How to Create and Use Gradient Maps in Photoshop

The post How to Create and Use Gradient Maps in Photoshop appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

We often perceive color in digital photos to be “correct” when the neutral tones – if they exist – are indeed neutral. But in the real world, light always has some color cast or other that affects the areas it illuminates. A camera sensor ruthlessly reproduces these uninvited hues, but still, we try to edit photos to reflect our own vision. Gradient maps can either correct color or spin it to your advantage.

Using a gradient map to correct color

A blue gradient map removes the reddish color cast of artificial lighting (as per right of picture). Your choice of hue, saturation and brightness gives you fine control over the result.

You can use gradient maps for dramatic black and white conversions or create different monochromatic effects, but this article focuses on color gradient maps to:

  • Use them to subtly improve photos
  • Separate elements within your compositions using color contrast
  • Make subjects stand out
Color gradient map on a black and white image

This image was originally black and white. Because the fog in the picture creates smooth transitions in tone, you can clearly see what the “robin egg to orange peel” gradient is doing.

What does a gradient map do?

A gradient map at its simplest is a smooth gradation between one color (or tone) and another. Let’s say you have a gradient map that goes from green to orange. When you apply that to an image, the shadows would have a green tint and highlights an orange one. The mid-tones are typically least affected except with more complex multi-color maps.

how a color gradient map works

Here, a black and white gradient occupies the lower half of the image. Above that is a color gradient map, and above that is the effect it has on the lower half once an “overlay” or “soft light” blending mode is applied (soft light tends to be more subtle). Don’t worry if you can see banding.

You might be wondering at this point: why would I want to twist the color of a photo and effectively give shadows and highlights a color cast? This, after all, is virtually the opposite of a white balance correction. One reason is to enrich the colors that already exist in a photo.

Using a color gradient map to enhance colors

For this picture, I’ve created a custom gradient map that emphasizes the orange brickwork and the deep blue sky. This is one way of warming up the building without forfeiting the color of the sky.

Another good reason to use gradient maps is to harness the power of complementary or analogous colors and create more eye-catching pictures. Sometimes, the feel of a photo is more important than the truth, which only ever exists in degrees to begin with.

an old color wheel - complementary colors

An old color wheel illustration. Opposite colors are complementary colors, so they’re a good choice for gradient maps.

If you imbue your shadows and highlights with complementary colors, you will often make the photo a little more eye-catching. It might be subtle, but it still works in your favor. This isn’t a magic bullet that makes all photos great, but it’s fun to experiment with. You’re becoming a colorist.

Creating gradient maps

The simplest way to create a gradient map in Photoshop is to go to your toolbar and set the background and foreground colors to the ones you want at either end of your gradient. Then, when you open the gradient map, the colors are already in place.

If you want to use precise colors in your gradient map – perhaps complementary colors you’ve found on the Internet – you can enter the hex numbers into the color picker pane instead of randomly sampling.

gradient maps in Photoshop - cold hues

Gradient maps don’t have to include radically opposing colors. This one has a cold effect all the way through.

Method 1

This is one method for creating a gradient map:

  1. Open your image in Photoshop.
  2. Go to the toolbar and set the background color (click on the rear of the two squares to bring up the color picker pane). This will be your highlight color, bearing in mind you can reverse the gradient in Photoshop anyway.
  3. Do the same with the foreground color by clicking on the front square. This will be your shadow color.
  4. With the shadow/highlight gradient colors chosen, open a gradient map adjustment layer. At this point, the photo looks drowned by color, but we’re not done yet.
  5. Choose either soft light or overlay blending modes and adjust the opacity to taste.

Needless to say, not all gradient maps suit all pictures. One way to create useful gradient maps is by looking for color schemes on the Internet. There are also websites that discuss the color palettes used in movies or movie scenes, which you can “borrow” for your own photos.

Adobe color themes - complementary colors

You can use “Adobe Color Themes” to find the perfect complementary color for one that you’ve chosen. Create a gradient map accordingly. In this case, the yellow-green hue in the little squares is the opposite color to this patch of purple.

Method 2

A more tailored way to create a gradient map is as follows:

  1. Open your image in Photoshop.
  2. Open a gradient map adjustment layer.
  3. Set the blending mode to soft light or overlay.
  4. Click on the gradient to open the gradient editor.
  5. Click on the left color stop (square slider at lower left), then click in the color window that activates.
  6. At this point, you can adjust the shadow color and see its effect in real time on your photo as you move the color picker around.
  7. Do the same with the right-hand highlight color stop.
  8. Now you have a custom-made gradient map for that image.

Note: you have to use the preset manager in Photoshop to save your gradient maps if you want to use them again. Otherwise, they vanish when you close the program.

Color gradient - layer mask - selective editing

If you use gradient map layers rather than direct edits, you have a layer mask built in. In this picture, I wanted the deep blue-green of the water that contrasts well with the reflecting lights, but I didn’t want to lose the warm shadows in the buildings. I brushed those back in, so the gradient map only affects the water and sky.

Gradient maps vs color LUTs

An alternative to gradient maps is color LUTs (look-up tables), which you can also find in Photoshop and other programs. Rather than applying color according to the tone of the image as a gradient map does, a LUT shifts hues numerically.

The latter often causes a radical change in mid-tone subjects like skies and trees, whereas simpler gradients tend to leave those areas relatively unscathed. But it depends. LUTs, like gradients, vary a lot in their effect.

Comparison between color luts and gradient maps

This is a comparison between an orange-teal color LUT (left) and an orange-teal gradient map. Both are more atmospheric than the neutral image I started with, though the LUT has completely altered the color of the trees to the right. Mid-tones are less changed in the gradient map, but highlights are decidedly more orange.

The starting point: white balance

Whether you apply a gradient map or a LUT, the end result is affected by the preexisting white balance in the image. As photographers, we don’t always want to drain a photo of warm or cold light with a white balance adjustment. It’s frequently this light that makes the picture – adds to its atmosphere. However, such an adjustment ensures a purer result with gradient maps and LUTs.

Color LUTs and gradients are usually designed from a white-balance-corrected starting point. So, if you want to see them as the author intended, consider correcting white balance at the raw stage. This isn’t anywhere near compulsory: you can simply lay these edits over photos and they’ll act as filters. Just know that their effect can be exaggerated, skewed or diminished if the photo already has a color cast.

If you customize a gradient map to suit the image, the need for a prior white-balance adjustment obviously disappears. But this is time consuming compared to having a set of tried-and-tested presets at your fingertips.

Enhancing colors and color contrast

The color in the red lens at the front is brought out by this gradient map and the tone of the wood becomes darker than the original. There’s some cool-warm contrast going on here between wood and glass.

Creating multi-color gradient maps

I find simple two-tone gradient maps more useful and certainly more versatile than complex ones, but you can add further colors to the gradient if you wish. You might add a separate color to mid-tones, for instance.

Use analogous colors (sets of three closely related hues) or triadic colors to inspire you, or customize a gradient to enhance the colors that exist in a photo.

triad colors - triadic colors

I probably wouldn’t go for this look, but it illustrates the effect of a three-color gradient map (violet, green, orange – a triadic combo). The different tones in this abstract architectural shot bring all three into play, albeit with a very subtle orange in highlights.

Here’s the method for adding a further color to your gradient:

  1. Open your image in Photoshop.
  2. Create a two-color gradient map as above (steps 1-7).
  3. Click under the center of the gradient in the gradient editor to create a third color stop.
  4. Click on the newly created color stop to activate the color window, then click in that window.
  5. Choose a third color that complements the image (e.g. for mid-tones) and adjust its effect by changing the position of the middle slider. The small outer sliders alter the area affected by this color regardless of its position along the tonal range.

The more colors you add, generally the muddier and less “realistic” the photo appears, but that may be an effect you’re going for.

mullti-color gradient - Photoshop preset

I can’t think of a useful role for this multi-color gradient map. However, it does serve to show you how colors are distributed across different tones. By initially viewing the image in “normal” blending mode, you get a clear idea of how colors will affect the photo before you switch to overlay or soft light.

Using restraint

You can add gradient maps to photos and many people won’t notice you’ve done it. But that’s not to say they don’t have the desired effect.

Just like in the movies, you’re using color to create a mood or make the subject or foreground stand out from the background. You’re not necessarily trying to draw attention to the color itself, even if it pleases your eye.

Many photographers think in terms of light and dark to create impact, or saturation boosts, but color contrast is a rarer consideration.

Although gradient maps (and color LUTs) are powerful tools for making pictures stand out, it’s easy to get carried away with them. After a period of overdosing, you’ll come to recognize the types of images they work best on and which of your gradients to use where. Here are five free gradients you might like to try out. Happy colorizing!

Try out these techniques and share your images with us in the comments below.


The post How to Create and Use Gradient Maps in Photoshop appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

How Using Movies Can Inspire Your Photography

The post How Using Movies Can Inspire Your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

One of the best ways to “improve” at photography is to look at a lot of pictures. Ask yourself why some photos work and others don’t. This is easy to do with the endless photo books and magazines available. You can also learn a lot from the world of cinema. Use movies to inspire your photography!

bleach bypass filter effect

The bleach bypass effect originated from movies.

Many of the tricks and techniques used in movies are transferable to stills photography. It might be the lighting, the color contrast, the depth of field or the camera angle that gets your attention. Watch your favorite movies and see what you can learn, but also consider watching films you wouldn’t normally watch. Note the names of directors and observe their style.


Lighting is obviously an important part of cinematography, but it’s not always discussed in the same terms that photographers are used to. For instance, there is “motivated” and “unmotivated” lighting. The former uses a light source within the frame, whereas the source of unmotivated lighting is unknown to the viewer.

Photographers often leave artificial light sources out of frame. So not doing so and improvising with various lights (e.g., headlamps) makes your pictures instantly more movie-like.

A classic movie lighting technique is three-point lighting. By lighting the subject from the front, back, and side, cinematographers create modeling and separate their subjects from the background. The strongest light is the key light, while the other light sources are fill lights.

Stills photographers are familiar with the hardness and softness of light. Soft light generally comes from a large light source and hard light from a small one. Soft light is often more desirable, but the harsh shadows caused by hard lighting are useful in horror or film noir-style movies.

Inspiring your photography with movies - film noir

A small light source (e.g. table lamp) placed near the subject creates big, bold shadows – film noir-style.

Film Noir

Popular during the 1940s and 50s, and still a reference for today’s movie-makers, film noir uses low-key lighting and often a small light source to create long or bold shadows. You’ll see other tricks, too, like low camera angles to emphasize power in lead actors and instill fear in the viewer. Modern interpretations of film noir are “neo-noir” movies.

Inspiring your photography with movies - film noir

Almost film noir with the banister shadow cast onto the wall via an artificial light.


Cinematographers, like photographers, use various tricks to separate elements in the frame. One way to do this is by using complementary colors to create color contrast. A common example is the orange and teal grading seen in many movie and TV scenes.

orange and teal grading, movie effects, toning

Orange and teal grading, which can be achieved in numerous ways with varying degrees of subtlety. This is still very common in movies and on TV.

Orange and teal are opposite each other on a color wheel, like all complementary colors. These hues are useful for emphasizing skin tones against a dark background, but they also work well in beach scenes, sunsets and sometimes street views.

Color Contrast in Photoshop CC

The latest version of Photoshop CC includes the Adobe Color Themes extension, which can be used to find perfect complementary colors and paint them into photos. This technique works best in unfussy pictures, where you may want to create eye-catching color contrast between two main elements. You might paint a wall green, for instance, to complement a red subject in the foreground.

Inspiring your photography with movies - Adobe Color Themes extension

The Adobe Color Themes extension showing the complementary color for this Harley Davidson paintwork.

You can also create these color contrast effects at the raw stage using split toning or calibration sliders in Lightroom or ACR. The channels sliders in Photoshop are another possibility, as are gradient maps. Try creating a gradient map by dialing in your own choice of complementary colors!

Camera Angles

Even as beginners, photographers soon realize that camera angles are important. In tall buildings, a sloping camera angle emphasizes height and has a disorienting effect on the viewer. Look at stills from Spiderman movies to see this! Buildings are very often diagonal in the frame. Or there’ll be several converging buildings to create a dizzying effect.

The Dutch angle (or Dutch tilt)

In movie terms, slanting the camera to create a diagonal perspective is called a “Dutch tilt”. You’d use it for the reasons described above, although not only with buildings. It wrong-foots the viewer and creates a feeling of tension, uneasiness or instability. Sometimes it conveys a psychological malaise in the subject. The Dutch tilt is a feature of film noir movies, too, as another means of unsettling viewers.

Inspiring your photography with movies - the Dutch tilt, the Dutch angle

The Dutch tilt.

Soft focus effect

In old movies, and not-so-old TV series, leading ladies were often shrouded with a soft-focus effect. Then we’d cut to the rugged leading man in sharp relief. Aside from its romantic quality, this effect has a smoothing effect that conceals skin blemishes and flatters the subject. The idea of routinely beautifying women for “the silver screen” is a little controversial today, but use of soft focus isn’t limited to portraits.

soft focus photo effect - Gaussian blur

Marcel Proust can be my soft-focus model. Note how his bronze skin is smoother in the upper part of the photo. This is a simple Gaussian blur edit.

A subtle soft-focus effect can work quite well with scenery and it’s a useful way of remedying over-sharpening in web photos. Ideally, that shouldn’t happen, but sometimes resizing introduces a slight crunchiness in pictures (as does sharpening without your glasses on).

One easy Photoshop method for a soft-focus effect is to create a duplicate layer, apply Gaussian blur to that layer with a value of about 10 and then reduce opacity. For a dreamy look, you can use an opacity of about 30-50%, but a much lower value will take the edge off sharpening in a web image.

Evoke a film genre

Even if you’re not directly copying a movie technique, you can still try to capture the feel of a movie genre. For instance, a war movie might have somber colors and a grainy look, while you could use a strong vignette and cool or dark tones to suggest a horror movie. Vignettes force the viewer’s eye along a specific path, so they can evoke a nightmarish loss of control if the subject matter lends itself to that treatment.

horror movies, macabre photos

Heavy vignetting and a somber tone get somewhere near a horror movie feel.

Choosing lenses

Cinematographers choose lenses for similar reasons to stills photographers: image quality, lens speed, practicality. They might use a fast telephoto zoom in less controllable situations (e.g. documentary shooting), but often they use prime lenses.

You can buy into the cinematic look with what used to be called a standard lens – the 50mm prime. These are relatively cheap, though the faster, more expensive models (e.g. f/1.4) sometimes have more pleasing bokeh. And you can close them down a stop or two for sharper results than cheaper lenses at the same aperture. Still, the affordable 50mm f/1.8 is always a great buy. It’s also less prone to focusing problems than ultra-fast lenses.

Shame the modern cars ruin the vintage feel of this photo. I took it with a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens, which was well known for its creamy background “bokeh”. Any 50mm lens is useful.

Other prime lenses to consider include a wide-angle 28 or 35mm (or equivalent) and a fast “portrait” lens of between 80 and 105mm. The ability to use a wide aperture gives you more creative choice and helps isolate subjects, though clearly this is not always a cinematic aim.

Studying movies

You can learn a lot about photography just by closely studying movies. If you watch DVDs or Blu-ray discs, you might have the director’s commentary as an extra feature. This gives fascinating insight into the reasons scenes are shot the way they are. A director has the last say in framing and how a movie looks, although the cinematographer also has creative input (e.g. in lighting a scene).

10 Well-Shot Movies

Here are 10 movies from many that I admire for their photography:

  • Casablanca (1942)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Chinatown (1974)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979)
  • The Shining (1980)
  • Amélie (2001)
  • Children of Men (2006)
  • No Country for Old Men (2007)
  • The Tree of Life (2011)
  • Mr. Turner (2014)

A more extensive list is here. It helps if the subject matter appeals to you, but dedication can overcome this.

Inspiring your photography with movies - DVDs

An unforgettable movie still and a brilliantly shot horror film: The Shining. I don’t tend to watch horror films, but I’ve seen this many times.

Closing shot

The aim of this article is just to get you thinking about movies and how you can use them to inspire your own photography. Look at the style of different directors, the way they frame pictures and the colors they use. Look for their patterns across several movies. Check out the lighting.

I was taking photos for years before I made a connection between stills photography and movies. I spent my formative years gazing at photo magazines without often reading the accompanying text. Since then, movies and their media have evolved. They’re more accessible.

Everything in life may influence our photography on some tangential level, but if you make a conscious effort to understand and repeat cinematic techniques, those that you admire will ingrain themselves in your pictures.

Has your photography been influenced by movies? Feel free to share some of your shots in the comments below.

The post How Using Movies Can Inspire Your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

How to Use Textures to Create Compelling Photographs

The post How to Use Textures to Create Compelling Photographs appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

Adding textures to photos is a fun way of creating new pictures. In some respects, it’s not very different to printing your photos onto textured paper or choosing frames for them (or both), except the images needn’t leave your computer. You can do this with photos you’ve already taken, though often it’s best to create them with this treatment in mind.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Cracked earth photo in the background.

Choosing your photos

You can add textures to almost any type of picture, but this method works well with simple photos where there isn’t a lot of fussy detail. Ideally, you need a sizeable single-tone area that allows the background to come through. Otherwise, you can use a simple texture with a complex photo – the important thing is that the two photos do not fight.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

A harmless subject, despite appearances.

You can apply this treatment to portraits, landscapes, still lifes, or just about any genre. With still life, you’re at a particular advantage because you can take very simple pictures of subjects against plain backgrounds and then attempt to create something interesting later with a textured background.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Melding photos together is not a purist’s approach to photography, but you need only ask yourself one question: do you like the result? Adding a texture to a background is like putting two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. Do the two parts suit each other? A beneficial side effect of creating these pictures is that you’ll start noticing and shooting all kinds of textures to use with your photos.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Splodges of paint in the background.

Finding and photographing textures

You can create your own backgrounds quite easily by photographing textures around the home. For instance, try capturing textured paper, sandpaper, fences, walls, wood grain, baking trays, tiles, canvas, painted surfaces, rusting surfaces or concrete. Mid-tone textures with contrasting colors or details tend to work better than monotonous dark or bright surfaces.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Silhouetted trees against a blue painted background.

Try screwing up pieces of paper and then flattening them out for backgrounds. You can even use a scanner for paper backgrounds, which has the advantage of holding them flat while still recording the folds and creases.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

The same silhouetted trees against brown paper. I wanted to avoid distracting contrast in the paper, so the processing holds off on highlights.

If you want to try this technique and don’t have any texture photographs in your library, you can always grab some to practice with from free photo websites (e.g.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

A French WW1 Croix de Guerre medal, originally shot against a white card background.

Another possibility is to use the in-built textures offered within image editing programs. Photoshop CC has this to a limited extent. There’s also a good textures section in ON1 Effects (standalone or filter plugin) that offers a lot of choice.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

In Photoshop CC you can reveal the “Texture” filter under preferences. It only works on 8-bit images. This is the Canvas texture.

Photoshop Technique (or similar)

To blend textures into backgrounds, you need an editing program that has layers and blending modes. The second usually comes with the first. In brief, you just need to drag one photo on top of the other and adjust the blending mode between the layers to suit. Sometimes you might need to tweak opacity.

Here’s a more precise workflow:

  1. Open the two images you intend to merge (i.e. subject and textured background).
  2. Ensure that the texture image is the same size as the main photo or slightly larger. If it is much larger (e.g. a full-sized file layered onto a web image), it will appear less sharp.
  3. Using the move tool in Photoshop, drag the texture image onto the main photo. This automatically creates a second layer (“Layer 1”).
  4. Try the various layer blending modes in your layers palette until you find one that suits the image. “Overlay” is one that often works well.
  5. Adjust opacity to taste. If you want to strengthen the effect rather than fade it, you can duplicate Layer 1.
  6. Merge the layers (Ctrl + E) or Flatten Image.

You can do this the other way round and drag the main image onto the texture, but then the opacity slider becomes less useful. You ideally want to be able to fade the texture effect rather than the main photo. Also, if the texture file is larger, having that one on top avoids the need to crop the image afterwards.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Using the Brush Tool

Another thing you can do with your textures is to selectively paint parts of the effect out of or into the picture. You might do this if, for instance, you want to create the illusion that an object within the photo is resting on a textured background without being part of it.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Using a ON1 Effects texture I’ve created henna-type markings on the hand and used the brush tool to remove the same pattern from the watch.

To do this, you need to create a layer mask on “Layer 1” (your texture photo). Then, making sure the brush foreground color is black – visible in the tools palette – you use the brush tool at 100% opacity to selectively paint the texture out. Hitting “X” lets you paint detail back in again if you get clumsy.

Alternatively, you can do the opposite and create a black layer mask, painting texture into the picture with a white brush.


I mentioned earlier choosing textures and photos that suit each other. So, what might that mean? Ultimately, you get to decide what goes well with what, but some textures intrinsically suit some subjects. For instance, old books generally go better with leather, paper or card textures than they do with a brick wall. Metallic objects might go well with rust or oxidation.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Another ON1 Effects texture (rice paper).

With human subjects, you might want to infer something else altogether, like cracks for old age or the passing of time. Be careful who you use that on! The bolder the texture is, generally the more limited it is in its potential. You can use paper and canvas textures on almost anything because of their photographic and artistic connection and their unobtrusiveness.

Express yourself

Any picture you produce on a computer rather than in camera will likely attract a degree of cynicism. That’s just the way photography is. But it’s not always healthy to be confined by your chosen craft and feel like you’re not doing anything new. Blending photos in Photoshop is creative, fun and even a little beneficial, since an eye for juxtaposition is a valid photographic skill.

Adding textured backgrounds to photos

Antique Vaseline pots against an old baking tray surface.

Get ready for the strange looks you’ll receive when you begin photographing plain walls and fences. Use a tripod for extra eccentricity ….

Feel free to share your creations in the comments section below.

The post How to Use Textures to Create Compelling Photographs appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

Polarr Online Photo Editor Review

The post Polarr Online Photo Editor Review appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

It’s hard to evaluate photo-editing software without comparing it to Photoshop. You tend to have preconceptions about what it should be capable of and how it should behave – even how it should look. In terms of functionality, many programs will struggle to compete against Adobe. In this Polarr online photo editor review, you’ll find out what you can get for free. Or not much more than free.

Polarr image editor review

The colorful interface of Polarr. You can create specific effects under “Toning” by setting the hues of shadows and highlights.

Online photo editors work in your browser. They can be sophisticated, but the days of some of them (namely, flash-based programs) are numbered. Adobe will stop supporting flash in 2020, so anything that runs off it is likely to vanish or wither away.

Modern online editors are written in HTML5 code. They load quickly, but they also tend to be more basic than flash-based equivalents. Polarr is different. You can use Polarr online in a browser, or you can download it for offline use. There’s also an app for your phone.

Good first impressions

One of the best things about Polarr is its design. It doesn’t try to be Photoshop, and it’s intuitive to use. With filters on the left and most of the tonal and color tools on the right, there are shades of Lightroom about it, but it has a look of its own. You open Polarr, and you want to use it – or at least I did.

Polarr Image Editor review

A favorite Polarr feature of mine is its histogram. It’s neater than any other I’ve seen in online editors. It shows a colors histogram by default, which you can expand into separate RGB histograms. In the absence of a clipping display, it’s useful to see what your edits are doing to the image. You can drag the semi-opaque histogram wherever you want in the frame.

Not-so-good things about Polarr

Like most browser editors I know of, you can’t open hefty 16-bit files in Polarr. You’re limited to editing 8-bit JPEGs. This isn’t bad as long as the quality of the JPEG is high and it hasn’t been saved many times before. However, theoretically, you must submit to a lower-quality workflow.

A more limiting aspect of Polarr is that it exports everything in an sRGB color space. This might be a constraint of its coding, but it’s less than ideal if you want to print your files on an inkjet. For the web and online photo labs, it’s fine. In mitigation, it does embed a profile when saving, which some rival products neglect to do. You do know where you stand with it.

Who’s it for?

Polarr has one or two shortcomings, but it’s still a program with a lot of depth. Who would use it? Anyone looking for the following:

  • A free or cheap alternative to Photoshop and other costly pixel editors
  • Includes built-in special effects and retouching tools so you don’t have to learn complex editing methods or buy plug-ins
  • Auto image enhancer often a good quick fix for eye-catching web pictures
  • Intuitive to use, especially if you are familiar with sliders in other programs
  • No big downloads required and quick startup
  • Aesthetically pleasing user interface
  • Ideal for editing images for web or online labs
  • Backed up by an extensive library of online tutorials at Polarr Wiki
  • Option for more complex edits with the Pro version (subscription based, but low cost).
Polarr imaage editor review

The Polarr Wiki website has had a lot of work put into it and includes many written and video tutorials.

Editing with Polarr

Polarr is nice to look at – clean and colorful – but how is it in use? I set out to learn what it could do. If I couldn’t do things the same way I can in Photoshop, what workarounds could I find? Polarr is sophisticated, so I was confident I could perform the most basic processing tasks and more.

Auto Enhance

I never shy away from hitting “auto” or “auto enhance” buttons in editing programs, because sometimes they give you a better starting point. In Polarr, Auto Enhance is aggressive with the Dehaze slider, and that tends to block shadows. You can tweak the result, of course, with the shadows, blacks and contrast sliders for instance. Auto-enhance does work well with flat, hazy images and can create eye-catching results in a single click.

Ploarr image editor review

This was a flat-toned file that has been made quite dramatic by Polarr’s auto enhance feature. The shadows have started to clip, but not anywhere important in this case.

Color and Tone Adjustments in Polarr

Leaving the auto settings and moving onto manual adjustments, Polarr offers Lightroom-style color and tonal controls (the latter called “Light”). It has Temp and Tint sliders for white balance, but no auto-white-balance tool to outrank your eyesight. A Vibrance slider boosts color without clipping.

When adjusting tone, Polarr offers highlights, shadows, whites and blacks sliders, which you move to achieve a full tonal range while watching the histogram(s). This replace a levels adjustment. Whites and blacks adjust large areas on either side of mid-tones. Highlights and shadows adjust only the brightest or darkest parts of the image.

Polarr image editor review

Some basic editing in Polarr (original shown in inset – not part of software). Balancing the exposure a little, warming the color temp and adding some vibrance.

Again, the controls in Polarr are neatly laid out and colored according to their function. The controls haven’t been arbitrarily renamed, so you quickly know what things do if you’ve used other editors. Being mildly obsessive about detail, I miss the clipping display and being able to correct color by numbers (which is what auto-white-balance tools basically do). However, Polarr still has much to offer.

Polarr Curves

Polarr’s curves are modishly minimalistic, and they’re useful for some basic color correction. You have a composite RGB curve for adding contrast, and then there are the separate red, green, and blue (RGB) curves.

Polarr image editor review

Not the finished result, but you can see how the color neutralizes as the histograms align. The left-hand picture is typical of artificial lighting. A blue histogram leaning to the left indicates yellow.

Used in conjunction with the RGB histograms, you can use RGB curves to remove color casts. You do this by adjusting any necessary curves so that the histograms roughly align with each other.

You can place a point in the middle of the curve and pull it up or down, or for shadows and highlights, place a point in the bottom or top corner and pull it along the outer axis. Polarr gives you the input and output RGB values while you work.

Sharpening in Polarr

Sharpening always strikes me as a bit of a dark art in that; whatever method you use, there’ll always be experts out there espousing a better way. In Polarr, you get a clarity slider that sharpens mid-tones and generally adds punch to images (easy to overdo) and a very basic sharpening slider with no radius control. The sharpening might be smarter than I’m giving it credit for, but there aren’t numerous fancy ways to sharpen in Polarr. I’m doubtful that that matters.

Other features and effects

Other useful features I haven’t yet mentioned include an elegant crop tool, a spot-removal tool with heal and clone modes, and distortion correction. Spot removal was a bit frustrating at first with my laggy browser, but it works.

Polarr photo editor review

I made the inset darker so you can just about see the original dust spot, which has been cloned over by the right-hand circle.

Polarr also includes film filters, a text tool with various graphics, and a face retouch tool with skin smoothing for flattering portraits. Plus, you’ll find grain, diffuse, pixelate and fringing effects. You can also add frames to your pictures.

Polarr image editor review

One of Polarr’s film filters (M5) looks suspiciously like the teal-orange “movie” effect, which you either love or hate. Once I latched onto that, I started seeing it everywhere (Outlander, recently). Therapy is ongoing.

Pro Version

The Pro version of Polarr is subscription based, but it’s at a price you may not balk at. The Pro features are cleverly integrated into the free version, except you can’t save a photo that includes Pro edits. A pop-up appears asking if you want to upgrade or try the feature. What are the features?


The chief advantage of Polarr Pro is the inclusion of masks for localized adjustments. They include radial, gradient, color, brush, depth and luminance masking tools. These are all ways to select specific parts of the image for editing, and they work well.

Polarr image editor review

Masking a bronze equestrian statue for some localized editing. Overlapping edges can be tidied up later.

You can use the brush tool if you want to manually select an area for better control. This includes an optional “Edge Aware” aid that, if used carefully, helps avoid overlapping edges when you’re painting areas in for selection. Brush size, compare, hardness, flow, feathering, erase, view mask and invert options are also present with masks.

Polarr image editor review

In this picture, I’ve brought detail out in a near-silhouetted statue. Of course, I can alter shadows without masking, but other edits like clarity, contrast, exposure and saturation are usually universal.


Whether with a mask or separately, you have the option of inserting an overlay effect. That might be your own added background or one of the many included ones (e.g., clouds, sky, weather, backdrops). This is all good stuff for people that like to experiment and create digital composites. A choice of blending modes helps you achieve the effect you’re after.

Polarr image editor review

The sky in this photo was a little washed out, so I’ve dropped one of the more subtle Polarr skies in as an overlay.

Noise reduction

In Polarr, you can’t mask off sharpening in large single-tone areas. So, if your images are noisy and you think the noise will show in the final result, the Pro version offers color and luminance Denoise sliders. These are universal edits that don’t currently combine with masks.

Polarr image editor review

The denoise tool is part of the Polarr Pro offering. Here you can see a before and after with quite a lot of luminance noise reduction applied to the right.


Aside from the sRGB constraint and occasional lag (perhaps my sluggish PC), I enjoyed Polarr. The sRGB thing may be universal among browser editors, and if you think of Polarr as a way of prepping photos for online labs or the web, it’d be hard to beat. Polarr is uncommonly pretty, which seems superficial, but the attention paid to aesthetics invites use. I’d love to know what you think!

The post Polarr Online Photo Editor Review appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

How to Achieve Monitor Calibration on a Budget

The post How to Achieve Monitor Calibration on a Budget appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

Photographers will often tell you to buy a calibration device for your monitor. It’s the pro thing to do. But do you need one? After all, most of the photo world manages without such a device and still enjoys its pictures.

Monitor calibration X-rite i1 Display Pro

Even among “serious” photographers, many do not have a workflow that fully utilizes calibration. Plus, there are differences between monitors and other devices that calibration cannot always bridge. Color management is not a perfect science.

Calibration versus Profiling

Before going any further, it’s useful to distinguish between calibration and profiling. If you use a hardware device (e.g. colorimeter), it will calibrate your monitor. It then builds a profile based on the calibrated state you just created.
A profile describes the monitor so that color-managed programs display colors accurately. Included among calibration settings are black level (brightness), white level (contrast), white point (color temp) and gamma.
Monitor calibration - 3D gamut profile

A custom profile reflects the output of your monitor. This image shows the gamut of my monitor enveloping (mostly) the sRGB color space.

If you don’t own a calibration device, you can still calibrate a monitor manually, but you can’t profile it.

The disadvantages of calibrating a monitor without a device are as follows:

  • Human eyesight is unreliable, so the more you “eyeball” during the calibration process, the further astray you may go.
  • You cannot physically measure the monitor’s condition (e.g. luminance in cd/m2). That means you can’t return it to the same state with each calibration.
Monitor calibration weakness of human vision

This optical illusion demonstrates how easily deceived the eyes are. Squares A and B are identical in tone. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Do you need a calibration device?

A calibration device isn’t expensive compared to camera bodies and lenses, but the best can cost a couple of hundred dollars or more. The $200 question, then, is do you need one?

Yes: if you use an inkjet printer and want “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” results. In that case, a calibrator is vital. You need accurate profiles for soft-proofing, where you preview print colors before printing.

Yes: if you’re a pro or semi-pro shooting color-critical subjects (e.g. products, fashion).

Probably: if you pay for Photoshop CC, otherwise you are undermining its color capabilities. That said, many Adobe features are not dependent on pin-point color accuracy.

Maybe not: if you’re a stock photographer, since there is no direct client or color-managed chain. One of the world’s biggest libraries, Alamy, has millions of non-color-managed photos on its website.

Maybe not: if you get your prints done at the mall or via the Internet. In that case, the need for a calibration device is less. Why? Because most labs are not color managed. So, a disconnect exists even if you calibrate and profile.

Monitor calibration soft proofing

In Photoshop CC, the ability to “proof colors” depends on an accurate monitor profile as well as an output profile. If you identify a need for this feature, you also need a calibration device.

The need for a calibration device might hinge on your approach. Content is almost everything in photos. Most people viewing your pictures will not be privy to the color you saw on your monitor.

Black & white level calibration

The less you do to a monitor, the less you cause problems like banding, and the better it performs. You needn’t adjust all the settings a monitor has. Even when using a calibration device, many people leave gamma and white point in their “native” condition.

monitor calibration gradient test

You’ll be in a minority if you can view this gradient without seeing any banding, lines or colors (it’s in grayscale). The more you adjust your monitor, the worse this effect will be. But it will only rarely affect photos.

With the above in mind, you could just calibrate the black and white levels. This ensures you can see shadow and highlight detail while editing, preferably in subdued lighting. The process would be something like this:

  • Reset the monitor to default settings.
  • Using black level patches, lower the brightness setting until the darkest patch (#1) is not visible, then brighten it so it is — barely.
  • Using white level patches, adjust contrast if necessary to make the brightest patch (#254) just about visible.

(The #254 pattern on the Lagom site is hard to see except under very subdued light, so #253 will suffice.)

The numbers used to set black and white levels are the same as in an 8-bit image or a levels adjustment (i.e. 0-255). Thus, “0” is pitch black and “255” is the whitest white. All levels in between should be visible.

Most monitors are too bright out of the box. Aside from being poor for editing, this reduces the lifespan of the backlighting.

Free calibration software

There are a couple of free software-only calibration programs. Although they create a profile for you, this profile is not based on the output of your monitor since no measuring takes place. At best, it will be a generic profile taken from your monitor’s EDID data, which may be better than the sRGB alternative.

QuickGamma (Windows)

QuickGamma is a free program that lets you calibrate gamma and black level, but I’d suggest calibrating the latter as described earlier. (I think scrutinizing individual patches is less error prone than squinting at a ramp.) One benefit of QuickGamma v4 is that it can calibrate multiple monitors.

Budget monitor calibration - QuickGamma software

Screenshots of the QuickGamma utility program.

If you want to adjust gamma, follow the instructions supplied with the download. I’d advise against adjusting red, green and blue levels unless you see a color cast in the gray bands. Stick to adjusting the gray level if possible. Should you want to adjust the red, blue and green levels, try using this page with the software.

QuickGamma creates a profile based on generic monitor EDID data or sRGB. The first should be more accurate. The profile carries the calibration data, which loads separately on startup. (Windows Desktop does not use the profile.)

Calibrize (Windows)

Calibrize is a simple utility for adjusting black level, white level, and gamma. Unlike QuickGamma, it can only handle single monitors. It doesn’t let you set gray gamma, so you are forced to tweak red, green and blue levels. Adjusting these RGB levels is easier than in QuickGamma, but you’ll still need to squint at the screen to do it.

To build a profile, Calibrize also uses the EDID color data within most monitors. If this is unavailable, I’d guess it uses sRGB.

Budget monitor calibration - Calibrize software

The first and second screens of Calibrize software.

Windows & Mac built-in calibration

Apple and recent Windows operating systems have built-in calibration tools. Personally, I find third-party calibration tools and pages to be better than the Windows utility, particularly regarding the target images used.

I’d suggest these choices for Apple calibration: generic monitor profile, native or 2.2 gamma, native white point. Note again that native settings better preserve the capability of the monitor.

Budget monitor calibration - Windows calibration

This is the image for setting black level (brightness) in Windows. To me, the black “X” seems too bright, which results in a screen that’s too dark.

A paradox exists in calibration in that, the less you do, the better a result you may get. Ironically, you often have to pay for the privilege of doing less in calibration software. Basic programs don’t always allow it.


Another way you can save money is to buy a basic calibration package and pair the included device with DisplayCal software. In some cases, it’s the complexity of the software that dictates the cost of the calibrator. DisplayCal is one of the best calibration programs, so you’ll gain all the features you need for less money. Be sure to check its compatibility with any device you intend buying.

(DisplayCal is free, though you may wish to contribute towards its upkeep.)

Budget monitor calibration - DisplayCal powered by ArgyllCMS

Screenshots from DisplayCal, which pairs with many calibration devices on the market.

Your call

The aim of this article is not to talk you out of buying a calibrator. If you’re just starting out in photography, you needn’t rush into buying one. Equally, if you don’t like color management or can’t get to grips with it, there is less need to gauge monitor output.

Calibration devices aren’t so expensive, but anyone on a budget has my sympathy. Photography isn’t so cheap. I can also understand the desire to keep things simple. If you can identify with any of that, I hope this article has given you some useful low-cost calibration ideas.

The post How to Achieve Monitor Calibration on a Budget appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

Get Low and Aim High – How to Use Low-Angle Photography to Great Effect

The post Get Low and Aim High – How to Use Low-Angle Photography to Great Effect appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

One way you can make photos stand out is to compose them from an unusually low viewpoint. But why is low-angle photography so effective?

Good photography is hard to define, not least because there is always an element of subjectivity in judging it. Even when you have firm ideas about what great photos look like, there is no guarantee you’ll create them frequently. In fact, the more honed your tastes become, the less easily your own photos are likely to satisfy you.

Low angle photography - gate shot from below

Shooting this Prague gate from below gave it more visual impact and a cleaner composition.

Is there any secret to taking eye-catching pictures? If so, I wish I could harness it. There’s one idea I try to bear in mind: show people things in your pictures they don’t see in their day-to-day lives. That means looking closely and seeing details, noticing the unusual, emphasizing the point of interest, keeping things simple, and knowing what to exclude. What is it you have seen and want to convey?

Low angle photography - statue looking downwards

Statues shot from below often work well when the subject looks down at the camera.

Used creatively, low-angle photography meets the criteria of being unusual and will often make viewers look twice. However, it needs a bit more thought than just pointing the camera upwards.

Getting low, aiming high

Of course, low-angle photography isn’t a radical idea in the context of photographing architecture or statues, because they will often rise above you anyway. Unless you photograph these subjects from distance, you’ll always be pointing the lens upwards. But even with these subjects, you need to get the angle of the shot right and consider what qualities you’re aiming to accentuate.

Low angle photography - St Dunstan's Hill in London

In this slightly eerie photo, the street name at the right adds extra interest and gives the picture scale.

If you’re photographing less lofty subjects such as people, animals or plants, you’ll have to get very low to make the perspective unusual. This, of course, could draw attention to you as a photographer, so you might have to shake off any inhibitions. Concentrate on the shot and you’ll soon forget about what other people think.

Architecture & statues

In the case of architecture, more ornate buildings (e.g. Gothic) aren’t always best shot from directly beneath, because all their detail becomes obscured or lost. You could photograph them that way and pick out a detail such as a gargoyle using shallow depth of field. The same can be done with statues on occasion, whereby you focus on an interesting part of the statue from below and isolate it.

Low angle photography - Canary Wharf in London

Three buildings add to the enclosed feeling of this photo, while the carefully positioned clock lends it some scale.

Modern buildings like office skyscrapers often have the benefit of windows and lines, which narrow and converge if you photograph them from immediately below. This is an effective way of directing the eye towards the top of the building. Use of diagonals is an old trick for leading the eye into the picture, but you might need something else to make the shot a great one: perhaps a dramatic sky or cloud above the building.

Low angle photography - statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in London

Using a shallow depth of field, I isolated the eyeglass in the hand of famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, London.

Camera angle

There is no obligation when standing under a building or any other subject to keep it central or horizontal in the frame. By rotating the camera, often you’ll find an angle that increases the slightly giddy impression of towering height. This effect should not be underestimated. It’s a useful trick in low-angle shooting to make the viewer feel slightly disorientated.

Low angle photography - architecture

Left: Silhouette of Rouen Cathedral. Right: One Canada Square – the tallest building in the UK when I shot it. The presence of a second building adds to the giddying effect.

When pointing a camera upwards inside a church or cathedral, I avoid including small sections of detail at the edge of the frame. Instead, I rotate the camera until everything in the picture looks intentional and not something I didn’t notice.

Low angle photography - Rouen Cathedral

This is an obvious shot to take of the Crossing Tower in Rouen Cathedral. The main trick lies in composition and finding an effective angle.


Photographing people from a low angle produces some interesting effects. If you look at old “film noir” movie stills, you’ll see a lot of shots where the camera is pointing upwards. This gives portraits a moody feel and empowers the subject because he/she towers above the photographer and, ultimately, the viewer. The downside of shooting from below is that it can be unflattering, often making subjects look broader in the body and fatter in the face.

Low angle photography - casual portrait from a low perspective

A somewhat moody low-angle portrait. You’ll see a lot of low angles as well as low-key lighting in old film noir movies.

You can shoot from low angles in street photography, too, whether from the hip or the ground. Be careful when shooting from the ground that you’re not invading anyone’s privacy by pointing the camera upwards—stay aware of your surroundings and watch who is entering the frame and how they are dressed.

Low angle photography - Venice Carnival

This shot at the Venice Carnival was taken from ground level. Without any prompting, the lady in the middle obligingly leaned over towards the camera.

The mere act of taking street photos from a low level may not, in itself, create a successful photo (if only it were that easy). You still need to have seen something interesting or out of the ordinary and the composition must be right. You might notice a detail at ground level and juxtapose it with the people above it.

Animals & pets

Many people photograph their pets from above, but if you get down to their level you can almost humanize them. That is to say, you’ll often capture their character better than from above. Like human subjects, photographing a pet from floor level gives it more power. An example of this might be if you photograph a cat preparing to pounce—you’ll put yourself in the position of the cat’s prey.

Low angle photography - Birman cat

Cats often take on that regal, aloof look when photographed from below.


Sometimes you’ll get good results when shooting flowers from a low angle. One benefit in good weather is that you might get a plain blue sky as a background. Blue goes well with red and yellow – the three together form a triadic color scheme. It also blends well with orange (e.g. California Poppies), since blue and orange are complementary colors.

This low-angle shot from many years ago was completely unsighted. I was aiming to contrast life (flowers and bumblebee) with the WW1 gravestone and tragedy of war. I don’t know that I succeeded, but the idea still resonates.

Of course, it may not be color that inspires you to photograph flowers from below. You might want to emphasize a long stem or capture the translucent qualities of a flower’s petals against a bright sky. You might go for the dramatic effect of many flowers looming over the lens—a bit like a miniaturized forest.

Low angle photography - flowers

These flower shots from below aim to show the sunlit semi-opaque petals as well as color and shape. The fact that they are tall flowers makes this treatment easy even with a bulky SLR.


Trees are a prime candidate for low-angle shooting, either individually or collectively. Like buildings, you need to stand immediately below them to make the shot even slightly unconventional and maximize the effect. Such photos aren’t always striking unless there is an interesting branch formation or pattern above, so you should take care in picking a subject. Colorful foliage is an obvious thing to look out for, too, especially during fall.

Low angle photography

I shot this mainly for its bark pattern and texture, using the blue sky as a pleasing backdrop. Interesting branch formations or foliage colors might also prompt you to take such pictures.


You don’t need any special equipment to shoot from low angles, but obviously a flip-out LCD screen is a useful thing to have. If you don’t have that, at least digital photography costs nothing to experiment with, so you can shoot blind until you get what you want. This was how I first took low-angle photos—with repeated unsighted exposures. A wide-angle lens might help you accentuate height sometimes with its sweeping view of the world, but this is not a necessity.

I hope this article inspires you to shoot some great low-angle photos, whatever the subject. Good luck, and please share with us in the comments below!

The post Get Low and Aim High – How to Use Low-Angle Photography to Great Effect appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

3 Top Cell Phone Photography Apps (Android or iOS)

The post 3 Top Cell Phone Photography Apps (Android or iOS) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

One of the nice things about photography is that you don’t need an expensive camera or exotic lenses to produce good photos. Although such gear ensures the best image quality, to some degree that need has been nullified by the way today’s photos are shared. When viewed on a high-res smartphone or tablet, the technical imperfections of a phone image all but vanish. Cell phone photography is as legitimate as any other form of photography. Or is it?

In recent years, as the Internet has grown in power and influence, cell phone photography has become widely accepted by picture libraries and agencies. A huge market exists for web pictures, and it doesn’t always take DSLRs or even compact cameras to supply it. After inheriting an iPhone a few months back, and acquainting myself with various apps, I began sending phone photos to picture libraries.

When it comes to cellphone photos, libraries are surprisingly open-minded about the use of filters and effects. A conservative approach to editing is not necessary and may even be unhelpful. This article looks at three of the apps I use most for preparing images: MIX, PS Express, and Snapseed. Any of these three allows basic manual adjustments of color and tone. So instead of attempting repetitive in-depth reviews of all three, I aim to show you some of their individual features.

Three top cell phone photography apps

The opening screens of MIX by Camera360, Adobe PS Express and Snapseed by Google. All three are available for iOS or Android phones.

MIX by Camera360

MIX is filter-oriented with 100+ free filters and some in-app purchases. Of course, it also lets you make straight edits to your pictures (e.g. brightness, saturation, contrast, sharpness, spot removal). I’ve always liked presets and filters. If other photographers know exactly what they’re going to do with every photo, I’m not one of them. Sometimes it’s fun to try out different stuff and hit a few buttons.

Cine Filters

When you want to apply a color cast to an image, the Cine filters in MIX work well. They have various effects, including warm-up, cooling, and a classic orange & teal combo for movie-style color contrast (try Googling “orange and teal photography” to discover more). Using these filters is a bit like tuning the temp and tint sliders in Lightroom. They affect the white balance of the image.

Three top cell phone photography apps - teal and orange Cine filter from MIX

This orange (warm-up) and teal look is similar to an effect used in modern movies and comes from one of several Cine filters in MIX.

Slide Film Filters

As my photography predates the digital age, filters that imitate last-generation slide films appeal to me. I can’t testify as to their accuracy, but if I want a deep blue sky or just a bit more punch in color and contrast, MIX gives me an easy solution.

Three great cell phone photography apps - MIX Slide Film filters

These deep-blue skies were achieved with the Fuji Velvia Slide Film filters in MIX and are true to the effect often seen in Velvia transparencies.

Holiday Sky Filters

Being an old-school slide shooter (or old at any rate), I struggle with the idea of grafting new skies onto photos, but then photography rarely tells the whole truth. MIX offers a range of Holiday Sky filters that might just rescue disappointing photos. To make artificial skies seem realistic, you must take notice of how the light falls in your photo and make sure it doesn’t blatantly conflict with the new background. There’s also a MIX “Magic Sky” filter series for more dramatic effects.

3 top cell phone photography apps - MIX holiday sky filters

Sky grafting might be anathema for some, but Holiday Sky filters in MIX make it easy to replace a dull sky.

Adobe PS Express

As a long-time user of Photoshop, I tried PS Express hoping for a level of familiarity. I wasn’t disappointed. You can adjust photos using the same editing sliders found in other Adobe products: much of the toolbox seems intact.


If you shoot architectural photos, one of the best things about PS Express is its ability to easily correct the verticals and/or horizontals of a building. This avoids the “falling over” effect you get when pointing a camera at architecture. It helps if you leave space around the building when photographing it, otherwise, the transform tool will slice the edges off it.

Three top cell phone photography apps - transform tool in PS Express

The verticals in this photo of Florence were corrected with the Transform tool in PS Express.


PS Express has a decent selection of filters. I’m fond of the ones that apply a vignette, such as Basic/Autumn or B&W/pinhole. These give photos a sense of drama, and like all vignettes focus attention on the middle of the photo. You can give your photos a lot of mood with these filters.

Three top cell phone photography apps - PS Express pinhole filter

The PS Express B&W Pinhole filter focuses attention on the face of this effigy in Rouen Cathedral.


Adding text to photos can seem a complicated process in some apps and programs, but PS Express makes it easy. You can easily create website graphics, greetings cards or memes and have plenty of control over fonts and opacity. As well, you can send your creations as layered PSD files to Photoshop CC on a computer.

Three top cell phone photography apps - PS Express text

Adding text with different fonts, opacity and colors is easy in PS Express.

Snapseed by Google

Developed by Google, Snapseed is an intuitive app that offers single-click “Looks” (filters by another name) and “Tools” for adjustable edits. It’s capable of great results with as little or as much input as you want. Among the tools, you’ll find anything from regular brightness, contrast or saturation sliders to more adventurous edits like “Double Exposure” or “Grunge”.

Looks: Fine Art

For black and white conversions, I find the “Fine Art” filter in Snapseed particularly pleasing. There is always a full range of tones to pack plenty of punch without much loss of shadow or highlight detail. The pictures are also very clean—no mid-tone noise in skies like there is with some B&W edits.

Three top cell phone photography apps - Snapseed fine art filter

The Snapseed Fine Art filter gives a well-balanced B&W conversion with a pleasing range of tones. I use it as my B&W cell phone default.

Tools: Drama

The Drama tool can easily produce overcooked results if you’re not careful, but it’s useful for bringing out the detail in clouds and/or lifting an otherwise dull photo taken on an overcast day. You can adjust the filter’s contrast effect as well as saturation to fine-tune the result.

Three top cell phone photography apps - drama tool

The Drama tool emphasizes mid-tone contrast and bleaches saturation on its default setting, often resulting in more dramatic skies.

Tools: Lens Blur

Snapseed’s Lens Blur tool lets you emphasize a particular area of a photo by controlling background blur and vignetting. The “Transition” slider lets you control the feathering area between the main subject and background, enabling natural-looking results.

Three top cell phone photography apps - Snapseed lens blur tool

The Snapseed Lens Blur tool emphasizes the face of this wooden sculpture of Christ in Venice.


The apps in this article will not be new to seasoned smartphone photographers, but I hope I’ve inspired others to use their cell phone cameras creatively. Phones have their limitations for some genres of photography, but that’s true of any camera and lens combo. They offer unrivaled portability. And while cell phones aren’t often seen in pro photography, they don’t rule out the chance of publication. Smartphones and their apps let you express yourself in countless ways.

The post 3 Top Cell Phone Photography Apps (Android or iOS) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Glenn Harper.

How to Choose the Right Color Profile For Sharing Images Online

Many people have problems with the color of their photos when they publish them online. There are several reasons why this might be so, but the most common culprits are the color space of the image and whether or not the profile is embedded. Both color settings can radically affect web browser color and how your photos look.

Let’s look at some of the potential pitfalls more closely.

The Importance of Embedding the Color Profile

Whenever you edit your photos in an editing program like Photoshop, you are doing so using a specific RGB working color space. To be sure of preserving the color you see when you’re editing, you need to embed the profile before saving the image.

In simple terms, the ICC profile is a translator. It enables different apps and devices to interpret the color as you intended. If you get into the habit of embedding profiles into your images as you save them, you’ll reduce the chances of color looking wrong on the web or in print.

ProPhoto RGB image with embedded profile - How to Choose the Right Color Profile For Sharing Images Online

The rich color in this ProPhoto RGB image will look okay in many browsers despite not being sRGB as normally advised. If it looks muted and drained of saturation to you, it’ll be because you are viewing it in a non-color-managed browser. By embedding the profile, I’ve given it the best chance of looking as intended to the majority of people. On a wide-gamut monitor, the colors will pop a bit more.

Embedding the profile into an image adds about 3-4 kB to the file size, so the only time it makes sense to exclude it is when you’re uploading vast quantities of photos to the Internet.

If you must leave the profile out, making sure that the image is in the sRGB color space will limit any resulting damage. Two or three of the more popular browsers will still display the color faithfully because they automatically guess the profile correctly (i.e. sRGB).

Although most browsers have improved in their handling of color recently, it’s still good practice to embed the profile. Don’t leave it out without good reason.

Prophoto RGB image with no profile - How to Choose the Right Color Profile For Sharing Images Online

Because the profile has been left out of this same ProPhoto RGB image, the brightness and color will look terrible in most browsers and on most monitors. By contrast, a missing profile for an sRGB file would be undetectable to a large number of people.

How to Embed the Profile

Embedding the profile into images is usually just a case of checking a box when you export the photo. If such an option doesn’t exist, the default will either be the predefined working space of the program, or it’ll be sRGB for web-specific output.

If you want to check the color of your web images before publishing, open them directly in a browser (preferably a reliable one like Chrome) and see how they compare to the original in your photo-editing program. Be a little wary of uploading images to platforms that strip out the profile, though these will not typically be photo gallery sites.

embedding the profile into web photos - How to Choose the Right Color Profile For Sharing Images Online

Embedding or stripping out profiles usually only requires you to check or uncheck a box when saving. This is the “save as” pane in Photoshop.

Converting to Profile

You can use “convert to profile” in Photoshop to create an sRGB image, which is the safest color space choice for the web. Be sure not to overwrite the original file and save it this way, because larger color spaces are a better choice for outputs such as inkjet printing.

Do not use “assign profile” for profile conversion, as it causes a color shift and is not meant for this purpose.

Using convert to profile in Photoshop - How to Choose the Right Color Profile For Sharing Images Online

Using “assign profile” in Photoshop to convert between profiles will cause a color shift. Color in the right-hand image above has gone flat as a result of assigning an sRGB profile to an Adobe RGB image. You must use “convert to profile” if you want to create an sRGB version of your photo for the web.

Why Monitor Gamut Matters

Color management needs at least two profiles to work (image profile and monitor profile in this case). If you publish images without profiles embedded, you’re relying on the viewer’s browser to guess the color space correctly.

When color management is absent from the browser or app for whatever reason, the following statements are true:

  • An Adobe RGB image looks roughly correct on a wide-gamut display.
  • An Adobe RGB image looks muted in color on a standard-gamut display.
  • sRGB images look roughly correct on a standard-gamut display.
  • An sRGB image looks oversaturated in color on a wide-gamut display.

Note that an Adobe RGB image without a profile embedded looks muted in most situations and must be avoided. Browsers will guess the color space to be sRGB if they guess at all.

standard gamut monitor exceeding srgb - How to Choose the Right Color Settings For Sharing Images Online

The graph above shows the difference between a standard-gamut Dell monitor (colored outline) and the sRGB profile (dotted outline). Even on a regular desktop monitor, some colors are quite likely to exceed the sRGB color space and look too saturated when viewed in Microsoft browsers.

In the monitor above, it’s reds that are most exaggerated in that situation. If you haven’t profiled your monitor or if the gamut of the screen is contained by sRGB, you won’t encounter this.

Browser Behavior 2018

To understand color profiles, it helps to know how different browsers behave with color. I tested five browsers for this article to give you an idea of what to expect. Feel free to query this if you think any of these observations are wrong:

Google Chrome

Chrome is a fully color-managed browser that assigns sRGB to any “untagged” images (i.e. those without profiles embedded). It reads all embedded profiles.


Opera is a color-managed browser that automatically assumes photos to be sRGB if the profile is missing. Like Chrome, it reads all profiles, including Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB.

Firefox Quantum

You can configure Firefox to assign sRGB to any untagged photo. It reads all embedded color profiles.

If you happen to run two monitors, Firefox does not maintain full color management across both of them. For optimum color, you must dial in one monitor profile then stick with that monitor. This only applies if your monitors have custom profiles.

Microsoft Edge/Internet Explorer

Microsoft Edge has a half-baked solution to color management. It reads different color profiles and converts everything to sRGB for display. The main problem is that it doesn’t use the monitor profile. Thus, it works best if your monitor does not exceed sRGB in gamut. Otherwise, you’ll see wayward colors.

Safari (for Windows)

Safari can read profiles in images and uses the monitor profile (unlike MS Edge or MS IE), but it does not assign a profile to an image if one is missing. In that situation, it displays color wrongly as Microsoft Edge does.

Web browser proof colors - How to Choose the Right Color Settings For Sharing Images Online

In Photoshop, you can use “Monitor RGB” proof colors to show you what the photo will look like in Internet Explorer on your own monitor. You’ll need to convert the image to sRGB first. If colors look brighter than they do without proofing, it means your monitor’s native gamut exceeds the sRGB profile.

A second experiment is to view the proof colors of an Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB image using “Internet Standard RGB”. This will show you how photos in bigger color spaces look on the internet if you omit the profile.

Choosing sRGB for the Web

The reason why sRGB is a safer choice of color space for the web is that most displays or monitors are not wide-gamut. Thus, if the profile goes astray or is stripped out, or if a device or app doesn’t support color management, the color will still look okay. This is what Microsoft’s browsers rely on to work.

If you want the color of your photos to look “okay” to the widest possible audience you need only do two things:

  1. Make sure the image is in an sRGB color space either by using it as your working space or by converting to sRGB before uploading to the web.
  2. Embed the sRGB profile into the image before saving.
Photoshop save for web - How to Choose the Right Color Settings For Sharing Images Online

Photoshop’s “Save for Web” lets you convert to sRGB at the very last moment by checking a box. If you leave the box unchecked, the photo is saved in whatever color space you edited it in. You can’t strip the profile out with this checkbox: it’s purely for conversion.

Other Choices: Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB

Since most popular browsers are now color savvy, the possibility of using other color spaces on the web exists. You could, for instance, publish photos with an Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB profile embedded, and they’d still look good to most people. To a minority, they’d look better.

The color of wide-gamut monitors typically exceeds Adobe RGB in places. Hence, there is theoretically a reason for publishing photos in ProPhoto RGB. However, this is offset by the dire color that results when the profiles are missing or ignored. It’s high risk.

Adobe RGB is an interesting prospect for the web because it still benefits users of wide-gamut monitors. Importantly, it doesn’t look as bad as ProPhoto RGB when things go wrong. However, if you publish in Adobe RGB, you’ll still be doing so for a relatively small audience.

If you do use these wider-gamut color spaces for the web, you absolutely must embed the profile. As soon as that goes astray, the color in your photos will look a bit flat to many people. In the case of ProPhoto RGB, it’s likely to look awful.

sRGB color vs wide gamut monitor color - How to Choose the Right Color Settings For Sharing Images Online

This 3D diagram (above) shows the sRGB profile encompassed by the profile of a wide-gamut monitor. In particular, you’ll note the extended range of cyans and greens in the latter.

The idea of using larger color spaces on the web is appealing, especially if you’re a landscape photographer for whom these colors are often truncated. It means you’d be making more use of your camera’s capabilities. However, it’s inherently riskier and you’ll be playing to a relatively small audience. The safe choice is still sRGB.

In Summary

Although modern browsers are more flexible, sRGB is still the safest choice of color space for the web. Again, this is because it roughly matches the gamut of most electronic displays. Using bigger color spaces risks draining your photos of color, especially on tablets or smartphones that may not be color-managed.

I hope this has been of some use. Feel free to ask questions if you need any clarification.

The post How to Choose the Right Color Profile For Sharing Images Online appeared first on Digital Photography School.

5 Genuinely Useful Photoshop Actions

I use Lightroom for basic editing and raw conversions, but I still like to tweak my photos in Photoshop. Mostly, that’s just about familiarity. I’m a Photoshop addict. Technically, it makes sense to do as much editing in the raw convertor as possible—perhaps all of it—but I like the blank canvas that is Photoshop more than the frog-marched workflow of raw convertors. Besides, there are still things you can see and do in Photoshop that aren’t possible in Lightroom.

Although I might spend a fair while in Photoshop doing labor-intensive things, for the most part, I’m looking to edit photos quickly and naturally so they might be broadly acceptable for publication. I want my pictures to look good without going down the path of fancy effects, which would often narrow their salability.

Create photoshop actions

One way I can quickly tweak photos in Photoshop CC is to have a collection of Actions available. This article will show you five useful Photoshop Actions (available for download at the end of the article) curated and/or adapted by me that have nothing to do with 1970s summery film effects, light leak effects, or anything like that. Those are for another day.

Make Buttons for your Actions

Before we get down to the Actions, consider putting your Actions window into “Button Mode” once you’ve recorded or downloaded them. This makes actions more usable since it avoids you having to scroll down to find them. Nothing is faster than single clicks to get your images looking good, even if you have to back up sometimes.

You can customize the colors of your Action buttons if you want, perhaps assigning a different color to each type of edit.

Photoshop actions button mode

Observe and Adapt

One of the purposes of this article is to show you some neat tricks in Photoshop that you can incorporate into Actions. You’ll be able to see what’s happening and use the same tools to achieve different or better things. These Actions also make use of channel masks, which enable precise, flawlessly nuanced selections of color and tone for different types of edits.

Channels selections, Alpha channel, Photoshop CC

These Actions make heavy use of channels, selections, and layer masks.

Action #1 Saturation Boost

Ever since “vibrancy” was introduced, the use of saturation masks has diminished. The purpose of a saturation mask is to gradually mask the most or least saturated areas of an image, depending on whether you invert the selection or not. We can still use such a mask to create a saturation boost Action. It is made using Photoshop’s HSB/HSL filter.

HSB/HSL filter

The HSB/HSL filter has a psychedelic effect on the image.

An inverse saturation mask addresses the least saturated areas of the image more strongly, but there’s still an outside chance of clipping the RGB channels with it (i.e. overexposing or underexposing them and losing detail). In this Action, a “blend if” blending option has been added to give extra protection to shadows and highlights.


  1. Create a duplicate layer (Cmd/Ctrl + J).
  2. Apply an HSB/HSL filter (RGB & HSB settings) to the duplicate layer – it will turn a weird color.
  3. Invert the colors of the layer (Ctrl/Cmd + I).
  4. Select the green channel under “channels”, right-click and create a duplicate channel (label it “Sat Mask”).
  5. Go back to layers and delete the duplicate layer.
  6. Back in channels, Ctrl/Cmd + click on the “Sat Mask” channel you just created (you should see marching ants on your open photo at this point).
  7. In layers, create a hue/saturation adjustment layer.
  8. Add +25 of saturation in the hue/saturation dialogue box (or any value that might be useful).
  9. Go to Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options.
  10. Under Blend If > This Layer, move the sliders inwards to 245 and 10 (or in that vicinity).
  11. Hold down the Alt key to split these sliders into two, moving the inner halves to values of 70 and 160. This feathers the selection to avoid harsh transitions in tone. Click “OK”.
  12. Delete the “Sat Mask” channel.
  13. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge all layers.

50-50 view of HSB/HSL filter and regular photo.

If the effect of the Action is too strong or weak for your liking, you can hit Ctrl/Cmd + Z to unblend the layers and alter the saturation value. Then simply blend again. This action is much the same as using the vibrancy slider only in fast button form.

Action #2 Mid-Tone Contrast +50

This relatively simple action injects contrast into the mid-tone to highlight areas of an image and leaves shadow areas untouched. Adding contrast in this way also intensifies the color. It’s akin to a curves adjustment, leaving the lower part of the curve untouched.

Photoshop contrast

Although it’s hard to appreciate in a side-by-side comparison, perhaps you can see the snappier highlights and slightly increased mid-tone saturation to the left side of this image. Shadows remain untouched.


  1. Go to the channels palette and click on the RGB channel while holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key. This creates a selection on your background layer.
  2. Switch to your layers palette and hit Ctrl/Cmd + J keys, which will paste your masked selection onto a new layer.
  3. Go to blending modes (top left of the layers palette), and select Soft Light. Contrast is added to the mid-tone/highlight portions of your picture.
  4. Adjust the layer opacity to taste (set at 50% in the supplied Action).
  5. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge down the layers.

Action #3 Refined Clarity

This Photoshop Action is similar to the previous one in that it’s a type of contrast adjustment which protects the shadows. The main difference is that this one uses Clarity, which it borrows from ACR.

In terms of appearance, this Action reveals more textural detail than a straight contrast adjustment by emphasizing edges and small changes in tone. It affects the saturation less.

Clarity slider, clarity settings

The image on the left has some Clarity applied to it, but the shadows are protected to avoid the kind of crunchy look that occurs with a similar amount is applied in a raw converter (right).

(The Clarity slider gives much the same effect as “high radius, low amount” Unsharp Mask sharpening, which was a thing about 10 years ago.)

If you want to give flat images extra pop with a greater impression of depth and detail, this Photoshop Action works well. Once again, it uses a Blend If modifications to refine the result, avoiding the grunge that often makes excessive Clarity unsightly. By tapering the result from shadows to highlights, it does most of its work in the mid to high tones.


  1. Create a duplicate layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J).
  2. Label the layer “Clarity”.
  3. Open ACR by clicking on Filter > Camera Raw Filter.
  4. Drag the Clarity slider to 100% (ignore the harsh result).
  5. Click OK and be returned to Photoshop.
  6. Open the blending options (Layer Style > Blending Options or double-click to the right of the layer name).
  7. Go to Blend If > Underlying Layer. Hold down the Alt key and drag the right-hand side of the shadow triangle on the left all the way to the far right.
  8. Click OK.
  9. Adjust the layer opacity to taste (the supplied Action is set to 60%).
  10. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge layers.

Action #4 Shadow Noise

In recent years, the Auto button in Lightroom and ACR has improved to such an extent that I sometimes click on it as an alternative starting point. The result is akin to a mild HDR effect. In particular, it tends to cut out the high contrast in images.

Photos that are intended for sale (however optimistically) don’t generally benefit from being loaded with hard-to-see, blocky detail.

In an image such as this one, I might hit Auto in the raw converter to unblock some of the shadows (as is the case in the top section of the picture: notice the railings, man’s coat, and architectural details).

Of course, the problem with bringing out shadow detail is that it invites noise. Depending on your camera and its settings, it might invite a lot of noise. If we create a Noise Reduction Action using a channel mask, we can target the darkest areas of an image. What’s more, the mask is perfectly feathered, so it will seamlessly apply more or less noise reduction according to the tones of the image.

On the right side of this image, you’ll note that the brighter areas are masked off (redder areas) and thus excluded from noise reduction.

The downside of creating a Photoshop Action for noise reduction is that normally you’d adjust the settings according to the properties of each photo. However, there’s nothing to stop you creating several noise reduction actions for different picture profiles. As well, you could integrate a noise reduction plugin that assesses each picture individually.


  1. Create a duplicate layer and name it “Reduce Noise”.
  2. Apply noise reduction to the duplicate layer.
  3. Go to channels and Ctrl/Cmd + Click on the RGB channel, creating a selection.
  4. Hit Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + I to invert the selection.
  5. Click on “Save Selection as a Channel”.
  6. With the selection visible (marching ants) go back to layers and add a mask to your duplicate “Reduce Noise” layer.
  7. Delete the remaining extra channel (“Alpha 1” if you didn’t rename it).
  8. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge the layers.

Action #5 Web Sharpen

Sharpening is a contrast adjustment, where adjacent edges are made brighter and darker according to their tone to create the illusion of sharpness. The aim is to emphasize these edges without overdoing it and creating haloes.

One way you can control sharpening is with a luminosity mask, which automatically modifies the amount of edge contrast applied depending on how bright or dark it is. The beauty of this is that it’s subjective. Like other channel masks, it fades the effect of your edit based purely on the content of the image. The only control you have to think about is opacity, which might be greater or smaller depending on the size of the image.

channels mask, luminosity mask, Photoshop

By applying a luminosity mask, sharpening is proportionately reduced in the darker parts of the image (shown as deep red). This ensures that less attention is given to any noisy shadow areas, which we don’t want to sharpen. The Action also shields bright highlights from sharpening using a Blend If setting.

I find that this Action at 10% opacity works well on web images of between 800 and 1200 pixels wide.


  1. Create a duplicate layer and name it “Sharpen”.
  2. Open channels, hold down the  Ctrl/Cmd key and click on the RGB channel, creating a selection.
  3. Click on the “Save selection as channel” icon at the bottom of the channels palette. A new channel will appear called “Alpha 1”.
  4. Deselect it by hitting Ctrl/Cmd + D or by clicking Select > Deselect.
  5. Click on your “Sharpen” layer to make it live.
  6. Go to Filter > Unsharp Mask and select a high value of 400-500, a radius of around 0.8 to 1.2, and a value of 0.
  7. Ctrl/Cmd + click on the “Alpha 1” channel in the channels palette (the selection will reappear as marching ants).
  8. Go back to the layers palette and with your “Sharpen” layer selected, click on the “Add layer mask” icon. This modifies the sharpening effect.
  9. Click on Layer> Layer Style > Blending Options.
  10. Move the right-hand slider under “This Layer” to 245.
  11. Holding down the Alt key, split the left-hand side of this slider and move it to around 220.
  12. Click OK.
  13. Adjust the layer opacity to taste (the download action is set at 10%).
  14. Delete Alpha 1 channel.
  15. Ctrl/Cmd + E to merge layers.

Photoshop Action Crashes

Occasionally, for reasons unclear to me, Photoshop Actions seem to crash and will not thereafter work without a Photoshop restart. A sure sign that this has happened, aside from inaction and error messages, is that the button in “button mode” changes color.

Download the Set

Download these actions here for free. To install: open the download directly into Photoshop or load from within Actions.


If an Action doesn’t improve the photo as you’d hoped, you can delete or add elements as you wish, perhaps with different settings or to refine the result. I hope this article inspires you to experiment with some of Photoshop’s more powerful tools. Good luck!

The post 5 Genuinely Useful Photoshop Actions appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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